Directed by Michael Winner
Screenplay by Wendell Mayes
Starring Charles Bronson, Hope Lange, Stuart Margolin
“The movie has an eerie kind of fascination, even though its message is scary.”–Roger Ebert
The 1974 film Death Wish, starring Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey, is a cultural force. When Bernhard Goetz shot four Negro muggers (some say panhandlers), the press labeled him “The Subway Vigilante,” a moniker clearly inspired by the film. Death Wish spawned a remarkable four sequels of low artistic merit. The pistol used in Death Wish III (1985), “The Wildey,” gets a spike in sales every time the film is shown on TV. The franchise was even co-opted by the Establishment: Death Wish IV: The Crackdown (1987) supported then-First Lady Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug crusade.
Death Wish is a basic, three act revenge fantasy. It is based on the book of the same name by Brian Garfield. In the book, the protagonist is a meeker and somewhat darker character with a slightly different name. It explores the theme of crime and violence a bit more, including libertarian ideas on legalizing drugs to reduce crime. In the book, Paul is a neoconservative in the strictest sense: a liberal Jewish accountant who’s been mugged. However, while the book is good and has much nuance, the film is a richer story. What makes it so good? What gives it its eerie fascination and scary message? Simply put, Death Wish touches upon serious themes.
The Three Acts of Death Wish
Death Wish begins with Paul Kersey and his wife (Hope Lange) in Hawaii on vacation. They are clearly a loving couple. When they return to their home in New York City, the mood shifts. The music becomes harsh. There is a traffic jam. We see the smog. The World Trade Center is shown, but in this film they aren’t yet a symbol of tragedy and defiance. Instead they are stark, utilitarian office spaces that tower over dangerous streets ruled by criminals.
Back at work, Paul receives the crime statistics from his co-worker Sam (William Redfield). Kersey and his boss Ives (Chris Gampel) converse with Sam about the crime rate and what to do about it. During this discussion, they lightly touch upon black crime, white flight, and the size of the police force, but we see that Paul and Ives don’t have any answers. Paul’s heart bleeds for the “underprivileged.”
While Paul and his co-workers discuss the situation in their neat, orderly office, Paul’s wife (Hope Lange) and daughter (Kathleen Tolan) are attacked by three “freaks.” Paul’s wife is mortally wounded in the attack and his daughter is raped. The scene is horrifying.
During the attack, we see a theme. Throughout the movie, most of the white bad guys are cartoonish villains. For example, one of the “freaks” strangely spraypaints a swastika on the wall of Kersey’s apartment and also sprays random red lines on the walls. The dialogue is also a cartoonish combination of black words spoken in a white voice: “Don’t jive, mother. You know what we want!”
After the attack, Paul Kersey sinks into depression. He watches TV infomercials in the dark and apathetically watches a mugging in the street below (a reference, no doubt, to the horrifying 1964 Kitty Genovese killing). Additionally, Paul is unable to do anything to aid his daughter’s recovery.
With nothing happening at home, Kersey decides to head out to Arizona to work on a struggling real estate project. There he meets Aimes Jainchill (Stuart Margolin). Continuing the cartoonish theme, Jainchill is a cartoon version of a real pioneer stock American living in the West. Margloin gives the character a fake, semi-Southern accent that Hollywood seems to think all Americans in flyover country have. Jainchill drives a garish station wagon with a cowhide interior and longhorns on the hood and roof. He wears a cowboy hat, shooter’s glasses, and a Western-style suit.
Before Paul Kersey starts to redesign the layout of the development, Jainchill takes him to the site. It is a pristine set of hills. Jainchill doesn’t want the hills to be “dozed.” He wants his buildings to conform to the land. He wants “space for life.” There is a bit of the magic dirt theory of civil society here, but in the politically correct 1970s, white flight was expressed using terms like “freestanding house,” “green trees,” “white-picket fence,” and “good schools.” On their way back to Jainchill’s office, the two watch a show for tourists at an imitation Old West town. In it, the sheriff shoots three bank robbers. None of the helplessness of the NYPD is displayed – the sheriff’s use of his gun saves the day.
Kersey works late, reworking the development’s design to conform to the land and meet the profit margins demanded by the investors Back East. One night, Jainchill takes Paul to dinner at a gun club. The plot thickens. Jainchill lays out his ideology, popular with Second Amendment-loving civic nationalists:
Aimes Jainchill: You’re probably one of them knee-jerk liberals that thinks us gun boys shoot our guns because it’s an extension of our penises.
Paul Kersey: Never thought about it that way. It could be true.
Aimes Jainchill: Well, maybe it is. But this is gun country. Can’t even own a handgun in New York City. Out here, I hardly know a man who doesn’t own one. And I’ll tell you something – unlike your city, we can walk our streets and through our parks at night and feel safe. Muggers operating out here, they just plain get their asses blown up.
On the way back to New York, Jainchill gives Kersey a .32-caliber revolver. Most importantly, we come to realize that Jainchill has caused the scales to fall from Paul’s eyes. Instead of continuing to be a knee-jerk, bleeding heart liberal, Kersey has decided to focus on seeking out and killing muggers.
