I notice that these days, when I switch on Fox News, very often Bill O'Reilly and other New York-based anchors are complaining that Mayor Bill de Blasio has undone the two-decade Giuliani turnaround and is returning the city to the urban dystopia of the 1970s. Many other American cities, such as Philadelphia and Baltimore, seem to be heading in the same direction. So I thought for our Saturday movie date we'd pick the classic cinematic portrait of that era - from 1974, Michael Winner's Death Wish:
Charles Bronson made a few good movies, a lot more lousy ones, and, either way, piled up enough dough to buy a horse farm in West Windsor, Vermont, some ways down the Connecticut River from me. I wish I could say I'd seen his great craggy face and weary eyes hunched over a steaming mug of coffee in the booth of the local diner. But, as far as I can tell from reported local sightings, he tended to favor the tonier joints, like the basement cafÃ© at what was then Rosey Jekes in Hanover, New Hampshire and the chichi boutiques of Woodstock, Vermont. If these retail patterns are accurate, he would appear to have had the conventional tastes of the celebrity rich.
Nonetheless, Bronson was a most unconventional celebrity. He became a Number One box-office star in Europe, adored by the French as le sacre monstre and by the Italians as il bruto. And he only parlayed his foreign bankability into success at home by means of a vehicle almost all critics have felt obliged to deplore â "a revenge fantasy deemed morally abhorrent by many," as The New York Times sniffed.
As morally abhorrent revenge fantasies go, you're better off with The Count Of Monte Cristo. Death Wish, by contrast, is a remarkable social artifact, a valuable record of the day before yesterday â 1974 â when New York and many other American cities seemed in large part ungovernable. By the time of the 2003 power outage in the Big Apple, it was all over, and disappointed reporters waxed nostalgic as they tried to explain why this time there had been no reprise of the looting rampage that accompanied the 1977 blackout. Back then, much of New York seemed to be permanently trembling on the brink of social collapse, and literally switching off the lights was a mere formality.
What's all this got to do with Death Wish? More than you'd think. Despite being the work of two men â Italy's Dino de Laurentiis (producer) and Britain's Michael Winner (director) â largely regarded as a joke by serious film types, it's actually a very thoughtful piece. Its one failure comes from the classiest name attached to the project â the jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, whose score is irritatingly obtrusive and mannered in what's otherwise a very real picture. Bronson plays a successful Manhattan architect, a mild-mannered conscientious objector from the Korean War, and a proponent of gun control. In other words, he's a "bleeding-heart liberal", as a colleague labels him during an early exchange that manages with remarkable economy to alight on all the problems of the day: rising crime, white flight, high taxes, useless police. Bronson's character is untouched by these troubles until muggers (led by a young Jeff Goldblum) break into his apartment, rape his daughter and murder his wife. The cops tell him there's virtually no chance the perpetrators will ever be found: "In the city, that's just the way it is."
Work takes Bronson away from the urban wasteland to Arizona. "This is gun country," says a realtor, explaining that most of the guys round here pack heat and that's why you can walk the streets safely. "Muggers jes' plain get their asses blown out." Bronson returns to the city a changed man.
Michael Winner tells his story briskly but with an eye for the telling detail â the supermarket guards intimidated by the gangs, the subway police turning a blind eye to the punks terrorizing their passengers, the busted payphones so routinely out of order that even a cop can't find one that works. It's a perfect time capsule of a failed age.
The Police Commissioner in the movie and the critics who reviewed it both called Bronson a "vigilante". But, in fact, Winner is scrupulous about showing Bronson only shooting those who first threaten him. To be sure, he sort of goes looking for trouble. But in 1970s New York you didn't have to look far: just go to the park, ride the subway, take an evening stroll. If some punk tried to do in my corner of New Hampshire what was done to Bronson's family in Manhattan, they'd risk getting blown away. Because that risk is widely known, few such home invasions occur in his state. But what the NYPD calls vigilante justice in Death Wish most guys up here and in many other parts of the country would call self-defense. That's why audiences cheered when the film was shown around America. The other iconic shooter of the era, Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry, was the proverbial maverick cop, but Bronson's Paul Kersey is a much more resonant American archetype - the private citizen who acts in his own defense.
Would the film have been as effective with someone else as Kersey? Burt Reynolds? Ryan O'Neal? No. That's where Bronson's leathery weathered visage and those squinting eyes came into their own. You didn't need to know the specifics â World War Two tailgunner, one of 15 kids of a Lithuanian coal-miner. You could see it in the crevices and grooves: Bronson was one of the last movie stars to project a sense of experience beyond cinema. Who does so now? Pretty boys like Tom Cruise? Strictly celluloid bad guys like Christopher Walken? Yet it's Bronson who makes you see the whole point of movies: it's a face made for close up. I don't know what he was like as a fledgling stage actor in Philadelphia in 1947, but I can't believe it had the power of the big screen. He's a classic movie tough guy â an economic actor, taciturn and stoic; he exudes male strength rather than displays it.
Bronson's first outing as Paul Kersey represents a rare moment when Hollywood tapped into a genuine populist anger, as opposed to mere cocktail-party causes. By the Nineties even Democrats felt obliged at least to talk tough on crime, to the point where in most American cities the lawless dystopia of Death Wish came to seem as remote as anything in a Miramax BritLit adaptation. It's said that a neoconservative is a liberal who's been mugged. That's what de Laurentiis, Winner and Bronson gave us in Death Wish: a liberal mugged by reality, in one of the defining documents of a wretched decade. Reading some or other story of New York's decline the other day, I found myself musing on when some studio or other would be announcing a reboot of this franchise. But I wonder if they'd dare...