Virtue or vigilante? 

On ‘Death Wish’ and its current cultural relevance.

“Death Wish” exploded onto cinema screens 50 years ago. The story of Paul Kersey, a “bleeding heart liberal” who turns vigilante after his family is brutally attacked, sharply divided audiences in 1974: they either loved or hated it; there was no in-between.  

Some critics panned it. Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it “one of the sickest movies ever made,” that “raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers.” The Los Angeles Times’ Charles Champlin called it “a despicable motion picture…nasty and demagogic stuff, an appeal to brute emotions and against reason.” The U.S. Catholic Church Division for Film and Broadcasting complained that it would “appeal to the audience which thinks there should be easy, violent answers to complex social problems…By espousing these simplistic, and indeed anti-human attitudes, and by feeding the silent majority’s paranoia and catering to their racial stereotypes, ‘Death Wish’ makes a pernicious appeal to the dark side of the American Character.”  

Audiences, though, loved it. “[T]hey’re cheering ‘Death Wish’ everywhere,” Maureen Orth wrote in a critical review for Newsweek. For The New York Times, Judy Klemesrud wrote, “The moviegoers … don’t just sit there in their seats calmly munching popcorn. They applaud and cheer wildly whenever [Charles] Bronson … dispatches a mugger with his trusty .32 pistol.” She added, “A black man sitting alone in front of me led the cheers in my section. ‘Get the mothers,’ he frequently uttered, with no regard for the muggers’ race.” Among the critics, the New York Daily News’ Rex Reed wrote, “Rarely have I found myself so caught between my own gut reactions and intellectual reservations…People who are tired of being frightened, endangered and ripped off daily in New York City are going to love Charles Bronson in ‘Death Wish’ as much as I do.” The movie made $20 million in six months on a $4 million budget.  

The fears Reed highlighted weren’t mere “paranoia.” In 1965, U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach sought to allay fears of rising violent crime by noting that “the possibility of being raped by a stranger” was “about the same as those of being hit by lightning.” Whether Americans found this comforting in 1965 is unknown, but by 1974 the rate of rape per 100,000 of the population had increased by 116 percent, aggravated assault by 94 percent, and murder by 92 percent. When liberals dismissed these concerns as “coded racism,” they conceded fertile political ground to conservatives, who reaped the electoral dividends with a “law and order” message. “Death Wish” producer Bobby Roberts said it “was a movie that said a lot at the time… It spoke for the audience.”  

“Death Wish” is a flawed film. It makes several serious missteps, particularly the casting of Charles Bronson — star of “The Dirty Dozen,” “Violent City,” and “The Stone Killer” — as a mild-mannered, middle-class architect. Bronson, with admirable candor, admitted to being miscast at the time. But the film is more than just an artifact of an American era.  

The New York of “Death Wish” is a city where policing has broken down. “Is there any chance of catching these men?” Kersey asks a detective.  

Detective: There’s a chance, sure. 

Kersey: Just a chance? Detective: I’d be less than honest if I gave you more hope. In the city, that’s the way it is. 

Kersey’s son-in-law explains, “You want to know what they are? Statistics on a police blotter. Mom and Carol, along with thousands of other people. And there is nothing we can do to stop it. Nothing but cut and run.” But, as Kersey argues in his early, “bleeding heart liberal” stage, this works only for “people who can afford to.” For those who can’t, he asks as he enters his vigilante period, “What about the old American social custom of self-defense? If the police don’t defend us, maybe we ought to do it ourselves.”  

Here is the contemporary relevance of “Death Wish.” Contrary to what many on the left and some libertarians believe, removing the police will not remove the need for policing; the only question is who will do it. If it isn’t the government sector, it will be the private sector, either commercially — think Omni Consumer Products in “RoboCop” — or individually, as in “Death Wish.” While libertarians might be fine with either, those on the left are unlikely to be. If they abandon the fantasy that crime disappears with the police and consider things as they really are, they will realize that “Death Wish” is a picture of what defunding the police means in practice, and it might make them think again.  

“Death Wish” remains relevant, if uncomfortable viewing 50 years later. The critics carped, but as Bronson explained, “We don’t make movies for critics, since they don’t pay to see them anyhow.”