Death Wish
Watch out, Chicago

by Marty Gliserman

from Jump Cut, no. 5, 1975, pp. 7-8
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

“With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun. Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed.”—Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

DEATH WISH, directed by Michael Winner, is a painful movie, made more so by its hearty reception by desperate New York audience. The film plays on modern urban fears. Not on fears of inflation, depression, unemployment or environmental blight; not, in other words, fears of clear victimization of all by an economic elite, but fears of victimization from the lower social classes—fears of criminal assaults in the form of mugging, rape, and robbery. Whatever is problematic about films like CHINATOWN or even ANDY WARHOL'S FRANKENSTEIN, they at least perceive and expose the ruling elite that oppress those without power. So strong is the fear of criminal assault that any solution begins to seem acceptable to the urban middle class. The solution that we are offered in the film is a one-man vigilante in the form of a middle aged, well-to-do, middle class architectural consultant. Charles Bronson, the hero, lures muggers into approaching him—on the subway, in Central Park—and then shoots them with great accuracy to the accompanying cheers of the audience.

The film presents us with a false double bind—it’s either “us” or “the criminal”—and it tries to manipulate us into accepting its “solution.” But the solution is as false as the way the film sets up the problem. That is, the film falsifies the problem of criminality by its failure to explore the context in which, and the process by which, criminality arises. Further, in the process of developing this biased perspective, the film promotes an oppressive point of view of both women and men. Women are helpless victims, and men, if they are to survive, must become animalistic, macho individualists.

We are first manipulated into sympathy. The film opens with Bronson and his wife on the blue coast of Hawaii at the end of their vacation. They are portrayed, somewhat sentimentally, as loving and close. We like them ... even if we wouldn't or couldn't vacation in quite the same way. Then back to New York. We cut to crowded streets at dusk with stalled traffic, and a dark gray concrete atmosphere. In the city we learn more about Bronson and see him at work. He seems to be an architectural consultant who works for a concern which lays out money for fancy housing developments—maybe a bank. His immediate problem is to work out some drawbacks of a project in Arizona. Among his colleagues, Bronson appears as a liberal, one who rejects a friend’s notion that only violence (against the criminal element) will solve the mounting crime figures—which he seems always to have at hand. We learn somewhat later in the film that Bronson’s father was killed in a hunting accident, and that he himself was a C.O. in the Korean War. So the film “explains” Bronson’s liberal attitude towards violence in psychological terms—which it overtly mocks in another connection. But the screw has yet to begin turning.

The first crunch comes as we follow Mrs. Bronson and her young married daughter from a grocery store to the Bronson’s spacious city apartment. In the grocery store we watch three teen-age males, white and Hispanic, run around, throw things around, buy some beer, and behave generally like have generally like wise-asses. They notice the two well-dressed women whose box of groceries is to be delivered. They get an address from the box and begin to follow the two women. Not too long after the mother and daughter return to the apartment, the three men are there. One of them knocks, posing as the grocery boy. They enter and begin to threaten and brutalize the women. They want money but there is only $7.00 between the two women. One man sprays red paint on the women and around the apartment, while the others beat up the mother and rape the daughter, while swearing at the “rich cunts” for having no money. An unpleasant scene. I felt strongly for the victims. And yet I was angered at the portrayal of the men as animals who are dumb and inarticulate—a sign of their own oppression and victimization. If we can look at this scene with a socialist perspective, we are put in a double bind. Watching people be brutalized, and knowing this to be a personal reality for many people, is upsetting and terrifying. Then being pushed by the film into hating the victimizer (knowing him to be a victim himself, but whose victimization is far off the screen) is close to intolerable. The film is an act of aggression against the audience, whom it urges to become frightened and then maliciously cunning animals.

Bronson’s wife dies at the hospital and his daughter becomes psychologically paralyzed. With this, the involvement of women in the film is substantially over. So, we're given two stereotyped women—they seem to have no vocations, they are helpless in the face of violence. Women’s frailty is emphasized through several scenes where the men—Bronson and his son-in-law—attempt to be physically affectionate or comforting to Bronson’s traumatized daughter. She responds with screams or by cringing. The son-in-law points out that she just can't “accept” what happened to her. One of the other two or three women we see is also a helpless victim. Her luggage is taken from her and scattered about by a group of hoods in a Chicago terminal. Bronson, of course, is there to help her collect her possessions. One last women worth mentioning is a policewoman who is seen carrying out the orders of the commissioner to search the files (in an attempt to find the vigilante). In all, women are portrayed as being without physical strength, without psychological stamina, without vocations, and if they do work, they occupy clerical positions only. The psychological fantasy of the film in relation to women thus carries a large dose of hatred. And one reading of the film could be that Bronson’s violence against men is a displacement of the violence that is felt against women.