Kersey starts searching for muggers. After the police realize that there is a serial killer on the loose shooting small-time hoods, they create a task force to track down and arrest the person the media comes to call “The Vigilante.” The chief detective, Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia), skillfully communicates with the press, navigates through the politics coming out of the District Attorney’s office, and tracks down Paul Kersey.
In this act, most of the white villains are cartoonish, but the first mugger (who is white) killed by Kersey is believably portrayed. The black muggers, conversely, are not cartoonish, but there is a scene where a black pimp, wearing Halloween costume-style pimp clothes, is being put in a paddy wagon. After Paul Kersey is discovered, he is told by Detective Ochoa to leave New York City.
“By sunset?” asks Kersey wryly, in reference to old Westerns.
Death Wish’s Themes
Counter-Culture and Crime
Violent street crime in the United States has a (mostly) black face, so the casting of white “freaks” and other muggers is somewhat ridiculous. One might argue that the producers of Death Wish are pulling their punches or being politically correct. This is most certainly somewhat true. However, even the casting of cartoonish white muggers is still communicating a serious message.
In the 1970s, a very active, very dangerous Jewish New Left that had emerged from the ranks of the 1960s hippie counter-culture was still making trouble. The Weather Underground carried out bombings across the United States in 1974. Hippie districts, such as San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, had become drug-infested slums by the mid-1970s.
Therefore, Death Wish’s inclusion of white criminals is partially a response to the dark side of the self-absorbed Baby Boomer hippie revolution that was then in full swing. Indeed, Paul Kersey kills two muggers on the subway that are dressed much like the stars of the counter-culture classic Easy Rider (1969).
Race and Crime
Also by 1974, America was in the grip of a crime wave unleased by the triumph of the “civil rights” revolution in the early 1960s, as well as by liberal SCOTUS decisions by the Warren Court. By 1974, getting mugged in New York City was no longer an unfounded fear. “Subway Vigilante” Bernhard Goetz himself said it best: “Back then you were guaranteed, every time you took the subway, you’d have at least one very unpleasant experience.”
Death Wish goes as far in dealing with the reality of black crime as one can possibly go and still be somewhat polite. In real life, most of the horrific home invasions like those shown in Death Wish, such as the December 2000 Wichita Massacre, are committed by blacks. There are probably no cases of a group of criminal whites doing the same thing, although lone white hunters like Richard Speck are certainly capable of great cruelty.
The film’s key admission of the reality of black crime is a random conversation at a dinner party that Paul and Sam attend:
Harry: I’ll tell you one thing. The guy’s a racist. You notice he kills more blacks than whites.
Female Party Guest: For Pete’s sake, Harry, more blacks are muggers than whites. What do you want us to do? Increase the proportion of white muggers so we’ll have racial equality among muggers?
In another scene, a black church lady, inspired by “The Vigilante,” is shown driving off muggers with a hat pin. She says, in her cute, child-like Negro dialect, “I been robbed too many times. And I’ve had enough.” This scene is metapolitical propaganda in action. It gives the appearance that ordinary black citizens were also fed up with crime. They probably were, and are, but only to a degree.
To remark further on this, Black Christianity, which is very deeply woven into black culture, is really African Voodoo with a Protestant veneer. There is no serious moral or theological thought in that religion. Its primary function, aside from spiritual entertainment, is to organize resistance against white attempts to rein in destructive black forms of culture – such as criminality.
Black “reverends” and black church ladies don’t provide serious or effective moral instruction to black youths. Black “reverends” really only use the language of Protestant Christianity to fool whites. When the “Subway Vigilante” Bernhard Goetz actually shot black muggers, black “reverends” such as Al Sharpton supported the muggers. Sharpton didn’t ask himself why a mild-mannered white electrical engineer would shoot four Negroes on a subway or why a jury wouldn’t convict him. The answer, of course, was that New Yorkers were tired of being mugged on the train by blacks.
Return to White Roots & Gun Culture
Paul Kersey’s visit to Aimes Jainchill in Arizona is also deeply significant from a racial perspective. The winning of the West is completely Anglo-European in nature, and involved a great many private citizens using firearms under the protection of the Second Amendment. The winning of the West was also an Aryan expansion no different than the “Conquest of the Desert” by Spanish-Europeans in Argentina, Anglo expansion in Australia and New Zealand, Dutch expansion in South Africa, or even the Aryan conquest of India.
Paul’s visit to Arizona is a reminder to American audiences of this rich heritage. One can draw great strength from the story of the white conquest of this continent. However, what needs to be discussed is that people – specifically, the racial makeup of the people – are what makes a place safe or not. Whites with guns equals a safe society. Whites without guns mean a safe, but vulnerable society. Blacks with guns – or without guns – lead to an unsafe society. Gun culture only goes so far. In the same way that a gun is a tool with all the advantages and disadvantages that entails, the Second Amendment is also a tool with all the associated limitations. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the government to provide order. It is incumbent upon whites not to be vigilantes, but to shape their government’s crime suppression policies.