Based on the potboiler by Brian Garfield, Death Wish stands as the definitive response to the mugging panic that gripped New York City throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. At the heart of the franchise is Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson), a “bleeding-heart liberal” who turns into an urban vigilante after his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) is robbed, assaulted, raped and murdered in his apartment shortly after they return from a trip to Hawaii. The film opens in Maui, with a touching vignette between Paul and Joanna that both establishes them as “decent people” but also as a couple that are just past their prime and starting to enter the autumn of their years, only to abruptly shift back to Manhattan once their holiday comes to an end and they are forced to return to “civilisation.” While Hawaii is frequently used in American cinema to fantasise all that the United States might still be, here it functions more as a utopian horizon that has long since receded, a reminder of lost futures. By contrast, New York City feels like a foreign country, suffused with an exotic attention to built space, shot with the exquisite sensitivity to gradations in urban ambience that can only come with the deepest and most insatiable paranoia.
Although that creates quite a baroque aesthetic at moments, the film as a whole is driven by the brutal functionality typical of B-pictures, with the dialogue often feeling as if it has been lifted straight from the page. At one level, that makes the film feel like a pragmatic guide to action, a visual instruction manual in how to elude or combat muggers, as well as a serious contribution to the debates around mugging, criminology and urban space that were raging in New York City at this time. However, this affectively flat style also imbues the camera with a documentary potential that becomes quite titillating during those scenes that are shot in and around areas – especially Central Park at night and certain subway stations – that weren’t considered safe for regular white middle-class viewers at the time. In that sense, the film’s functionality also allows it to gravitate towards something like a voyeuristic travelogue at certain key moments, not unlike the depictions of the Bronx featured in Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen, released the previous year. Finally, this affective flatness and pragmatic functionality ensures that the rape scene is especially brutal, which of course it needs to be to motivate the bloodbath that follows. Drawing on exploitation cinema and verging on underground pornography, these scenes of violation and desecration tend to be the most affecting across the franchise and nowhere more than in this first instalment, where they still manage to capture something of the extraordinary fear and paranoia that gripped New York in the early 1970s some forty years later.
For all the horror of this foundational scene, which wouldn’t be out of place in a rape-and-revenge film, the film ultimately revolves around quite an amorphous constellation of fears, with mugging offered as a catch-all phrase that includes stalking, theft, rape, murder, vagrancy as well as – most importantly – a fear of the total urban environment within which all these activities occur. As a result, the film feels fixated on the emergence of a new brand of flexible criminal – not necessarily the criminal mastermind, super-criminal or criminal ringleader of an older modernist cityscape, but instead criminals who have minutely adapted to any and every opportunity that the city offers, opportunists who are not affiliated to any single criminal pursuit. Where the New York gangsters of old were Fordist in their structured chains of command and scrutiny over criminal product, Death Wish is more interested in New York gang members operating through a more flexible mode of accumulation, and so more open to the fleeting serendipities of the city in achieving their purpose. Above and beyond the existence of these criminals, however, the film is gripped by a real generational anxiety about the capacity of an older breed of city-dweller to perceive them, let alone prevent them, with the central gang of perpetrators often seeming to inhabit a nascent MTV space rather than the staunchly classical New Hollywood compositions and co-ordinates that constitute the film’s own will to see.
While this tendency is intensified in Death Wish 2, muggers are here already presented in a science-fiction register, as aliens, monsters or spirits as much as thugs. Nearly always accompanied by emphatic synth riffs and uncanny fish-lens cinematography that gathers the curvature of the city around their every action, they seem to shift the film into the realm of horror by virtue of their very presence. Insofar as there is any single action that encapsulates this horror, it is not in fact murder, rape, assault or vandalism, but instead graffiti, and especially the kind of tag-driven graffiti so familiar today, which was a relatively new phenomenon around this time, marking the city with a language that is utterly indecipherable to the older generation, who respond by framing the city as a “war zone” that “needs more cops than people.” While that might seem very remote from the ultragentrified New York that we know today, part of what makes the film so powerful is the way that its presentation of mugging dovetails with the position occupied by contemporary terrorism. In both cases, the city is gripped by the fear of random, apparently inexplicable acts of violence that are intimately bound up with the connective tissue of urban life. Like terrorists, once muggers are gone, they’re gone, and the film is continually haunted by the impossibility of ever fully pre-empting or preparing for the sudden aftermath of a mugging attack.
