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The Original Death Wish: A Review

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Death Wish
Directed by Michael Winner
Screenplay by Wendell Mayes
Starring Charles Bronson, Hope Lange, Stuart Margolin
1974

By the early 1970s, Americans had begun to notice a change in their big cities. After the Civil Rights movement and the 1965 Immigration Act, the multiracial rot – the inevitable by-product of the Left’s ascendancy in the West – began to set in. Cities that were once clean, safe, and orderly became much less so in fairly short order. Americans were not complaining about muggings, rapes, and murders as much in 1960 as they were a decade and a half later. They also didn’t feel as if they were entering another country every time they walked three blocks to buy groceries.

The original Death Wish film, released in 1974, was, on one hand, a way to capitalize on these newfound feelings of insecurity and alienation which were perplexing the lives of millions of white Americans at the time. On the other, it did give legitimate, if somewhat oblique, expression to these feelings, so much so that the film quickly became iconic despite mostly poor reviews, and spawned four sequels over the following twenty years, as well as a big-budget remake that was recently released. The plot is straightforward: A solid citizen discovers that thugs have murdered his wife and raped his daughter in his New York apartment, and he then acquires a gun to take revenge on the streets as a vigilante. Given the film’s success at the box office, it is safe to conclude that many Americans, especially the white ones who fondly remembered a better past, strongly identified with such a character.

Forty-five years after its release, the film’s flaws have become almost embarrassingly apparent. Death Wish is by no means a great film. Charles Bronson, who plays the main character, Paul Kersey, does the tough, sullen hero routine well. But when required to act alongside real thespians, his lack of range becomes as painfully apparent as the Fu Manchu mustache which stretches across his ruggedly handsome face. The dialogue, which is clunkily written, goes from cheap and clichéd (“Beautiful place, Tucson. They can breathe out there.”) to Right-wing agitprop (“What about the old American social custom of self-defense? If the police don’t defend us, maybe we ought to do it ourselves.”), but otherwise doesn’t distinguish itself (with one exception, discussed below). And the over-the-top, modernist score by Herbie Hancock intrudes upon the narrative far too often, and does the most to date the film.

Still, director Michael Winner has a decent sense of where to put the camera and how to move it. At around ninety minutes, the film is rarely boring, and takes us from the beginning through to the end competently enough. But the suspense it creates through the editing, performances, and direction rarely rises above the ordinary. When compared to Taxi Driver, a similar urban drama from the period, Death Wish lacks inspired cinematic vision and a virtuosic lead performance. Also unlike Taxi Driver, however, Death Wish does not focus on gore, and instead attempts to present life as it really is. People remember Death Wish not for the craft that went into it, but for its meta-narrative – that is, its gritty, brutal, and ultimately ironic take on vigilantism in a world growing more dangerous and unfamiliar by the day.

When presented with a story as mired in realism as Death Wish, we first want to determine how real it is. If verisimilitude is one of the story’s selling points, then it is fair game for any sober assessment of the film. For example, we might give The French Connection, another urban drama of the period, a bit more leeway, since that film identifies as an action-thriller and contains recognizable, if unrealistic, tropes belonging to its genre – for example, daredevil cops and edge-of-your-seat car chases. Death Wish, on the other hand, is about one guy who sees his family destroyed and then turns into a killer. Within such limited parameters, most everything in Death Wish lives up to the mundane, low-grade terror that denizens of big cities were learning to live with in 1974. And this is to Michael Winner’s great credit. Whether we are on the streets, in cafés, police stations, subways, offices, apartments, or hospitals, Death Wish succeeds in producing the honest feel of a disturbing news documentary. Most importantly, Bronson, with his hard, pitiless stare, easily convinces us that he could kill – you. Me. Whoever. And he won’t lose too much sleep over it as long as he knows you’re a criminal.

One minor quibble: Kersey has a suspiciously easy time getting mugged. Whenever he goes out alone at night, hunting for thugs, it seems there are teams of them just waiting to pounce. It’s as if the prime targets of muggers back then were burly, tough-looking men wearing long jackets in which they could pack all manner of heat. Don’t muggers usually hit the easy targets? Still, it’s a film, so some disbelief has to be suspended.

