Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Death Wish, by Christopher Sorrentino

Death Wish by Christopher Sorrentino. New York: Soft Skull Press, 2010. Paperback. $13.95. 98 pp.

Among the movies I consider guilty pleasures, Death Wish has an appeal that has survived its inherent deficiencies as a film, its rapid transformation into a stale franchise, its numbing profusion of lame progeny in later decades, and what I still like to believe are my own more refined aesthetic and political attitudes. Yet as the category of “guilty pleasures” suggests, its appeal hasn’t survived in any simple fashion; instead, the queasy feelings of abject violation and sadistic retribution I first felt as a teenager have since given way to a more self-conscious ambivalence: even as it’s easier for me now to distance myself from the film’s tactics in order to preserve my enlightened (read: “liberal”) conscience, the fact that I continue to watch it also testifies to an underlying desire to abolish this distance, submit to the forbidden spell, and experience the same emotions all over again, as if for the first time. Since this very sort of ambivalence can make one feel — well, ambivalent — I was eager to read Christopher Sorrentino’s monograph on Death Wish. What I hoped to find was some validation of my response, but what I discovered was something much more interesting. Although I couldn’t resist arguing with Sorrentino at some points, his book forced me reconsider my attitude towards the film; in fact, the best compliment I can give this book is that it often led me to argue with myself as much as with the author.

What immediately stands out is the boldness of Sorrentino’s approach, which in large part involves a rejection of the standard assessment of Death Wish as a vile exercise in right-wing agitprop. Here Vincent Canby serves the author well as a foil, insofar as Canby’s condemnation of the film canonized this view in much the same way as Pauline Kael first established the view of Dirty Harry as a fascist spectacle; Canby’s initial attack of the movie as “bird-brained movie to cheer the hearts of the far-right wing” was soon followed by another review in which his comparison of the film’s “powers to arouse” with pornography went hand-in-hand with his disgust at the audience’s reaction: “If you allow your wits to take flight, it’s difficult not to respond with the kind of lunatic cheers that rocked the Loews Astor Plaza when I was there the other evening. At one point a man behind me shouted with delight: ‘That’ll teach the mothers!’” (1). This verdict has come to inform my own response to the film, but Sorrentino will have none of it. For what Canby really exhibits here is a basic refusal to consider the film in cinematic terms at all; what we get instead is moralized rhetoric, a schematic variant of the cultural dupe theory, and a corresponding jab at the yahoos in the audience that the author encapsulates quite nicely: “if you like this, you’re stupid” (4). After taking Canby to task for his mandarinism, Sorrentino thus offers an extended reading of the film in four chapters: “Death Wish and the City,” “Death Wish and Politics,” “Death Wish and Performance,” and “Death Wish as Film.” While he notes that some redundancies and contradictions will arise as he considers certain traits from more than one angle, such flexibility seems necessary as an alternative to the one-dimensional perspective of Canby and company.

Sorrentino’s treatment of the film’s New York setting holds interest both for the insights that only a resident can provide, as well as for how it establishes the urban space of Death Wish in a fuller symbolic context. Here he observes how director Michael Winner has no interest in generating the sort of pseudo-documentary “authenticity” that one finds in Friedkin, Scorsese, or Lumet; instead, Winner adopts a much more cursory, generic style strictly premised on New York as a mythic “nightmare city” that embodies the fears of its non-urban audience. In making this point, however, Sorrentino is much less concerned with criticizing Winner than with debunking any judgments of the film according to some presumed aim of social realism. Thus he maintains that New Yorkers were already aware that what they saw was an outsider’s hyperbolic fantasy, whereas critics miss the point precisely when they adopt the realist criterion — either by angrily condemning the film for failing to be “true” to the social fabric of city life, or, as in the case of reviewer S. T. Karnick, blithely conflating the film’s urban stagecraft with social reality: “Death Wish marked the end of liberal illusions about crime and punishment: the idea that crime is caused by disadvantageous social environments and that the solution is to pour even more taxpayer money into bad neighborhoods in an attempt to buy submission from the poorer elements of society” (16). This platitude from Karnick is cited in a footnote, but it’s a key move that allows Sorrentino to combine his rebuke of Canby with a similar rebuke of conservatives who fail to grasp Death Wish as first and foremost an “urban myth.”

In turn, Sorrentino further maps the film’s mythic space through the Tucson sequence — where the Old West tourist show, the “gun country” rhapsodies of Ames Jainchill, and Paul Kersey’s rebirth via six-shooter effectively resuscitate an older film genre while establishing the film’s symbolic opposition between the vitality of the rural West and the decay of the urban East. His commentary here hits the bulls-eye, leading ultimately to a clearer sense of how Death Wish serves paradoxically as a sort of “Eastern” Western:

The contemporary city — even a mythical one — is the only conceivable setting for a story like this. It is not a mere transliteration of the fabled West, but a translation arising from devolution: if we say that the peak of the Western’s arc was its metafictional awareness of the inevitable arrival of the rule of law (as in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), then in Death Wish the gradual ebbing of the law’s effectiveness is projected forward into real time, and backward to its urban Eastern origin, to a common point at which, once again, order is the best that can be hoped for. (27-28)

Sorrentino’s attention to genre coding thus establishes a fuller thematic subtext to the film’s treatment of setting, which may still raise a key question: aside from registering such malaise towards modern civilization, does Winner’s translation of the Western in turn translate into any more coherent political perspective?

