Death Wish and the Golden Age of Vigilante Movies

Long before the awful Death Wish remake, there was a pop culture era that celebrated vigilantes in cinema like none before or since.

Most people who romanticize the sleazy New York of the 1970s, with the grindhouses and live sex shows on The Deuce, the graffiti-caked subway trains, the mountains of garbage, the rats, the junkies, the blackouts, the citywide strikes, the inescapable stench of piss and the rampant street crime, tend to be people who weren’t living here at the time. Their concept of how awesome and post-apocalyptic and punk rock it all was comes mostly from the movies, and slick Hollywood films at that, which have a strange and glorious knack for romanticizing filth. The Warriors, Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, even Panic in Needle Park make it all seem so cool.

But back then things really were that bad and worse, and New York fairly and honestly earned its reputation as the dirtiest and most dangerous city on earth, a place where people were murdered on the street while the sun was high, and no one gave a damn. Take another listen to Howard Beale’s rant from Network (1976) and you’ll get a solid sense of how most New Yorkers at the time were feeling. They had to wade through garbage and human flotsam just to get to their damn jobs, and there was no guarantee they’d get home that night without someone cracking them over the head with a blackjack.

People were forced to live like animals. Nothing worked, from the subways to the sewers. They had to put up with all the screwheads and dopers, the whole sick, venal crowd Travis Bickle lists in Taxi Driver. The Mayor and the cops didn’t seem to have a clue what to do about any of it, and people were pissed. Ugh, shit, and there goes the power again.

It was that specific environment, that not-so-buried sense of burning frustration and gut rage, that gave rise in 1974 to Michael Winner’s Death Wish, the story of a middle aged Upper West Side architect who takes it upon himself to rid the streets and the parks of the punks, the hooligans and the ne’er-do-wells who preyed on innocent citizens. It was the film that would cement Charles Bronson as America’s leading action star and leave an indelible mark on the whole culture. But Death Wish, as specific and influential as it was, was hardly the beginning.

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As icons go, vigilantes, these lone, angry, well-armed hammers of Truth and Justice, are a uniquely American phenomenon. The idea likely arose first with rugged, individualistic frontiersmen like Daniel Boone, who were free to dole out justice as it seemed fit for the time and place in the uncharted and unregulated wilds of the young country. The character type morphed into the early lawmen of the anarchic and mythical Old West, forced (often reluctantly since no one else wanted the job) to deal with assorted highwaymen, marauders, rustlers and the like. But that too morphed soon enough again.


Once everyone realized most hired lawmen were just as craven and corrupt and ineffectual as everyone else (maybe even more so), the idea devolved once more into unaffiliated individualists, larger-than life figures with guns, like Wyatt Earp. So it makes sense in cinematic terms we’d first begin seeing screen vigilantes in Westerns, mostly starring John Wayne or Henry Fonda as fearless men of direct action with a certain panache when it came to doing away with villainous scalawags, whether anyone asked them to or not.

Within the genre, perhaps the most significant example of a shift in thinking, when vigilantes grew a bit more tarnished, more antiheroic than upstanding, faithful, and true, came in John Ford’s 1956 epic The Searchers. John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, after all, is more than a little scary and nuts, and breaks the most fundamental code of the West by shooting a man in the back. Even if the bastard deserved it, that shit just wasn’t done, and audiences at the time were especially shocked to see The Duke doing something like that.

In a parallel track, in the 1930s and ‘40s crime fighting vigilantes in more contemporary urban settings began appearing in pulp magazines and comic books. So we got a mix of hardboiled private dicks and superheroes. Some of the latter, like Superman and Jack Cole’s Plastic Man, had super powers of one kind or another. Others, like Batman and Will Eisner’s The Spirit, didn’t, but almost all of them wore funny costumes to disguise their true identities as they went about their legally fuzzy business.

Unlike Western vigilantes and tough-talking private dicks like Mike Hammer, the new superheroes usually worked hand in hand with local police forces, if a bit more effectively, in ridding the streets of everything from drug peddlers and masked thieves to madmen intent on world domination. Also unlike their Western and pulpy counterparts, they usually went about their business bloodlessly, almost never, ever using firearms.