My biggest quibble, however, has to do with race. Just about half the muggers Kersey encounters are white. In two cases we have interracial gangs reminiscent of The Warriors, a much more fanciful urban drama which came out a few years after Death Wish. Most tellingly, however, the three men who attacked the Kersey women at the beginning of the film are all white. The credits refer to them as “freaks,” and indeed, they behave like horny hooligans once they break into the Kersey household. The rape and murder scene, while not handled as deftly as its counterpart in A Clockwork Orange, meets the film’s high standard of realism well enough. (Although casting a young and dweeby Jeff Goldblum as one of the perps was a dodgy call, in my opinion.) But the fact that a crime typically committed by blacks (gang rape) is portrayed as being committed by whites stinks of Hollywood social manipulation. That’s not how it is. It’s how they want it to be or how they want you to believe it to be. And that usually ends up with big, bad whitey pulling the strings for everything evil under the Sun.

It was at this point that I paused the film and checked the filmmakers’ bios online. Of course, Bronson was all gentile, and so was producer Dino De Laurentiis. The Wiki pages of co-producer Bobby Roberts, screenwriter Wendell Hayes, and novelist Brian Garfield remain inconclusive (which usually means not Jewish), while co-producer Hal Landers doesn’t even have a Wiki page. It seems the only chosen one behind the scenes with major clout is Winner himself. Then again, Winner, a British Jew, was a big fan of Margaret Thatcher, and once claimed that as Prime Minister he would be “to the Right of Hitler.”

Whatever on that.

With at least some faith restored, I persevered and kept track of all the bad guys Kersey met for the remainder of the film. About half were black, and of the remaining whites, a couple of them appeared to be strung-out junkies rather than cruel and exploitive villains like Goldblum’s gang early in the film. It dawned on me fairly quickly that, despite the questionably high number of white muggers, this film is not anti-white at all. Yes, it places blacks conspicuously among authority figures (cops, mostly) as well as among the victims. But this, I believe, remains within the bounds of 1974 reality. At one point in the film, as New Yorkers are becoming emboldened by Kersey’s vigilantism, one elderly black woman (and perfectly innocent soul) fends off a pair of black muggers with a hatpin. In an amusing news interview, she goes off on a rant so ebonically loaded that I’m sure it charmed mainstream audiences back then as much as it would race realists today. Such a speech, of course, would be well beyond the limits of modern political correctness, and would likely end up on the cutting room floor, if it could be filmed today at all.

An interlude about midway through the film convinced me that Death Wish was not just anti-anti-white, but indeed pro-white. A still-grieving Kersey goes on a business trip to Tucson, Arizona to meet with a landowner named Aimes Jainchill (played impeccably by Stuart Margolin). Kersey is an architect and needs to come to terms with Jainchill about how he’ll develop his land into a proper neighborhood. As soon as Kersey arrives, Jainchill takes him to the hilly desert to give him a feel for the land before beginning his sketches at the office. Like many a country gentleman, he’s tall and he’s got the drawl. He’s got a tan suit, big cowboy hat, cowboy boots, two big pairs of steer horns on his big station wagon, and cowhide upholstery. Amid mooing cows and cowboys riding on horseback, Jainchill tells Kersey he wants to keep the hills – despite the New Yorker’s worry about “wasted space” – and is keenly interested in developing quality homes that “won’t turn into slums in twenty years.” He clearly loves the land and aims to protect it.

Keep in mind, this is a white thing. Typically, it’s been European whites – not blacks, Hispanics, or Indians – who identify with the countryside through agriculture and by raising livestock. Aimes Jainchill serves as the perfect avatar of the white soul, a throwback to the days of the American frontier, where hard men had to defend their families and communities from wild animals and the elements, as well as from criminals. Yet Jainchill is no hillbilly or redneck. He’s friendly, confident, intelligent, and articulate. Moreover, he takes a liking to Kersey and brings him to the gun range, where he spouts NRA talking points about Second Amendment rights. He does this so eloquently and idiosyncratically that it rises above mere dogmatism. I don’t know if this is due to inspired screenwriting, first-rate acting, or both, but the dialogue coming out of Jainchill’s mouth sparkles. When inviting Kersey to come to his club, he says, “It might amuse you, though. Being from New York, maybe you never seen a club like this. It’s a gun club. We shoot guns.”

For once, Hancock’s score is subtle: an eerie tone, just north of our ability to hear it, to underscore our foreboding and excitement. You see, after what happened to Kersey’s family, the audience is craving for revenge. And Aimes Jainchill, God bless him, is just the man to remind our hero how to take it.