The short answer is “no,” and in the next chapter Sorrentino justifies this view by exploring certain gaps that critics have failed to notice in Death Wish. For example, while noting that Paul Kersey is referred to twice as a “liberal” in the film, he observes that the word is rather meager in political content. Kersey does admit to having vague sympathies for the poor, as well as having been a conscientious objector in the Korean War after his father’s death in a hunting accident — but even here Sorrentino finds that the term “liberal” only functions in a shorthand, even “tautological” fashion: “Of what does Paul Kersey’s knee-jerk, bleeding-heart liberalism consist? Why, of knee-jerk liberal thoughts and bleeding-heart feelings” (29). More importantly, the assumption that “Paul’s vigilantism is antithetical to his liberalism, that his transformation into a vigilante cleanses him of liberalism, and that, ergo, the film is endorsing a certain extreme form of conservatism” strikes Sorrentino as overly simplistic:

“Liberal” is merely a convenient signifier indicating the starting point of Paul’s journey; there’s no corresponding end that spells “conservative” (as much as conservatives may have delighted in the picture). Just as there’s very little here to indicate the content of Paul’s initially liberal character, there’s little to suggest that Paul will from now on enter the voting booth and pull the lever for Republican candidates. (31)

Thus it’s worth noting that we don’t get any wholesale political conversion when Kersey first feels drawn towards vigilantism, but rather a mere advocacy of self-defense against violent crime; when his son-in-law maintains that people who don’t defend themselves are “civilized,” he refuses to accept this definition (33). Sorrentino further observes how, by comparison, a film such as Dirty Harry — particularly in Harry’s outrage towards the constitutional protections granted to criminal suspects — is much more “doctrinaire” in its political overtones: “…in Harry’s case the rules he chafes against are purely political…while for Kersey those rules are as devoid of political significance as his putative liberalism….The nightmare in Dirty Harry is the tolerance of bad laws; the nightmare in Death Wish is the tolerance of evil itself” (34-35). So to whatever extent Death Wish appeals to the latent frustrations of its audience, this emotional appeal still isn’t enough to sustain any clear political interpretation. Rather, what the film offers at the end of the day is a contemporary urban variant of Western genre myth, and the fact that it became an easy target for political controversy says more about the assumptions of its critics than it does about the film itself.

At this point I found Sorrentino’s claims intriguing, in part because they help explain why it’s still possible for me to enjoy Death Wish even though it might not seem to jibe with my own political attitudes. No less striking was the disclosure that he himself is a “liberal who’s been mugged,” and that this experience has led him neither to change his political convictions nor to find the film particularly objectionable (35). Here he raises the stakes even further, offering a principled refusal to politicize cinematic fantasy that will no doubt be refreshing to any readers who have become weary of this trend in contemporary film theory. In fact, such a refusal might even suggest the need for an ironic sort of revolution in academic film study — one in which cinema is re-established as exactly what it’s usually accepted to be by the general public: a self-contained sphere of private pleasure that need not translate into any political significance whatsoever. Of course Sorrentino himself isn’t calling for such a paradigm shift, but as the critical reception of Death Wish itself demonstrates, certain provocations do have a tendency to become translated into fixed attitudes in the response of audience members.

Yet it’s this very “tendency” in Death Wish that still nags me as a viewer, and it has a strong pull despite Sorrentino’s worthy attempt to rescue the film from either Canby’s smugly outraged liberalism or Karnick’s outrageously smug conservatism. I think it all boils down to his use of myth and politics as oppositional terms, while avoiding the word ideology as a broader mediating term. For if it’s true that the emotions aroused by the film’s translation of Western myth do not in themselves constitute a clear political code, this also may suggest how the film functions all the more as an ideological fantasy in that its mobilization of trauma, resentment, and retributive violence is just vague enough to allow some distance from direct political translation on the one hand and just selective enough to trigger such political translation on the other. That is, it seems that ideology, as opposed to politics, is always a much more covert, preliminary way of stacking the cards so that some measure of freedom is still provided to the players in the game, even as the cards they draw only allow for certain combinations; it’s only when the player deciphers his hand that a conventionally political investment in the game can take place. This isn’t to say that all the players will accept the house rules, much less that all the players are slack-jawed dupes who aren’t even aware of it as a game; it’s just to acknowledge that the structure of the game only allows for certain results if it’s accepted on its own terms.

