Death Wish

A nasty, shallow, base film., 27 February 2010

Author: gary-444 from United Kingdom

I saw this, on release, 36 years ago. Time has not been particularly kind to it, with Director Michael Winner’s career having been ultimately defined by this work. It was about the first, and certainly the most prominent, modern Revenge story transplanting a formula which was well worn in Western Films into an Urban setting.

It neatly tapped into justified contemporary fears that some major cities, particularly in America, were degenerating into lawless cesspits. Furthermore , sexual mores were loosening with the widespread success of Pornographic Movie blockbuster “Deep Throat” relaxing public attitudes to what sexual content was acceptable on screen. The ten minute rape scene is still amongst the most harrowing in mainstream cinema, and is there to shamelessly attract the voyeuristic as is the frequent violence.

Where the movie succeeded was in tapping into the prevailing zeitgeist that some cities were spiralling out of control “and something needed to be done”, whilst delivering a level of physical and sexual violence as entertainment which was at the bounds of what was permitted purely to attract an audience. No doubt this irony was lost on the makers. It also explored the mob “eye for an eye” ethos, as confidence in the authorities waned ( the Vietnam War was limping to a humiliating ending for the United States).

It fails because the acting is poor and the story clunky in the extreme. Winner is not a good Director. He is an upper class aesthete who thinks that he is pandering to the “mobs” taste by presenting the film in the way he does. But crucially he does not like people and lacks the common touch. In the equally violent “Dirty Harry” series Director Don Siegel and lead actor Clint Eastwood wade through a similar body count, but succeed. Why? Because the characters feel real. Winner simply uses characters as a means to deliver a product.

That frequent and graphic revenge violence and a graphic rape are big pulls for many is confirmed by the commercial success of “Death Wish” and the subsequent three sequels. But beyond that there is nothing. Charles Bronson, as Paul Kersey, shoots people, and that is about it. Hope Lang, as Joanna Kersey is shown in her nightwear, and then being beaten to death. Their daughter, played by Kathleen Tolan is the rape victim, and that is your lot for women in this picture, a misogyny which is a trademark both of Winner as a persona and a film Director.

That the three assailants themselves get away, whilst sundry other bad guys “get it”, is an attempt at some form of deliberate moral ambiguity to temper the natural audience enthusiasm for Paul Kersey’s actions. But it is no device to question his actions, more a vehicle for saying that all bad guys “deserve it” anyway.

A nasty, shallow, base film.

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