New York City in the 1970’s was a rough place. The city itself was on the brink of bankruptcy, crime was at an all-time high and the federal government vehemently chose not to intervene. As the US economy continued to struggle throughout the decade, New York became the international poster child for both urban and societal decay.
This literal and figurative crumbling of the Big Apple inspired countless creative interpretations. Films like Mean Streets, The Warriors, Escape from New York and 1990: The Bronx Warriors painted New York in varying shades of post-apocalyptic grey. Leading this charge of bleak, dystopian sketches on city life came the quiet, but immensely powerful character Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) in 1974’s Death Wish.
After his wife is murdered by street punks, a pacifistic New York City architect becomes a one-man vigilante squad, prowling the streets for would-be muggers after dark.
Directed by Michael Winner (The Sentinel), Death Wish introduces us to Paul vacationing with his wife (Hope Lange) in Hawaii. We quickly learn he’s a doting husband and a loving father to his adult daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan). His profession as an architect/development engineer has provided his family with all the perks of an upper-middle-class life in the heart of New York City. Upon his arrival back home, Paul‘s co-worker coolly supplies him with the current (and ever increasing) murder rate statistics. Despite the troubling numbers, Paul maintains and vocalizes his liberal viewpoints on the matter, never giving in to fear or ignorant gossip. Quickly, we can glean that Paul is an intelligent, but incredibly average family man. This crucial establishing groundwork not only adds weight to Paul‘s dark spiral, but conveys the potential interchangeability of his character. Paul Kersey could be anyone. Paul Kersey could be you.
Soon after these facts are established, Paul‘s intense and dramatic inciting incident occurs. While Paul‘s wife and daughter are out grocery shopping, they catch the attention of three young ‘freaks.’ (Freak #1 infamously played by a young Jeff Goldblum) The gang follows the women home, force their way into the apartment and try to rob the women. When the freaks realize the women don’t have much cash, they assault both women physically and sexually. This quick, but brutal attack results in Paul‘s wife dead and leaves young Carol deeply traumatized.
“By literally and figuratively pulling the trigger on his own dark thoughts, Paul crosses into a new, dangerous realm that he can never fully escape.”
Initially, Paul reacts as expected. He is devastated but places his trust in the proper authorities. However, this tentative social contract soon wears thin when Paul is met with indifferent attitudes from the police and given little hope of finding the killers. Alongside his frustration with the justice system, Carol‘s trauma has rendered her near catatonic. Her inability to assist with the investigation, coupled with her husband’s depressingly poor outlook on her recovery, further embitters and saddens Paul. Spurred by these facts, Paul gives us a glimpse inside his shifting mental state when he says, “What about the old American social custom of self-defense? If the police don’t defend us, maybe we ought to do it ourselves.” Interestingly, this lack of action from those surrounding Paul ends up being the catalyst that calls his own character into action.
At this point in the film, the casting of Charles Bronson as the completely ordinary Paul Kersey shifts from incidental to brilliant. At this point in his career, Bronson was a familiar face on the silver screen. While incredibly active, the majority of Bronson’s roles fell into two categories; westerns or macho action movies. His performances in acclaimed films such as Once Upon a Time in the West, The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven and The Mechanic are iconic and they beautifully exhibit Bronson’s natural rugged composure. While some see this as a limitation of Bronson’s range, I would argue (as a huge Bronson fan) that it contributes to his relatability and accessibility. Unlike many of his action star counterparts, Bronson’s characters retain a level of groundedness that make their exploits all the more plausible.
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Because of Bronson’s naturally composed presence on screen, it allows the progression of Paul‘s thought process to unfold in an emotionally organic way. While we watch Paul change in a twenty dollar bill for two rolls of quarters, we’re with him. As he slides the two rolls into a sock and feels the weight in his hand, we can understand. And finally, when he defends himself during a street mugging, utilizing the weapon for the first time, we share his horrifically exhilarated response. Never once does Bronson’s performance here come across as overtly tough-guy or excessively masculine. He lacks an intimidating physical presence and exhibits no unexplained ‘special skills.’ This, coupled with his collected restraint, conveys a level of innocence and uncertainty in Paul‘s decision-making process. However, once Paul successfully takes justice into his own hands for the first time, it becomes his first major step down a precarious path.
Following this defining moment in Paul‘s character development, he heads to Arizona to work with flamboyant property developer, Aimes Jainchill (Stuart Margolin). Part work trip, part escapism, the diversion provides Paul a moment of self-reflection. During his trip, Aimes takes Paul to a film studio western town attraction. He takes him to a gun club. He engages Paul in conversations that reveal even more of the simmering inner conflict beneath Paul‘s cool exterior. Through their talks, we learn Paul does indeed have military experience, but he was a conscientious objector. He’s familiar with guns, but only because his father was a hunter. Though he’s aware of how serious and dangerous guns can be, Paul‘s recent experiences have made him susceptible to the seductive aroma of a firearm’s potential. As a parting gift, Aimes bestows Paul with a .32-caliber pistol previously owned by an Old West gunslinger. By doing so, Aimes inadvertently solidifies Paul‘s transformation from an average liberal citizen into full blown armed vigilante.
“Unlike many of his action star counterparts, Bronson’s characters retain a level of groundedness that make their exploits all the more plausible.”
After returning to New York, Paul gets his first opportunity to exercise his dark thoughts. While deliberately walking late at night through a nearby park, a young junkie attempts to mug Paul. With little hesitation, Paul shoots the young man and runs home. Though the event causes Paul to become physically ill and shaken up, this reaction comes across more due to nerves and anxiety rather than disgust or terror. By literally and figuratively pulling the trigger on his own dark thoughts, Paul crosses into a new, dangerous realm that he can never fully escape.