In contrast to the women, the hero is portrayed as a tough male individualist. His response to his wife’s death is moderate and cool. He’s back to work shortly after his wife’s funeral, and he is praised by his colleagues as tough. There are probably more tears in the audience than on the screen. He calmly goes to the police to find out if anything has been discovered, or if anything can be. He seems to accept without rage that there are no leads and little hope. Bronson’s cool male behavior rings false. He is too unshaken by death. It is one more oppressive male image to add to the list—men don't feel, they act. Bronson’s stoical attitude plays into the film’s not too buried omnipotence fantasy that the urban hero, through his actions, will protect other helpless women from male violence. Bronson becomes the strong patriarch among the primal horde. This notion is reinforced in the film’s last scene, where Bronson comes to the aid of the young woman whose luggage is scattered. In any event, if the film’s initial violence makes Bronson an impotent victim, in the remainder of the action he attempts to regain his potency. He does not choose to regain his potency in male-female relationships, but in male-to-male combat. (Speaking cynically, once Bronson’s wife is dead, he can go out with the boys.) When we put Bronson’s choice of action—shooting other men with a gun—together with the hatred of women displayed in the film, we do see a strong homosexual fantasy, where violence is a defense against the fantasy.

That there is an undercurrent of homosexuality can be seen in several of the nonviolent male relationships, as well as in the violent ones. One such relationship is established in Arizona where Bronson goes to straighten out the plans for a housing development. The man whose project Bronson visits is a gun club fan. He overtly admires the way Bronson works out the workplace problems and is surprised and impressed by Bronson’s marksmanship—he applauds all of Bronson’s “male virtues.” As a gift in recognition of Bronson’s deftness, the man gives him a 32. They defensively joke about the phallic nature of guns. So, through the agency of another man Bronson obtains the wherewithal to regain his manhood. An interesting incident occurs in Arizona which further spurs Bronson on. There he witnesses a wild west show in which a righteous sheriff wins a shootout against a number of bad gunmen. This scenario would seem to be a kind of primal scene which Bronson will act out. One last male relationship of note is between Bronson and the New York Police Commissioner, who comes to his bedside in the penultimate scene of the film to tell him to get out of New York. Branson jokes about this by referring to the typical western: Should he leave by high noon? Although Bronson is clearly a criminal, a murderer, the male and class bond he has with the commissioner allows him to get off the hook.

The friendly male relationships Bronson has are, of course, with men of the same class. It is with those of the “lower” social classes that the enactment of the homosexual fantasy through violence occurs. Class bias and hatred are implicit in this fantasy. Bronson walks in secluded places. As in any seduction attempt, he waits alluringly to be approached. His first victim appears to be an addict in need of money. After the shooting, Bronson returns home and retches. That’s a more human and real response than he had to his own wife’s death. This scene—minus the retching—is played out many times, variations on an urban-cowboy pornography theme.

The film was obviously satisfying some deep needs in the applauding audience: the desire for the power to strike back being topmost. And the film allows, indeed encourages, the audience to become blind, to become what they behold and seem to despise—a criminal. More important than the literary irony and paradox, the film supports class war—from the top down. It’s the white middle class male against the ethnic urban and poor male, the well-established against the unemployed. While the film puts us in a position to identify with one victim, it allows us to strike back only at another victim instead of those who create and maintain the oppression of both. The enemy that the film creates is largely undefined, a stereotypical smartass who’s only out for money. What is behind this “enemy,” what scenes of pain and oppression are there, is inconsequential to the film.

By contrast, the hero is well defined by his family, residence, job and background. But basically he’s a closet macho who “comes out” in the city’s dark and lonely places. If he were born into economic necessity, he'd be on the other side. It is only his middle class status that has allowed him to avoid or subdue his macho self. So, as in many cases, the violence of the wealthy capitalist class is made to seem as if it didn't exist. In contrast, we are forced to witness the violence of the poor against what seems to be the innocent. We are made to follow the logic that the violence of the poor requires an equally violent response. This is a negative and illogical synthesis. “X” strikes “Y,” who seems innocent, so “Y” strikes “X” back. We are made to feel that this eye-for-an-eye that’s going on is justice. We need only a little history to see it is not justice, but class hatred.