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Violence has been an important part of our entertainment since time immemorial. Certainly, there must have been early clans that would huddle around popping fires as gruesome tales of the big hunt kept listeners enthralled. Ancient stories are filled with bloodlust and acts of horror, from Greek tragedies and Asian fables to the plays of Shakespeare. It was only natural for it find its way into film. Yet violence became more “authentic” in how it appeared at the movies, and as decades passed, labeled senseless as many film purveyors exploited it for its own sake.
That violence has long split critics and experts, but no matter their opinions, it always draws an audience. And it always incurs controversy. In the 1970s, perhaps more so of any decade, a string of movies that pushed mainstream envelopes started making waves in theaters, many street level crime dramas that became the birthing point for later standard action hero stars. Films by Sam Peckinpah and Don Siegel were a few that started vitriolic national conversations, not to mention a slew of black exploitation films that had many demanding the industry make sweeping changes.
In 1972, author Brian Garfield published his latest book called Death Wish about a liberal CPA in New York named Paul Benjamin who has his life spun around when his wife and daughter are mugged and beaten. The wife dies and the daughter ends up in a coma. This has him re-evaluating his place in the world and so, gets a gun in Arizona and comes back to New York to start hunting criminals. It’s a complex character study and well-written, inspired by real, albeit less violent events in Garfield’s life. Paul doesn’t actually kill his first victim until near the very end of the story, though goes on to murder several.
For the film adaptation, Sidney Lumet was first attached with Jack Lemon and Henry Fonda set to star, but Lumet dropped out and the studio (Paramount) signed on Micheal Winner, known then as a trailblazer of gritty, violent movies. Next was casting, with the 53-year-old Charles Bronson taking on the role of Paul Kersey, who brought with him a change to the character, including the name and background. It also made him a bit more rough around the edges. The role would propel Bronson to international superstardom.
The movie plot sees Paul’s wife Joanna (Hope Lange) killed and daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan) sexually attacked in a brutal home invasion. A pacifist and conscientious objector during the Korean War, having served as a medic, he finds himself in possession of a new handgun when a business associate gives him one as a gift. Not long after, with pistol in pocket, he encounters a mugger on the streets and guns down the criminal, escaping the scene and getting a taste for vigilante justice.
After this first kill leaves him feeling physically ill, he quickly recovers and goes on the hunt for more opportunities. There are plenty. He finds crime is everywhere and when he sees three thugs robbing a man in a darkened alley, he shoots them dead. This builds his confidence and the vengeance feels good. Not long after, his efforts start making headlines, though his identity remains a mystery. The mayor calls for it to stop, but Paul isn’t listening.
This culminates in one of the film’s more brutal and controversial moments. Aboard a subway while reading the paper, he spots a couple of hooligans making their way into his car. At the next stop, the few passengers in his car exit, leaving him alone with the thugs. Thinking the older man is an easy target, one goon approaches with a knife and slices the newspaper, but Paul is ready.
He shoots the unsuspecting thief in the belly and then the second robber right after. For good measure, as they are splayed on the subway car floor, he fires one more into each, then, as the train comes to the next stop, exits as people board and, seeing the carnage, break into a chorus of screams. He makes his way street-side and disappears as the train cops close in, but lose him.
The subway scene is important because it represents the total transformation for Paul from the meek, violence-objecting businessman to the vengeful-obsessed crime stopper. The shift from sicking torment at his first killing to the casual ease of the subway murders characterizes the film’s central message as he seems to be inviting criminals to come close. And like a dangerous animal, he strikes with no warning. We as the viewer have our sympathies torn by the violence. It feels like justice, but is unquestionably excessive and smacks of a savagery we has a society have worked to dismiss.
The rage Paul has for the crimes against his family, and one we were witness to at the beginning is a constant memory and fuels his thirst, but at the same time, we know it is wrong and so in a way, Paul develops an alter-ego, a projection of what we, on a limbic level, want to be but could never allow. He’s the very definition of antihero.
That sexual assault scene is easily the most memorably vicious moment and the one that had critics and protesters up in arms, but has since become widely praised by audiences for it intense realism. It featured none other than future star Jeff Goldblum as one of the home invaders (listed as Freak #1). It’s a horrifying sequence that still has frightful impact. The bad people in this film are bad, and the movie makes it easy to want to see them them cut down.
For the up-coming remake, the film will be directed by horror master Eli Roth, who has really come into his own in terms of crafting effective stories with violence that work thematically. Last year’s The Green Inferno was a small marvel, followed by the less successful but still entertaining Knock Knock, with Keanu Reeves. That film was entirely without his typical gore and showed that he can direct a solid thriller with some great tension. With Death Wish, in which Bruce Willis has already been cast, there is sure to be a mix of action and violence that might again have critics calling foul, though these days, gratuitous gore in mainstream films for the sake of it is pretty common.
The original is still a worthy film and while even Garfield distanced himself from the adaptation of his own book, believing it betrayed the message he intended, it stands as a classic example of the era’s shift in movie styles and the great risks a new wave of filmmakers were embarking.