The Big Daddy of all those vigilante/urban America is hell films, it’s incredible I hadn’t seen this yet.
It’s 1974 and all sorts of petty criminals, purse snatchers and muggers- including evil Jeff Goldblum- stalk the streets of New York. Well meaning architect Paul Kersey finds this out the hard way when Goldblum’s gang (Freaks #1, 2 and 3) do a home invasion which leaves his wife dead and his daughter traumatised by sexual assault.
As the Police investigation falters and his daughter becomes ever more withdrawn, Kersey takes a job designing some suburban sprawl in Arizona. Reintroduced to guns (his father was killed in a shooting accident and Kersey hasn’t touched a gun since) and shown a Wild West show, he begins to re-think his attitude to Manhattan’s street crime problem. Armed with an illicit pistol, he returns to the Big Apple determined to get revenge of a sort. In the way of seventies films, it takes a while for Kersey to get to this point. It’s almost 45 minutes before he’s wandering down dark alleys looking for trouble- so his conversion is more believable than just grabbing the gun and donning the beanie hat at the first opportunity.
Kersey’s vigilante acts are brief and brutal- but not all that bloody. He draws his attackers out by looking like a gormless chump with too much money or simply putting himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then he goes home to read the growing commentary on the mystery vigilante and enjoy comedy footage of the copycats he’s inspired. But, all the while, the Police are closing in, piecing together his identity from minor details in a procedural story that runs as a counterpoint to the blood-letting.
The denouement, when it comes, is something of a let down (and jittery on the version I watched because the DVD was scratched) when the politics of avoiding making Kersey a martyr override justice and he’s run out of town with a stiff warning. Arriving in Chicago, Kersey looks set to start it all again.
Death Wish is quite obviously a conservative and reactionary tale- though not going as frothingly over the top as so many of its successors and imitators. Kersey’s position at the start of the film would be better suited to solving the city’s crime problem- cut poverty and regenerate the slums. This wouldn’t make for as much drama- you can’t entice recession, inflation and bad policies down an alley so you can shoot them- but you can blow away a few of the brutes who are the symptoms whilst ignoring the cause.
Not that I’m complaining. Urban regeneration and architecture are fascinating, but sometimes you just want to see a gruff man with a silly moustache shoot people.