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Yet strangely, as American as the idea was, the concept of the lone fighter for justice didn’t really come to full fruition until the Italians started making Westerns. What might be considered the first generation of American cinematic vigilantes were perhaps most perfectly expressed in Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, featuring Clint Eastwood as the Man With no Name, wandering the West in his poncho, all but silently doling out a form of street level justice there in the desert. Across A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966) he was more than superhuman, he was the Angel of Death.

Watch The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly on Amazon

But things changed around 1970, and the myths of the American West no longer carried the same weight they once did. Things were too real, and had grown too ugly. People not only in New York, but all over the country were pissed. All that hippie peace and love crap had failed, the economy was a mess, the cost of everything was going through the roof, violent crime was a daily occurrence, race riots and radical bombings were simply part of the landscape, and our leaders were a corrupt and useless lot of bastards.

In reaction to that whole hippie mess, the collective attitude of the general public took a hard swing to the Right. The same people who’d elected Nixon in 1968 on his promise he’d get us out of the war now didn’t even blink when it was reported he’d authorized the bombing of Cambodia. What they wanted was a little iron-fisted Law and Order here at home, and what they needed was a hero who would flip the bird to the establishment and simply do what needed doing, namely kicking the shit out of the riff-raff and the scum. Enter Don Siegel and Dirty Harry in 1971.

In a strange way, the whole vigilante cycle in American films began all over again, and in much the same way. It only made sense that Clint Eastwood would be the man to bridge the gap between first and second generation vigilante cinema, moving from the mythical, even spiritual gunslinger in the Leone films to the bitter, disgusted and grimly wisecracking Harry Callahan, the rogue San Francisco cop who defied protocol, his superiors, and a mountain of bad press to intimidate, threaten, mock, torture and kill punks and thieves with his trademark .44 Magnum without benefit of a trial. Why bother, when the courts would just let them go again anyway? 

Harry Callahan was simply doing what the other cops and police brass refused to do for assorted political reasons, wiping the streets clean of the lowlifes who preyed on the innocent. He was in many ways a classic Old West sheriff who’d somehow found himself cast into a modern world that made no sense to him. He was exactly the kind of ultraconservative antihero the masses were aching for.

But as audiences lined up to cheer and hoot and pound the floor every time he made his “Do ya feel lucky?” speech or blew another thug away, serious film critics were aghast. Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, and several other notable critics labeled Siegel’s movie “fascist,” an epithet that would be applied to countless other pictures as the decade wore on.

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The same year Dirty Harry was released also saw the release of its flipside (sort of) in Billy Jack. Writer/producer/director/star Tom Laughlin (who would later launch several failed presidential bids) embodies the New Age-spouting former Green Beret who kicks the shit out of the racist rednecks who harrass the little hippie children at the Freedom School. Although it was his big breakthrough hit, Billy Jack was actually the second in a four-film franchise beginning with 1968’s The Born Losers.

Over the course of the series, Laughlin’s alter ego would beat the crap out of bikers, rednecks, more rednecks, some soldiers, and a couple of political goons. His politics are kind of muddy, but there’s more than a little dose of Eastwood’s Man With No Name in Billy Jack, though he prefers karate to six-shooters. At least the middle two films of the franchise would go on to become hugely popular and would likewise be labeled “fascist” by Roger Ebert.

In the wake of the success of both Dirty Harry and Billy Jack came Walking Tall, based on the true story of Buford Pusser, a former pro wrestler who returned to his small Southern hometown only to find it overrun with gambling, illegal liquor and prostitution. Although he runs for sheriff, the badge hardly matters as he wages a one-man war armed with an oversized baseball bat to drive all the scuzzy Southern gangsters out of town. As Pusser, Joe Don Baker is charming and charismatic, and director Phil Karlson was no hack, though the film is pretty much a remake of his earlier The Phenix City Story. As per usual, it gave drive-in audiences exactly what they were after in terms of seeing sleazy hoods getting the crap beat out of them, Constitution be damned, and the film was still another massive hit.

By then the formula had become a simple one. It’s always easy to push an audience’s buttons, especially when those buttons involve bloodlust. Vigilante and revenge films quickly became the cheapest and most manipulative subgenre ever. It was easy to stick a dirty hypo into the American public’s basest instincts and give it a twist. Just glom onto what pisses off the masses most, simplify it, make a cartoon out of it, then give them a normal Joe who’s put up with far more than anyone could expect to survive (killing off his family or raping his wife and daughter is usually a good bet), and hand him a gun to do what the cops, the courts, and the politicians won’t.

