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The World That Created ‘Death Wish’

With the Bruce Willis remake out in theaters, a look back at the cultural forces and ignored moral lessons that inspired the original 1970s franchise

In the early 1970s, crime was on the rise in America. Both in the country at large and in New York City specifically, the number of robberies, violent crimes and murders had been growing annually since the 1960s, creating a sense that our neighborhoods were no longer safe. In his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, author and Harvard professor Steven Pinker painted a vivid, almost cartoon-ish portrait of the period’s paranoid urban dread:

“The flood of violence from the 1960s through the 1980s reshaped American culture, the political scene and everyday life. Mugger jokes became a staple of comedians, with mentions of Central Park getting an instant laugh as a well-known death trap. New Yorkers imprisoned themselves in their apartments with batteries of latches and deadbolts, including the popular ‘police lock,’ a steel bar with one end anchored in the floor and the other propped up against the door. … Urbanites [left] American cities in droves, leaving burned-out cores surrounded by rings of suburbs, exurbs and gated communities.”

It was in this environment of perceived metropolitan hellscapes that an author who had previously written Westerns under a pseudonym crafted one of the most indelible depictions of the era — and one whose influence hasn’t waned. And yet, novelist Brian Garfield wasn’t necessarily trying to speak to America’s growing crime rate or the terror of big-city life with Death Wish. He was just pissed his car got vandalized.

“I had been the victim of a very minor crime,” Garfield once explained. “Somebody slashed the top of my old convertible, which probably wouldn’t have been very traumatic because I had already bought a new top — the car was 10 years old, and I just hadn’t bothered to put it on yet. The problem was I had a two-hour drive through a snowstorm to get home that night from where it was slashed in New York.”

Garfield laughed at the memory. “I was mad, you know. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll kill the son of a bitch.’ That was my first thought. My second thought was, ‘Well, wait a minute, he’s got a knife — he had to have something that he slashed the top with. I don’t really want to meet this guy.’”

By the time Garfield got home, he was freezing, but he’d also calmed down, that initial wave of anger and urge to retaliate melting away. Still, he was struck with a thought: “What if somebody got mad and stayed mad?”

From that came the germ of what would become 1972’s Death Wish, a book about Paul Benjamin, a buttoned-down, liberal accountant who finds himself questioning everything he believes after his beloved wife and daughter are viciously attacked by muggers who break into their home. Both of them eventually die, sending Paul into a downward spiral of rage and helplessness. To squash his guilt, grief and fury, he buys a gun and discovers that he has some talent for shooting, setting traps for potential criminals and meting out his own brand of justice. Interestingly, he doesn’t go after the men who killed his family — it’s almost as if he’s targeting New York itself, this large, imposing city he can’t control.

“All I want is the machinery to defend myself,” Paul tells his son-in-law Jack to justify his vigilantism. Jack asks him why he doesn’t just leave New York and start over. “I was born here,” Paul replies. “I’ve spent my whole life here. I tried living in the suburbs. It didn’t work. I’m too old to change.” Jack’s response seemed emblematic of the times: “But things aren’t the same as they were then, Pop. It used to be a place where you could live.”

Still, Jack’s words can’t change Paul’s mind. “[Paul] wasn’t going to allow himself to be driven from his home by a pack of savages who weren’t fit to wipe his shoes,” Garfield writes in Death Wish. “But how did you say that aloud without making it sound like a corny line from an old cowboy movie?”

The power of Garfield’s book was how it articulated that sweeping societal impotency — a festering feeling that the world was changing for the worse, and that there was nothing that ordinary people could do about it. Never mind that, as Pinker points out, the 1960s “was a time of unprecedented economic growth, nearly full employment, levels of economic equality for which people today are nostalgic, historic racial progress and the blossoming of government social programs, not to mention medical advances that made victims more likely to survive being shot or knifed.”

Guys like Paul, however, didn’t see things that way: Suddenly, they saw themselves as victims — even though, as The Better Angels of Our Nature illustrates, the people most affected by this rise in crime weren’t like him but, rather, African-American men.

