Death Wish: Mr. Bronson's Planet

From Bauhaus to Bronson’s House

During the process of adapting Garfield’s novel to the big screen, veteran screenwriter Wendell Mayes transformed its lead character from Paul Benjamin, CPA, to Paul Kersey, architect. And while Bronson looks almost as ill at ease behind a drafting board as Robert Reed in the Brady Bunch, the choice of liberal modernist architect is a telling one, whether Mayes intended it to be, or not.

As Tom Wolfe noted in From Bauhaus to Our House,  numerous Weimar-era modernist architects and other leftwing intellectuals fled Nazi Germany for America during the Depression and World War II, and were received by American academics as “The White Gods -- come from the skies at last!,” Wolfe memorably wrote. Not all that surprisingly, American academia quickly became a latter-day enclave of the Weimer Republic, as Allan Bloom noted in 1987’s The Closing of the American Mind.

Beginning in the late-1960s, Manhattan in particular felt increasingly like an extension of Weimar before the lights went out. Reminiscing about Taxi Driver in 2003, James Lileks described the film as depicting ‘70s-era New York as “a sad and empty place -- Weimar Germany without the energy to muster up the brownshirts, Rome that fell because it was grew bored waiting for the Huns.”

All films become inadvertent documentaries as they age. They reveal the mores and obsessions of the era in which they were crafted, and those films shot on location reveal how that era looked as well. Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant made North by Northwest in 1959, only a decade and a half before Winner and Bronson took on Death Wish, and both films featured extensive location photography in Manhattan. But they exist almost on separate planets, so great is the gulf between the New York of 1959 and 1974. Visually, that can be seen in the endless shots of graffiti in the 1974 Bronson movie. Which was the manifestation of the city’s seeming abandonment of fighting crime. Or at least, the worldviews of the elites who controlled the city; around the time that Death Wish was playing in theaters, Pat Moynihan wrote, “Most liberals had ended the 1960s rather ashamed of the beliefs they had held at the beginning of the decade.”

Hell: The Motion Picture

Ironically, one of the reasons why we have so many films depicting New York’s descent into hell in the 1970s is because of another change of heart amongst its liberal elites. As Miriam Greenberg wrote in her 2008 book Branding New York: How a City in Crisis Was Sold to the World, in order to combat the growing loss of film production to Hollywood, in 1966, then-Mayor John Lindsey overhauled the city’s film agency in 1966, and streamlined the permit process for major motion pictures to be shot in New York. This brought much-needed revenues into the city, but the arrival of all of those additional film shoots, thanks to the change in policy by the perilously liberal Mayor Lindsey, documented the effects of all of the other changes in policy the Lindsey era was ushering in. The inadvertent result was a series of films documenting the horrors of the last years of Lindsey’s administration and its successors, Abe Beame and Ed Koch: The Panic in Needle Park, the Taking of Pelham 1,2,3, Taxi Driver, and Death Wish among them. Needless to say, these films were not exactly calling cards inviting the rest of America to visit a once-great city.

“Audience Manipulation at its Zenith”

Once Bronson’s character was transformed from Bauhaus modernist to plain-clothes Batman roaming the streets of a nocturnal Manhattan, American audiences loved Death Wish, and moviegoers roared with approval as Bronson’s character gunned down mugger after mugger.  Naturally, their exuberance caused liberal critics to further despise American audiences. Leonard Maltin gave Death Wish three stars in his annual movie guide, but tut-tutted that the film was “Audience manipulation at its zenith…chilling but irresistible; a bastardization of the Brian Garfield novel, in which vigilantism as a deterrent to crime is not a solution, but another problem.”

But crime was a problem that New York’s liberal politicians didn’t seem all that interested in solving. While Ed Koch did much personally to improve New York’s image, it would take Rudy Giuliani’s actual policies to clean up the city’s streets. As Kyle Smith recently noted in the New York Post, “If you think the Travis Bickle era was the high point for the Gotham mayhem industry, you’re wrong. The fourth-worst year for murders in New York City was 1993, with 1,960 (Nos. 1-3 are 1990-1992, the other three years of the David Dinkins administration).”