On the surface, Winner’s Death Wish seems little more than a distillation of the above thinking, a live action cartoon that touched on everything New Yorkers at the time hated (and everything non-New Yorkers assumed about New York), but it was a shade more complicated than that.

Although both may begin in exactly the same way, within the landscape of exploitation cinema there is a fine but distinct line between your standard revenge films of the time and vigilante movies. In vengeance films like Edward Dmytryk’s The Human Factor (1975), Paul Schrader’s Rolling Thunder (1977), William Lustig’s Hit List (1989), or 1978’s I Spit on Your Grave (produced by Bing Crosby!), a character who has suffered some unimaginable violation goes a little funny in the head and sets out to exact some vengeance against the specific responsible parties. Vigilantes, in contrast, may suffer a similar violation, but undertake a much broader response driven more by social and philosophical impulses than personal ones.

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Brian Garfield’s novel Death Wish, which portrayed what he saw as the inevitable response to a quickly deteriorating New York, was intended to be an anti-vigilante cautionary tale. When producer Dino De Laurentiis picked up the rights and handed it to screenwriter Wendell Mayes, things changed a little bit. Initially Sidney Lumet was set to direct, with Jack Lemmon in the Paul Kersey role and Henry Fonda as the police commissioner. It would have doubtless been a very different, but very interesting picture.

But then Lumet opted to make Serpico, another gritty New York crime story instead, and both Lemmon and Fonda dropped out as well. The lead role was subsequently offered to everyone from Clint Eastwood to Steve McQueen to Frank Sinatra, all of whom passed. Eventually the film was offered to Winner, who had always been a reliably efficient director who could tell a clean story. Given he’d just wrapped Mr. Majestyk with Bronson and the two were looking for something else to do together, well, there you go. From the first day of shooting it became impossible to imagine any other actor in the role.

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After an idyllic opening with lilting strings on an Hawaiian beach, Winner starts pounding the point home. We cut back to a New York that’s an open sewer, where people try to go about their daily lives surrounded by screams, muggings, distant gunfire, and sirens. If the visuals and sound effects weren’t obvious enough, Kersey returns to his architectural firm where a colleague immediately peppers him with recent crime statistics. Throughout the film, characters of all types and from all perspectives keep bringing up the crime stats and murder rate, I guess just in case anyone missed it the first four times. In response, Kersey (whom we learn was a conscientious objector during the war) admits openly to being a bleeding heart liberal with some compassion for the underclass. And in response to that, his colleague suggests throwing them all into concentration camps.

No, in many ways the script is not terribly subtle, but somehow Bronson’s performance saves it. The film starts to get subtle, strangely enough, only after Kersey’s wife is beaten to death and his daughter raped and left catatonic by a trio of home invaders. While in nearly any other entry in the genre, that would be the moment Kersey picks up a gun and starts blowing away street thugs, but things progress more slowly here.

Being a good citizen. he follows up with the police. Although we never actually see the cops doing anything about any crime until much later in the film, in contrast with most other revenge films, the NYPD is presented sympathetically. Patrol officers, detectives and even the commissioner treat him with respect, courtesy, and resigned honesty, gently explaining that while there was a chance they could catch these guys, it was kind of a long shot.

Kersey, meanwhile, carries on as normally as possible, going to work and even redecorating his luxury apartment on Riverside Drive. The shift into more direct action only comes after he takes a business trip to Tucson, where another architect rants about New York and gun control nuts before taking him to a shooting range and giving him a .32 as a going away present. When Kersey returns home to find pictures from that Hawaiian vacation waiting for him, everything comes to a head and he pockets the gun before heading out to Riverside Park. Again, this is where the film breaks from the normal revenge picture. Instead of taking it upon himself to find and exterminate the vermin who destroyed his family, he sets out with a more far-reaching mission to wipe all the scum off the streets.

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Even at that point Winner and Bronson don’t go the full cartoon route quite yet. After shooting the first mugger who tries to stick him up (and what mugger in his right mind would try to stick up Charles Bronson?), instead of reacting with a sneer of victory, he panics, runs home, and throws up. That’s an honest human reaction for an avowed liberal who hates violence but finds himself with no other choice. Still, after that he continues to carry on normally in the daytime, while spending his nights prowling the parks and slums and subways, where he inevitably finds some young tough or another eager to rob him. 