Garfield’s Death Wish touched on that zeitgeist — and the inherent racism and xenophobia in Paul’s paranoia — while refusing to embrace its character’s mindset. Paul is no hero in the book. Although his vigilantism makes him a cult hero and local sensation — different newspapers and magazines run pieces wondering who he is — he feels remorse about what he’s stoked in the city, especially when copycat attacks start popping up. “What kind of monster am I?” Paul asks himself as he looks in the mirror.

In the novel, Paul comes to see the error of his ways, and initially, there was a thought that the film adaptation would follow along that same path — in fact, it was going to be even more despairing. According to Bronson’s Loose!: The Making of the Death Wish Films, an early draft of the screenplay, written by Wendell Mayes (who was Oscar-nominated for his work on Anatomy of a Murder), stuck close to Garfield’s vision but had Paul ultimately be killed by the men who had attacked his family.

With 12 Angry Men director Sidney Lumet attached and a hope that Jack Lemmon would play the grieving accountant, the Death Wish film seemed posed to be a cautionary tale about giving in to anger and fear. But after Lumet dropped out and Lemmon, George C. Scott and Henry Fonda passed on the lead role, the movie ran the risk of being scuttled.

Finally, Paramount turned to Michael Winner, a British director who had come to Hollywood to make Westerns and thrillers, some of which starred Charles Bronson, a flinty actor, who was best known for macho action movies like The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen and The Great Escape. Winner mentioned the script to Bronson, explaining its premise about a regular guy who takes the law into his hands. As Winner recalled in his memoir, Tales I Never Told, “Charlie said, ‘I’d like to do it.’ I said, ‘What, you mean you want to do this movie?’ And Charlie replied, ‘No, I’d like to shoot muggers.’”

In an interview published a few months after the film’s release in the summer of 1974, Bronson insisted that he didn’t believe that Death Wish advocated vigilantism. “I thought the message was the same theme that runs through a lot of my pictures: That violence is senseless because it only begets more violence,” he said.

But it’s telling that while his agent strongly advised him against signing on for Death Wish, Bronson’s concern was far different: “The way the part was written, it was about a meek little New York-born accountant. … [Winner] said we could change the part to a more active and virile architect, and we’d all make a potful of money.”

Indeed, from novel to film, Paul’s occupation was changed — as was his last name, to Kersey. But more profoundly, Death Wish stripped away Garfield’s mournful tone, morphing into an angry-white-man revenge thriller — one in which Paul is the tough-guy anti-hero who didn’t end up dying or even realizing that he’s become a monster. Instead, the film closes on an ambivalent note as Paul flees to Chicago, his desire for bloodshed by no means quenched.

Ambivalence removed, Death Wish became a hit. Winner remembered a theater manager telling him excitedly, “We’ve not seen anything like it since The Godfather opened.” Critics mostly panned the film and Bronson’s crusty, one-note turn, but even those who modestly praised Death Wish realized what it portended. “Bronson becomes judge and jury — and executioner,” Roger Ebert wrote. “That’s what’s scary about the film. It’s propaganda for private gun ownership and a call to vigilante justice.”

That’s certainly how Garfield felt, and he’s spent the rest of his life distancing himself from the movie. Years later, he still recalled seeing the movie in a New York theater weeks after its initial release. “This was an afternoon matinee performance, and the theater was packed,” he said. “And there were people getting up on their seats and yelling, ‘Kill that guy!’”

That unsophisticated, visceral response to Death Wish is unsurprising during difficult times. As Pinker notes, the rise in crime in the 1970s had been inspiring everyday citizens to take action, including signing up for self-defense courses. In 1968, Richard Nixon had campaigned as a law-and-order presidential candidate, capitalizing on the fearful national mood. This was also a period when the National Rifle Association, which had historically backed gun-control measures, shifted its advocacy to protecting the sanctity of the Second Amendment, setting in motion the organization’s transformation into a lobbying powerhouse.

Death Wish wasn’t the first film to tap into the culture’s pent-up craving for lone, righteous vigilantes: Earlier 1970s moneymakers such as Dirty Harry and Walking Tall also celebrated no-bullshit men who opted to deliver their own brand of justice. But the regular-man spirit of Death Wish normalized these individuals — despite Bronson’s objections to Paul being a pushover, the appeal of the character was that he was a fairly ordinary guy, which allowed viewers to see themselves in his plight.