It makes sense, then, that Paul is initially a liberal urban planner by trade, espousing a philosophy of city building in which inner-city crime is always a function of poverty, ghettoisation and spatial exclusion. It’s not surprising, either, that his first-hand experience of mugging quickly identifies him with the film’s frustration with the administrative, bureaucratic and institutional spaces that are erected to prevent – or at least forestall – just this urban devolution, with some of the film’s most powerful moments playing out against the dispersed chaos of open-plan vestibular spaces, such as police station foyers and hospital waiting rooms. At stake in these spaces is a wider fear of the cusps between private and public life, since these are zones where mugging is presented as being peculiarly virulent and unpredictable. Time and again, shopping is offered as such a volatile, vestibular zone, with Joanna only succumbing to the muggers after they pose as delivery boys from her local supermarket. Far from being a problem that is restricted to remote urban zones, the film is haunted by the possibility that the tide of private space will recede far enough to allow muggers to saunter into the home, and it is the spectacle of muggers wandering around a typical white middle-class apartment that constitutes the real horror of the opening violation and desecration, in a kind of vision of modernist flanerie gone horribly, horribly wrong.
For all that Paul comes to doubt the rhetoric of spatial criminology he has promulgated up until this point, he still doesn’t experience the kind of sudden transformation you’d expect of a later vigilante film or a classical action film. Where the rest of the Death Wish franchise is campily gleeful in its racist invective, Death Wish itself is as anxious not to come off as racist as Cruising would be anxious not to come off as homophobic four years later. If anything, Paul initially arms himself as a kind of brute act self-preservation rather than as a deliberate ideological statement – if anything, he is quite horrified about his own paranoia, begging the question of whether this is in fact a right-wing film or a more complex reflection upon what the fate of liberal sentiment in the immediate post-60s era. Again, that makes Death Wish feels a bit different from the rest of the subsequent franchise, just as Rocky and First Blood are a bit different from their campier and more openly fascist progeny. As with both Rocky and Rambo, the transition to full-blown vigilante occurs very late, which allows the film to subsist more on the downbeat naturalism that occurs in the interim rather than the conviction with which Paul finally accepts his new role as protector of the streets.
Indeed, Death Wish often plays as a decline narrative more than a conversion narrative. At the very least, there is a strong sense that Paul is participating in and complicit in some wider decline, rather than heroically “opposing” it in any real sense. That’s not to say, however, that the film doesn’t set up any kind of heroic iconography, since the entire second act more or less plays as an argument for something like an urban western, as Paul travels to Tucson to consider a new suburban living project. While he is there, the developer takes him to visit the famous western movie studio at “Old Tucson,” where he witnesses a staged shoot-out, much of which is framed from an aerial perspective with a noose placed quite pointedly in the extreme foreground. As this replica town makes clear, the world of the west may have vanished, as well as the world of the classical Hollywood west, but the western ethos nevertheless lives on in a 70s guise. In Cinema 2, Gilles Deleuze observes that the New Hollywood western involved transplanting and abstracting the western genre away from actual western locales, and I can’t think of a more succinct meditation on that process than this scene, in which Paul registers and communes with the western as a series of codes and stances that he can bring back to New York in order to tackle a social problem that is so inextricably urban and “Eastern” that it requires the most ingenious appropriation to filter it through the New Hollywood west at all.