In one telling scene, after his son-in-law talks about the virtues of cutting and running, of simply moving far away from a city in which nobody can do anything to make it better, Kersey responds, “What do you call it when people, when they’re faced with a condition of fear, do nothing about it? They just run and hide?”

“Civilized?” his son-in-law replies.

It’s the crux of the film, really, though one interpreted quite differently in the novel than in the screenplay.

As is to be expected (and as would be proven in real life a decade later), as news of the mysterious vigilante spreads, Kersey becomes a folk hero, much to the chagrin of the NYPD. Not only do citywide muggings drop by half, but other inspired citizens start standing up to muggers themselves. For the first time in the film we actually see the cops doing anything, though now it’s to try and encourage Kersey to just please cut it out and go away because he’s making them look bad.

By film’s end, it seems he really has come to see himself as a Western gunslinger, going so far as to adopt the lingo. It only makes sense, given history. By that same point, not only the character but the entire film has become a fantasy, and, as solid a piece of mid-’70s American action filmmaking as it is, anyone who tried to argue (as Bronson would later) that Death Wish didn’t glamorize Paul Kersey is delusional.

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Slammed once again by critics who called it a simpleminded fascist fantasy (and a dangerous one at that), the film struck a major chord with audiences, almost immediately being hailed as a cultural touchstone as much as Dirty Harry had been. It was a film that spoke directly to the anger and frustration felt by people not just in New York but all over the country.

Two years after Death Wish, Martin Scorsese released Taxi Driver, which turned the fundamental idea at the heart of vigilante movies on its head. New York is still a cesspool, and if anything it’s far worse. The gritty urban squalor of Winner’s vision here becomes a literal hellish nightmare, and it drives Travis Bickle nuts. Given he’s more than a little nuts to begin with, you know things aren’t going to end well.

We quickly glean in the first ten minutes he’s a deeply unbalanced man. He’s profoundly alienated, racist, has problems with women, and is angry at the world for reasons that are hinted at but never fully explained. He’s also desperate to make a name for himself. Loosely based on Arthur Bremer, he decides the best way to do that is to shoot a presidential candidate. Failing that, and out of a frustrated need to shoot someone, anyone at all, he kills a pimp and (quite accidentally) a bunch of mobsters. Afterward, of course, he’s hailed in the media as a hero.

Despite having laid bare the myth of the heroic, good-hearted vigilante who’s just trying to make life a little better and safer for his fellow citizens, low-budget filmmakers preferred the myth. The myth was easier and more crowd-pleasing. In the myth, the vigilante was always cool, rational and clear-eyed, and only deserving scummy rats get blown away. So after the success of all the above-mentioned films, there was an explosion of vigilante films both here and in Italy.

In 1981, Abel Ferrara had a cult hit with his colorful, sometimes surreal and funny feminist vigilante fantasy Ms. 45. Inspired as much by I Spit on Your Grave as Death Wish, Zoë Lund stars as a young mute woman living in New York who is raped twice in one day. After accidentally killing the man who broke into her apartment and attacked her, she begins a one-woman war against male chauvinists allover the city, culminating with shooting up an office Halloween party with a machine gun while dressed like a nun. It’s really something.

A year later, in 1982, second-generation grindhouse filmmaker Wiliam Lustig (who’d made a name for himself with Maniac) released his second feature, simply and clearly titled Vigilante. Although he’d worked as an apprentice editor on Death Wish, he insists the real inspiration came from Italian revenge film auteurs Unberto Lenzi and Enzo Castellari (who themselves had been deeply inspired by Death Wish).

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Robert Forster stars as a mechanic living in Queens who believes in the American Dream until he comes home one night to find his wife has been savagely beaten and his young son killed by, yes, a group of home invaders. The premise may be eerily similar to the original but Lustig, who knew his audience very well, has little time for subtleties. He paints an ugly picture of the legal system in very broad strokes. The cops are assholes, the District Attorney’s office is impotent, and the courts are corrupt. As a result, thugs and lowlifes are free to run wild in the street, and no one is safe.

If there was any question about the film’s perspective, Lustig clarified things neatly, opening the film with an angry monologue delivered by football player turned action hero Fred Williamson. Speaking directly to the audience, he snarls: 

“There are 40 murders a day in this city. Over 2 million illegal guns on the streets; enough to invade a damn country. They shoot cops and don’t even think about it…”

He goes on to argue that since the cops, the courts, and the prisons have all failed the citizens, it’s time citizens took the law into their own hands and started blowing away ne’er-do-wells and hooligans. I’m still not sure if that was supposed to be a pro or anti-gun message, but it didn’t matter. It was enough to get Times Square audiences rooting, stomping their feet, and firing their own guns in the air.

