J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

35-Year Anniversary: Death Wish

Released less than a year apart, The Spook Who Sat by the Door and Death Wish could both be described as dramas of urban angst, featuring soundtracks composed by Herbie Hancock. There the similarities end. Spook was a poorly distributed blaxploitation film about an urban uprising masterminded by the first token African-American hired by the C.I.A. Death Wish (trailer here) became a summer blockbuster that spawned four sequels and a host of inferior imitators. AMC marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the 1974 original with special broadcasts of the first three Death Wish films this weekend, to be repeated again later in the month.

Although Hancock was at the height of his jazz fusion popularity at this time, his music for Death Wish is more traditionally cinematic and less funky than that of Spook. In terms of ideological implications the two films are entire worlds apart. Spook glorifies a paramilitary group not unlike the Black Panthers. Death Wish chronicles the conversion of an Upper Westside left-winger into a deliberate vigilante. When accused of being a “bleeding heart liberal” early in the film, Charles Bronson’s soon-to-be bereaved architect Paul Kersey replies: “my heart bleeds a little for the under-privileged, yeah.” By the end of the film, it would take considerable rounds of ammunition to get Kersey’s heart to bleed.

The original Death Wish is a somewhat misunderstood film. It is not simply an exercise in target practice, but a darkly brooding portrait of grief and anger. Director Michael Winner takes his time establishing Kersey’s character (at least in the original film), before indulging the audience’s appetite for vengeance. In fact, the film has a relatively modest body count, nearly reaching its halfway point before Kersey finally puts his first notch in his gun-belt.

Though not as memorable as his Spook themes, Hancock’s music effectively underscores the film’s action. If you know anything about Death Wish’s premise, you are expecting something awful to happen to Kersey's family during the opening scenes, and Hancock’s eerie use of strings and synths heightens that uneasy tension (be advised, when the attack occurs, it is still fairly rough viewing, even by jaded contemporary standards). Winner also perfectly captures the vibe of the gritty, grimy New York of the early 1970’s. Viewing it again should lead to greater appreciation of the City’s turnaround under Mayor Giuliani. (As bad as things were when Death Wish was shot, they got worse under Dinkins.)

Death Wish established Bronson as a major box office draw, but also accelerated his type-casting as a squinty-eyed anti-hero. Arguably, it is minor classic, but not a major masterwork. Somewhat unfairly dismissed due to the films which followed it, the original is worth re-evaluating in its thirty-fifth year.

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