Importantly, this display of western marksmanship is not the only revelation Paul experiences in Tucson. In its own way, the property he is inspecting also turns out to be an affirmation and remediation of western values by virtue of a design strategy that reinstates the expansive sightlines of the western horizon within open-plan, spacious suburban living. In order to face New York head on, the film suggests, Paul needs to transplant this sense of space to the city, or render it continuous with the city, with the result that his vigilante mission dovetails quite naturally with his dawning awareness of and appreciation for suburban design principles. Upon returning to New York, then, it gradually starts to feel as if he is defending the last remaining pocket of suburbanites on Manhattan as they prepare to move to the suburbs, as well as the very conception of suburbia itself as a late descendent of the westward expansion that once defined America’s self-image – a project that is both consummated and complicated by the move from New York to Los Angeles in the second film. The result is a strange combination of liberal and conservative agendas, in which the Tucson development both stands for sustainability – “I won’t build something that will be a slum in twenty years” – but also for a “pioneer mentality” and the “old American social custom of self-defence,” as the Arizona developer also turns out to be a gun rights advocate who encourages Paul to bring a little piece of “gun country” back to the liberal Northeast.
In many ways, this return to New York feels like the critical turning-point for Paul, partly because it is actually the second time we have returned to New York after the trip back from Hawaii in the opening scenes, a move that works in both cases to estrange and alienate us from the city, removing us to a suburban distance that, by the end, makes what initially seemed like a gritty twin-cinema offering feel like it would be more at home in your local multiplex. As might be expected, Paul’s growing vigilantistic tendencies lead to him seeking out typical mugging spaces, especially Central Park and certain subway stations late at night. At the same time, however, Paul reorients these spaces around a western optic, with some of the longest and most spatially extensive shots in the film devoted to gazing down empty train carriages or squinting across the Jackie Onassis Reservoir, both of which are transformed into vistas in which the elongated, widescreen perspectives of the pioneer mentality come into play. If western protagonists are amongst the most empowered pedestrians in American cinema, especially on main streets, then Paul borrows quite a bit of their pomp and swagger here, but never so much that he punctures the chilly, eerie New Hollywood ambience either. In fact, I would argue that these mugging scenes are some of the most beautiful examples of American cinematic atmospherics in the early 1970s, perfectly capturing the dance and weave of muggers as they emerge and crystallise out of the amorphous sense of anxiety and paranoia that cloaks every nocturnal tableau.
By the end of the film, Paul has started to become a little more comfortable in his role, but his resultant persona doesn’t exactly anticipate the classical action hero – as occurs with Rocky and Rambo – so much as the particular kinds of superhero that have become so popular in the twenty-first century, especially drawn from the Marvel universe. Nicknamed “the vigilante” after his mugger victims – most of whom are shot at close range in cold blood – start to pile up and make the papers, his silhouette is continually replicated across magazine covers, advertising billboards and news broadcasts, as the city is flooded with and gripped by his media presence. As the police officer involved states, “I know that this person has captured the imagination of many people in this city,” and yet like most superheroes, Paul is an unwilling vigilante. Indeed, the more he is hailed as a superhero, the more anxious he seems to frame vigilantism as a mere extension of a citizens’ arrest, or even an eccentric form of conscientious objection. More than any other mainstream genre, superhero films oscillate between right-wing and left-wing mentalities, and in retrospect Death Wish feels like a foundational moment in that complexity, since it’s increasingly unclear whether Paul’s actions are intended to consummate or compromise his liberalism, in what often feels like a libertarian manifesto, and a libertarian action cinema, more than anything else.
The film ends, then, in the only way it can, with Paul forming an uneasy truce with the local police force, who appreciate the impact his vigilantism has had on mugging rates but understandably can’t be seen to condone his actions. In true western fashion, he is ordered to be out of town before sundown and ends up moving west. That might sound like a happy ending, but as it turns out he moves too far west for the New York suburbs but not far enough for the true West, ending up in Chicago where it doesn’t feel as if all that much has changed from Riverside Drive to Lakeside Drive after he is accosted by muggers seconds after setting down at O’Hare. It’s only at this point, with the film’s final shot, that Paul’s conversion feels complete and we’re allowed to glimpse the campy exploitation of the next film, which gives up entirely on the fantasies of both spacious suburbia and western expansion by transplanting the franchise to Los Angeles.