Williamson plays the leader of a local gang of vigilantes who drive around Queens on the lookout for assorted street punks, whom they then send either to the hospital or the morgue. Although he attempts to recruit Forster, the mechanic is resistant, pointing out there’s precious little difference between the vigilantes and the hoods. He only changes his mind when Lustig ratchets things up a few notches. In a miraculous turn, the cops actually find the punks who killed his son and beat his wife, but when the case is dismissed on a technicality, it’s Forster who gets thrown in prison for attacking them in the courtroom. After that things just get exciting and silly.

The same year Vigilante came out also saw the release of the first Death Wish sequel. Despite it’s huge box office success in 1974, there was little talk of a sequel until nearly eight years later, when De Laurentiis sold the rights to the low-budget schlock house Cannon (bless them), who brought Bronson back and began putting out sequels almost immediately.

Over the next decade beginning with 1982’s Death Wish II (also directed by Winner) there would be four Death Wish sequels. Moving the franchise to LA briefly before returning to NYC, the increasingly cheap and baffling sequels aimed straight for the LCD by taking the straight cartoon route, doing away with all that silly psychological complexity that marked the first film. That nonsense just gets in the way of the gunfire.

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They turned Kersey into an invincible superhero who never missed and could not be hurt as the body count in each subsequent film continued to climb. Hell, they couldn’t even keep the story timeline straight. And by the time Death Wish V: The Face of Death came out in 1994, Kersey, apparently having successfully rid the city of street punks, turned his attention to the Mafia. Yes, well.

Worst of all, no longer arising organically out of that specific mid-’70s NYC nightmare, the films from the ‘80s simply didn’t have the same visceral impact. Meanwhile, the novel’s original author, pissed at what had been done to it, wrote a sequel of his own, Death Sentence, which explored the real-life consequences of vigilantism. No one was much interested.

Although there were plans for at least one more installment, all that talk was shelved when Bronson died. He was probably relieved about that. Near the end of his life he was interviewed on Good Morning America. Clearly sad, tired, and bored by that point, he explained to the interviewer that all his recent films could be summed up this way: “Here he comes…Take him down…Take him out…Kill him, kill him.” And he wasn’t that far off the mark, which is doubly sad considering the number of honestly great films he’d been in across a career that stretched back to the noir period. 

Now, by the mid-80s, things hadn’t much improved in New York. It may not have felt like something out of Dante’s Inferno the way it did in Taxi Driver, but there were still certain places in the city it was simply best to avoid whenever possible, like the parks, the subways, and Times Square. Just a few months before the release of Death Wish III, real life decided to offer up a bit of free pre-release publicity.

On December 22nd, 1984, Bernie Goetz, who’d been brutally mugged a few years earlier in the Canal Street station, was on a train at 14th Street when he was approached by five young men of questionable intent. Although they would later admit they were out to break into arcade machines and maybe rob people, they insist all they did was ask Goetz for five dollars. Instead of handing over money, Goetz, a scrawny, bespectacled middle-aged white guy with thinning hair, stood, pulled a gun, assumed a combat stance, and shot them before fleeing the train.

As happened in the original film, before he turned himself in a few days later, the media went wild, hailing him a folk hero and pulling out all the Death Wish references they could muster. Once his identity was revealed and a few of his statements to the police were made public, people began to realize he was a shade closer to the unbalanced Travis Bickle than the civic-minded Paul Kersey. Yeah, sadly it turned out Goetz was a little sweaty and twitchy and nuts.  Nevertheless, like Tom Laughlin, he would later try to parlay his fame into a political career, running for Mayor of New York on the Vegetarian Party ticket, but with little success.

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Eight years after Bernie Goetz and following a couple of riots, and perhaps not coincidentally as the final installment of the Death Wish franchise was in pre-production, New Yorkers overwhelmingly elected Rudy Giuliani mayor, figuring his iron fisted Law and Order approach was just the thing the city needed at long last. But now with a President who uses apocalyptic (if inaccurate) rhetoric to describe cities as 1970s-esque urban hellscapes, we might want to start preparing for a third wave of American vigilante films.