Soon, dramas about aggrieved white men became their own subgenre, featuring protagonists unable to contend with a shifting society. Lumet’s Network, with its mad-as-hell news anchor Howard Beale, railed against television and corporations but was also alarmingly sexist in its judgmental depiction of ambitious young women trying to make their name in a competitive business. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, with its homicidal Vietnam vet Travis Bickle, at least interrogated the psychology of the gun-loving, avenging-angel loner, mapping the isolation and psychosis of such men. And in the early 1990s, Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down, which turned Michael Douglas into a wrung-out office drone who goes on a shooting spree across L.A., followed a similar path to Taxi Driver, albeit still allowing its main character to yell get-off-my-lawn invective at the foreigners and nuisances he feels ruined his life.

If those movies at least tried to bring some nuance to their white men’s anger and confusion, Death Wish’s legacy continued to grow, eschewing self-examination for rapidly growing body counts. Bronson made four sequels over the next 20 years, feeding off the culture’s hunger for clear-cut, ass-kicking heroes. Bronson’s Loose! observes that Death Wish II “was released in 1982, shortly after Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States and the country was in a right-wing, eye-for-an-eye mood.”

With 1985’s Death Wish 3, the franchise bowed in the direction of the Rambo movies, and Paul “was turned into a one-man army with an unlimited supply of firepower to gun down an endless army of thugs. The Death Wish movies were no longer gritty, shocking and disturbing depictions of real-life urban crime but garish comic-book fantasies with creative, over-the-top revenge sequences.”

For his part, Garfield tried to make amends for what he’d wrought by writing his 1975 thriller Death Sentence about what became of Paul Benjamin after his Death Wish novel. In 2007, Garfield admitted to a journalist that Death Sentence was “a sort of penance for the movie version of Death Wish” and that it was his attempt “to demonstrate in dramatic form that vigilantism is not a solution — it’s a problem, and tends to destroy those who attempt it.”

Ironically, the brand new Death Wish was initially designed to return to Garfield’s original premise. Writer-director Joe Carnahan, the man behind the 2012 survival story The Grey — one of the most poignant studies of masculinity and grief in recent years — was set to remake Death Wish, hoping to examine its central character’s self-destructive need to lash out with violence. But when Carnahan butted heads with the studio, he left the project, and Bruce Willis and director Eli Roth came on board. “I think they’re going back to something that hews more closely to [the Bronson original],” Carnahan said later, “which is fine, but I’ll be interested to see what it does and what the reception is.”

The reception was poisonous, with critics slagging it for its straightforward, right-wing advocacy for vigilante justice. Even Breitbart gave the movie a bad review, although critic John Nolte argued, “In the wake of the Parkland school massacre and our corporate establishment’s corrupt reaction to it … Death Wish is a perfectly timed public service announcement for the NRA and the importance of owning firearms.” Clearly, the studio didn’t agree that it was perfect timing: The movie’s release had already been delayed once, after the horrific Las Vegas shooting in October.

But ultimately, that’s its legacy. For more than 40 years now, Death Wish has been a dark little undercurrent in our culture — the nasty, violent id encouraging us to succumb to our baser impulses. Its echoes can be felt in even acclaimed blockbusters like 2008’s The Dark Knight, which examines whether a billionaire dressed as a bat really is the best way to handle crime in Gotham City. (Conservatives hailed the film as a validation of the Bush administration’s lawless War on Terror.) Our golden age of superhero cinema is, in part, a new kind of grappling with our eternal attraction to getting justice however possible — even if the Avengers operate entirely outside of any legal jurisdiction.

Even our current president is a big fan of the original Bronson film, proudly referencing it while he was on the campaign trail in 2015, asking his supporters to chant “Death Wish,” saying, “Today you can’t make that movie because it’s not politically correct.”

Turns out you can, though.

Really, Death Wish never went away — it’s always just waiting for the right moment to rear its ugly head.