Once this heavy page has been turned in Paul‘s story, there is no going back. Determined, he roams the streets looking for opportunities to administer his own brand of justice. Three young teens (including a very young Denzel Washington) become early victims while they assault an older gentleman. While two are shot quickly, another attempts to run resulting in Paul shooting him in the back. Even though the boy was clearly spooked and no longer a threat, Paul still chose to take this action. For the first time, Paul‘s decisions truly challenge the audience and raise moral eyebrows. And yet, when the old man has the opportunity to describe Paul to the responding police, he lies and claims he didn’t get a good look. Despite Paul‘s highly questionable behavior, the old man protects him. With this silent endorsement of Paul‘s actions, the old man also executes his own idea of social justice, bypassing the entire justice system in the process. This quick added scene subtly realigns audiences with Paul‘s actions and quietly stirs the pot of moral ambiguity.
What once began as mere self-defense quickly escalates to ‘bait and instigate.’ Placing himself in various precarious situations, Paul practically begs for criminals to provoke him. Time and time again they oblige him, and time and time again Paul delivers swift death. He adopts a persona straight out of a vintage western, even adopting cowboy lingo and moves. (Doubly fascinating considering Bronson’s personal experience with the genre) As these increasingly dramatic hunting escapades continue for Paul, New York City becomes captivated by the mysterious vigilante’s actions. Mugging rates drop from 950 a week to 470. Newspapers and magazines provide a continuous stream of coverage for the salivating public. And while the police begin to narrow down on Paul as a suspect, they themselves are met with conflict over Paul‘s actions.
Even though Paul‘s version of outlaw justice is decidedly wrong, his actions have inspired the public and curbed criminal behavior. In short, the unpredictable nature of his behavior is more effective than New York’s entire police presence. Yes, Paul Kersey is a serial killer on the loose. But he is also the single most effective anti-crime unit this hypothetical city has ever seen. If law enforcement were to properly arrest Paul, they would be creating a martyr in the public’s eyes. They would be taking ‘safety’ off the streets and simultaneously broadcasting that fact to the city’s criminally inclined. Paul rides the line of cop and killer so delicately that not even the actual justice system knows what to do with him.
“Paul rides the line of cop and killer so delicately that not even the actual justice system knows what to do with him.”
Contributing to the complicated mess of morality surrounding Paul‘s actions is his character’s surprising lack of development. Once Paul completes his first real turning point, his story arc ends there. Never once do we see Paul hesitate, question or struggle with his decision to take the law into his own hands. There’s never a moment where Paul is forced to make a difficult decision or face the consequences of his actions.Heck, he never even attempts to really find his wife’s murderers. Even when finally identified by the police as the city’s vigilante killer, Paul is let off the hook. He is strongly encouraged to leave New York City forever, but they let him go nonetheless. Rather than face the public fallout of arresting Paul, the NYC police department chooses to pawn the problem off on another unsuspecting city. Remarkably, Paul avoids any true fall from grace.
One of the many fascinating aspects of Death Wish is the fact that this inner film dialogue regarding Paul‘s culpability was mirrored in 1974 audience responses. Surprising everyone, Death Wish became a cultural phenomenon. The New York Times called it, “the most discussed and debated film in these parts since The Exorcist.” It generated $22 million in worldwide sales on a $3 million budget. Critics were remarkably evenly split regarding the film’s message and hotly debated the movie’s moral irresponsibility. While the film’s version of New York City was pointedly exaggerated in regards to daily danger, it was just realistic enough to garner concern and applause in equal measure.
One 30-year old Brooklyn viewer was quoted saying, “This is the worst picture I’ve ever seen in my life. A white man can get away with anything in America.” And yet a 62 year-old woman from Queens countered with, “I think it’s lovely, a very comfortable picture. I, like Charles Bronson, don’t approve of killing, but at least the people he killed were not good people. I’m glad the police let him go at the end.” Even Roger Ebert seemed torn on his feelings toward the film saying, “Death Wish is a quasifascist advertisement for urban vigilantes, done up in a slick and exciting action movie; we like it even while we’re turned off by the message. The movie has an eerie kind of fascination, even though its message is scary.” There’s never any question that what Paul Kersey is doing is wrong, and yet it’s frighteningly easy to find oneself supporting his actions.
This uncomfortable line that Paul walks throughout the second half of the film is part of the reason the film has remained a classic. It’s rather rare (especially in 1974) to see a film so unapologetically play with such large and universally accepted social standards. As horror fans, we’re used to seeing death and murders committed by killers of innumerable scope and size. Perhaps someone kills in self-defense. Perhaps someone is taking revenge out on a guilty party. Or perhaps the killer is a criminally insane or deeply disturbed slasher devoid of any practical human emotion. These set-ups are familiar and garner a natural acceptance in their surrealism and dramatics.
“With the guise of surrealism effectively diminished, Death Wish becomes a frightening glimpse into the tentative social construct of acceptable justice and the potential that lies within us all”
However, Paul Kersey not only avoids simple categorizations such as these, he remains exceptionally ordinary while doing it. While the New York he lives in is fictitious, they both stand as characters we can easily relate to. But it is there, in the ease of that relatability, that stands the much more complicated and darker aspect of societal endorsement. With the guise of surrealism effectively diminished, Death Wish becomes a frightening glimpse into the tentative social construct of acceptable justice and the potential that lies within us all.