I wrote several weeks ago about how Die Hard revises and updates the Western genre’s east/west binarism. Watching Death Wish (dir. Michael Winner, 1974), I was again struck by the extent to which the action thriller engages with the archetypes, associations, and symbolic relations of the Western, often overtly. Set in 1970s New York, Death Wish understands the fantasies of the Western genre and their incompatibility with reality. (Its attitude toward this incompatibility is also difficult to determine. Does it lament the death of the Western’s myths? Or does it simply recognize their pervasiveness, their indestructibility and timelessness?)
The premise of this well-known action film is familiar to many. So-called “bleeding-heart liberal” real estate developer Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) becomes a vigilante killer after his wife and daughter are attacked by thugs. Kersey’s vigilantism, tellingly, is set into motion by a trip to Tucson, where a business associate wearing a ten-gallon hat takes him to a Western movie set and a shooting range, and sends him back east with a .32. (Interestingly, these scenes also point to the increasing development and commercialism of the West that will be complete by the time of Die Hard, where the West no longer even signifies as the arena of frontier justice.) Kersey returns to New York and begins fashioning himself as a latter-day gunslinger, purging the streets of its muggers and gang-bangers. Like a Western outlaw, he becomes a kind of folk hero, inspiring other seemingly mild-mannered New Yorkers to defend themselves against attackers. Kersey’s vigilantism also becomes a way of sticking it to the New York cops, whose attempts to fight crime are hampered by the circuitous legality of the justice system. In the world of the Western, the law is always suspect: only a lone man, acting outside of its confines, can hope to effect any real change.
Death Wish is a film about nostalgia for the West, for frontier justice, and for America’s pioneer days, before the filth and grime of the modern city (Kersey’s Tucson colleague calls New York City a “toilet”). But it’s perhaps inaccurate to say that Death Wish itself harbors that nostalgia, because it recognizes such nostalgic fantasies as fantasies, most clearly in the scene where Kersey watches the filming of a Western movie showdown, riveted (below). Death Wish understands the power of such fantasies, and how they have driven American culture, particularly American masculinity. (My father has often cited his love of Westerns as his inspiration to become a police officer.) Death Wish, which is a fascinating and troubling film, cannot be dismissed as easily as hard-line liberal film critics might like to do (Time Out calls it “objectionable…trash”). Like Ms.45, which it clearly inspired, Death Wish is an example of how exploitation films are smarter than they’re usually given credit for—how they often understand things about fantasy and desire, sex and violence, that mainstream movies can’t, and how their politics are often more complicated than we might like to assume.