So goddamn much hoopla from the gun control people. Half the nation’s scared to even hold a gun! You know, like it was a snake that was gonna bite you or something. Hell, a gun is just a tool, like a hammer or an axe. Wasn’t long ago it used to put food on the table, keep foxes out of the chicken coop, rustlers off the range, bandits out of the bank. Paul, how long since you held a pistol in your hand?

That Jainchill gives Kersey the very pistol he uses to clean the streets of scum later in the film supports this theme of Kersey getting back to his white roots. The sympathetic treatment all the other white characters in Death Wish receive also reinforces this notion. Kersey works in a fashionable office, and his boss is perfectly nice. So is Sam, one of his more urbane and aristocratic colleagues. Yet Sam is as disgusted with crime as Kersey is, and proposes radical solutions at which I’m sure even Aimes Jainchill would balk. Police inspector Ochoa (in an inspired performance by Vincent Gardenia) might resemble the tubby, hard-nosed detective stereotype a little too closely. Still, he is forced to tackle the tricky dilemma of fighting vigilantism when vigilantism is actually reducing crime on the streets. In this case, he handles it like a thinking, feeling human being, and not as a stereotype. Even Ochoa’s subordinate, a tall, ugly white guy with an even uglier mustache, gets treated fairly. All the signs are there for this person to be a brute, but he’s not. He’s just gruff and irritable. And who isn’t gruff and irritable sometimes, right?

As if this weren’t enough, at a party we overhear the following bit of dialogue between a white man, a white woman, and Sam:

Man: I’ll tell you one thing—the guy’s a racist. You notice he kills more blacks than whites.

Woman: Oh, 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?

Sam: Racial equality among muggers? Ha, ha! I love it!

You know what? I love it, too. The filmmakers did not have to include this little snippet, but they did. In doing so, they were signaling to white people that they understand. Crime is not something whites bring to the table, certainly not in great civilizational hubs like New York City. No, this rot has been perpetrated mostly by intruders, by blacks and Hispanics especially, and it will be up to whites alone to deal with it.

When stripped to its essence, Death Wish and the Paul Kersey character personify 1970s white resistance to the multiracialism foisted upon them in the 1960s. There could be no black or Hispanic Paul Kersey, since such a man would spend most of his time killing his own. It’s a fact of life that minorities with a predilection towards crime must downplay the negative effects of crime in order to protect their standing in the nation at large. The biblical justice meted out by Kersey would have no place in their communities. Remember, Kersey doesn’t leave bad guys tied up with a note for the police, like Spider-Man. No, no. He just executes them. If they’re running away, he shoots them in the back. If they’re writhing on the pavement, he pumps an extra bullet into their bellies for their trouble. He doesn’t care. And if the ironic ending of Death Wish tells us anything, it’s that the filmmakers and audiences don’t care either. If you prey on people, then you deserve to die. The end.

Such primeval retribution represents the heart of Death Wish. Throughout the film, and the near half-century since its initial release, it pumps hard and it pumps fast. And not once does it bleed.

Spencer J. Quinn is a contributor to Counter-Currents and the author of the novel White Like You.

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14 Comments

  1. Antiochus
    Posted March 14, 2018 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    I always thought or heard Bronson changed his name from beinstein or something of the like.

  2. Gramps Barsoap
    Posted March 6, 2018 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    >the three men who attacked the Kersey women at the beginning of the film are all white

    Not quite lel. Two obvious jews (goldblum and the guy with the hebe-fro and the spraypaint can) and a skinhead. Also, did you catch that the gang rapists spray-painted a SWASTIKA on the walls of the Kersey home? That’s right, a SWASTIKA.

  3. R_Moreland
    Posted March 6, 2018 at 1:35 am | Permalink

    Can you please delete my prior post and replace it with the following as I left out a closing italic tag?

    There was another Charles Bronson movie, The Stone Killer (1973), where he plays a detective going up against organized criminals. It ends with Bronson saying to the camera: “You remember that cartoon of an old Roman Circus, where all the lions are roaring, and the page boy yells down the corridor, ‘you’ve got five minutes, Christians’.”

    i.e., time was running out for America.

    By the early 1970s there was a sense among Americans that “the criminals” were winning. You had the growing insecurity in the cities, this on top of the campus upheavals and inner city rioting of the 1960s. Many Americans understood on a gut level that their country was slipping away from them, that “the liberals” in power did not represent them and were using “the criminals” as an insurgent army to remake society. Death Wish has to be viewed in light of premonitions about the rising tide of dystopia on the horizon.

    1971 had seen the release of The French Connection and Dirty Harry, both of which showed a criminal justice system that was too lenient on “the criminals.” Connection ends with a title card informing us that the bigwigs behind the heroin smuggling operation got away with little penalty. Dirty Harry’s take on the rights of criminals does not need to be repeated here. With the system mired in Warren court era civil rights ruling (and can we separate Brown vs Board of Education from Escobedo vs Illinois? ), it was up to the lone avenger to take matters into his own gun-armed hands. This theme was continued in 1981’s Prince of the City, about corruption in an elite NYPD narcotics squad. One of its messages was that the Bill of Rights placed too many restrictions on the police (a detective character explicitly states this to the camera while being interviewed by Big Apple DAs). Interestingly, the directors of both Connection and Prince (Freidkin and Lumet) were politically to the left.

    Movies such as these mobilized public sentiment behind the various wars on crime which got rolling in the 1980s. They also led to the rollback of much of the Bill of Rights via no-knock raids, asset forfeiture, profile searches, drug testing, limitless surveillance, paramilitary policing, extrajudicial renditions and the use of the armed forces to enforce domestic law (the latter overturning posse comitatus, but it was a war on crime, after all). As the feds got into the act you ended up with Ruby Ridge and Waco. These incidents and assorted police abuses gave a boost to libertarianism in the 1990s as well as the militia movement (with whatever implications those movements had for the eventual rise of the Alt Right).

    The Obama presidency and the explosion of Black Lives Matter brought the war on crime to a de facto screeching halt. Law enforcement agencies stood down in the face of rioting from Ferguson to Charlottesville, with scarcely a shot fired. All those SWAT teams and armored personnel carriers were useless against the Cult of the Unarmed Teen. The capitulation of the cops shows how vapid the foundations were for the war on crime. And you have to ask how much of this turnaround was planned by establishment liberals (prestige media, shadowy activist organizations, international financiers, the Democratic occupant of the White House and his hand picked successor) – the liberals finally got their insurgent street army against White America. The information warfare element was there with the wave of black insurrectionary agitprop: Django Unchained (2012), Selma (2014), Birth of a Nation (2016), Detroit (2017), and now Black Panther (2018). Their heroes are those whom a prior generation of middle American filmgoers would once have considered to be “the criminals.”

    One more movie needs to be mentioned: Magnum Force (1973), the sequel to Dirty Harry. This time Inspector Callahan is up against a vigilante police death squad, the latter under the mentorship of none other than Hal (“usually plays Kennedy-esque liberals”) Holbrook. Effectively, Holbrook’s squad is a mannerbund, targeting organized criminals whom they declare to be the enemies of the people. Unlike Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, who dealt with lone psychos and street punks, they are going after the bigwigs corrupting the system, perhaps leading to the Men Behind the Deep State Curtain. Hence, the mannerbund-cops have to be stopped before the wrong questions are asked, like “Who stole White America?”

    Perhaps an answer can be found, up there on the silver screen.

  4. ia
    Posted March 5, 2018 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    The De Niro character in Taxi Driver was, if I remember correctly, about to assassinate a politician but Cybil Sheppard or security thwarted his attempt. He was an antifa proto-type I think; a single, atomized, random particle lashing out in a very confused fashion.

    In Death Wish, the protagonist is a middle class married man. He is laser-focused on revenge towards a particular group, i.e., violent, low-rent thugs. Revenge films are great. There’s a clear distinction between good and evil.

    Is Taxi Driver a revenge flick? True, the hero is only vaguely aware of who the object of his retribution is, Nevertheless, he does appear interested in preventing defilement of innocence.

    • Dazz
      Posted March 5, 2018 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

      Actually Bickle is more right-wing (I AM NOT SAYING HE IS) than left, he’s musings reveal as much, certainly not antifa type, how you describe could easily define many White nationalists prior to “conversion” or people of whatever legitimate or not political views doing something violent, usually facilitated by mental illness, which Bickle exhibits, mainly Schizotypal PD and depression.

      Bickle getting the idea to kill the senator is based on real life inspiration of Arthur Bremer who was an inspiration for the character and was diagnosed with Schizoid PD, Bremer said he wanted to be famous, so does Bickle.

      The movie was written by Paul Schrader (who btw originally wrote the pimp as black) who also wrote and directed the (nationalist) Yukio Mishima episodic biography, which includes Runaway Horses, a story about a young right wing tradition obsessed youth deciding to kill powerful people to ignite change of modern decadence in Japan to more healthy values.

      —-

      I remember really enjoying Death Wish, I remembered while reading review of feelings of mine during; the eye roll at the 3 White guys gang raping and being the impetus (yes I’m well aware Goldblum is Jewish, but he registers as White to average person, though that said as a kid watching Jurassic Park, he didn’t look like one of my kind, and back then Jews were just characters in the Bible), the expectation of Jainchill to be gun toting hick hillbilly stereotype but being pleasantly surprised, enjoying the vigilantism and loving the tidbit between the 2 White people on race and crime.

      • Fredrik
        Posted March 6, 2018 at 7:32 am | Permalink

        Paul Schrader also directed the film Hardcore (1979) about a christian father who loses his daughter to the porn industry. Fans of Taxi Driver, Death Wish and such films will surely enjoy it.

      • Gramps Barsoap
        Posted March 6, 2018 at 11:37 am | Permalink

        >the eye roll at the 3 White guys gang raping

        I had a bigger eye roll at the “White” guy with the big curly hairdo spray-painting a SWASTIKA on the wall. It’s visible in that scene, and also visible in the later scene with Chuck Bronson walking through the home.

  5. Posted March 5, 2018 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    With respect to the remake (and regardless of the film’s objective quality), I’m struck by the significant, ‘White Panther’-esque “moviegoer vs movie critic” split in terms of the film’s favorability/unfavorability.

  6. Peter Quint
    Posted March 5, 2018 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Jeff Goldblum is a jew, he is not white!

    • Rob Bottom
      Posted March 5, 2018 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      For pete’s sake, I’m sure Quinn knows that. I think I’ll skip Eli Roth’s new version. Gotta keep my hollywood boycott going, and I never did like Roth’s penchant for churning out degenerate torture porn trash — no matter if it comes highly recommended by that other Paul Kersey!

      • Peter Quint
        Posted March 6, 2018 at 11:19 am | Permalink

        If he knows that then why doesn’t he identify Goldblum as a jew–he keeps calling him white. He went through all the trouble of identifying the identities in the below copied paragraph.

        It was at this point that I paused the film and checked the filmmakers’ bios online. Of course, Bronson was all gentile, and so was producer Dino De Laurentiis. The Wiki pages of co-producer Bobby Roberts, screenwriter Wendell Hayes, and novelist Brian Garfield remain inconclusive (which usually means not Jewish), while co-producer Hal Landers doesn’t even have a Wiki page. It seems the only chosen one behind the scenes with major clout is Winner himself. Then again, Winner, a British Jew, was a big fan of Margaret Thatcher, and once claimed that as Prime Minister he would be “to the Right of Hitler.”

        • Spencer J. Quinn
          Posted March 6, 2018 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

          Hi Peter,

          You are right. Jews are not white. Jeff Goldblum is a Jew. Therefore, Jeff Goldblum is not white.

          The character known as Freak #1, however, is white. I infer this because he is part of a gang which spray paints swastikas on its victims’ walls. Jewish thugs would typically not be expected to do that. Only white ones would typically do such a thing. Therefore, Freak #1, from the story’s perspective, is white. The fact that Freak #1 is played by a Jewish actor is not material. Otherwise, we would call Sonny Corleone Jewish because he was also played by a Jewish actor or Mo Greene Italian because he was played by an Italian actor.

          Didn’t mean to cause confusion.

          • Peter Quint
            Posted March 7, 2018 at 11:06 am | Permalink

            You are right about Sonny Corleon, I thought that James Caan was Irish for years, but jews have been guilty in the past of spray painting swastikas on the walls in order to stir up trouble, and gain sympathy.

  7. Peter Quint
    Posted March 5, 2018 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    I think the new “Death Wish” will be a piece of crap. Bruce Willis is known for his love of blacks, and he promotes them, and helps them when he can. I predict that the villains in the new “Death Wish” will be all white, and the movie will be a cross between “Die Hard,” and “First Blood.”

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