So even as I found myself agreeing with Sorrentino, I soon found myself agreeing with him for different reasons. For example, just as he’s right to note the “tautological” nature of the term “liberal” in the film, he’s also right when he compares the messy details of the Bernhard Goetz subway shootings (in which the “mugging” scenario turned out to be ambiguous) with the formulaic simplicity of the Kersey storyline:

Not being a narrative that allows for indeterminacy in any way…Death Wish closes off any possibility of extenuating nuance emerging to make Paul less righteous. The nuance lies in our own answers to the questions the film raises, but since the film raises them in a mythic context, our answers are limited: the only valid responses are either to say “but of course” or to, in effect, walk out. (36-37)

Yet here again it’s a question of naming the game; if the category of “myth” were replaced with “ideology,” such a statement would be just as valid if not more so, as is the case too in his later observation: “But the myth is a closed system: it is as patently uninterested in the dangers of applying its ‘lessons’ to the real world as it is in allowing the unknown quantities of reality into that system” (38-39). After all, it doesn’t seem surprising that there were no critics who either praised or condemned the film as a provocative “liberal” critique of right-wing fantasies about urban crime, much less as a provocative depiction of “muscular liberalism” that challenges popular images of liberals as effete, bleeding-heart intellectuals; the ideological function of the signifier within the genre code simply didn’t elicit such arcane responses. Nor is it surprising that the depiction of New York in the second half of the film “provides us with a variation on the (not then) old argument that we ‘weren’t allowed’ to win in Vietnam (an analogy that, now that I think of it, intimates the wealth of subtexts that must have been resonantly present when the film was released)” (22). Of course Sorrentino is right to note this analogy while avoiding any strict labeling of the film as a reactionary political “statement” about Vietnam; the movie simply deals its cards a certain way and lets the viewer notice the parallel. So if it’s true enough that critics of Death Wish are prone to simplistic political generalization, it’s no less true that the film is designed to allow only certain sorts of simplistic political generalization. Provided one can maintain a similar critical distance as Sorrentino, one might even say that this is part of the film’s cynical charm.

Meanwhile, none of my quibbles would be inconsistent with Sorrentino’s fine observations in the rest of the book. In the third chapter his comments on the actors are precise and insightful, encompassing a full range of supporting players who might easily be unnoticed by viewers fixated on Bronson’s performance. Even in Hope Lange’s thankless role he traces some subtle undercurrents of marital unease, while noting, interestingly enough, that Bronson refused to allow his wife Jill Ireland to endure the onscreen cruelty that this role demanded. He has a true connoisseur’s eye for Stuart Margolin, whose cocky portrayal of Ames Jainchill offers a primer on the virtuosity of bodily acting in otherwise dialogue-driven scenes; likewise, he does justice to good old Vincent Gardenia, whose sardonic police inspector emerges as a virtual archetype of compromised personal ethics in the face of institutional bureaucracy. As for Bronson himself, Sorrentino rightly maintains that critics who found him less than believable as a real-estate developer were missing the point, insofar as his iconic status allows us to anticipate Kersey’s discovery that underneath his false, civilized trappings he is all the more destined to become that noble savage known as — “Charles Bronson.” He’s also right, I think, to point out that Death Wish was a fateful turning point for Bronson himself insofar as it both consolidated his onscreen persona — in which his limited range still projected an aura of enigmatic solitude and violence held in reserve — and initiated the steady exhaustion of this persona in subsequent films, which would only offer a perpetual “restatement of his own revealed subtext” (55). Thus the stone-faced sphinx would soon become just another banal, recycled action hero whose growing arsenal in each of the Death Wish sequels could never fully hide either his age or his weariness with the whole enterprise.

In “Death Wish as Film” Sorrentino also offers extensive analysis of the film’s cinematography, scenic highlights, and narrative structure. While indicating how Winner occasionally uses the widescreen frame for expressive effect, he concedes that the director most often settles for a bland functionalism; even so, he shows how certain sequences still work quite well in their own right. Particularly interesting are the scenes depicting how Kersey’s crusade becomes a popular media event that inspires city residents: “Death Wish is a film that rather slickly adapts what Don DeLillo has called ‘the nausea of News and Traffic’ in order to provide a metafictional echo of its own story, showing our way of experiencing events as stories and forming ideas through an ingrained process of mythopoesis that the movie itself embodies and, in several forms, depicts” (72-73). As he reminds us that such a process was already at work in Kersey’s visit to the Old West tourist show in Tucson, Sorrentino establishes how the film is much more self-reflexive than one might assume in these matters; in fact, the hall of mirrors effect we get from such simulacra would no doubt delight devotees of Baudrillard, while others may still have good reason to see it as just another part of the film’s self-confirming ideological game. As for the film’s narrative arc, Sorrentino observes how most of its real power arises during the first half, whereas it steadily loses this power once it shifts into a routine police procedural groove with Inspector Ochoa’s quest for Kersey — whose initially rejuvenating vigilantism likewise begins to take on the tired, repetitive quality of a part-time job. Here Sorrentino draws upon Umberto Eco’s “The Myth of Superman” to explain how easily this problem arises in any attempt to incorporate an essentially pre-modern mythic vision within a modern narrative framework: for whereas traditional mythic stories involve a hero whose exploits are already known and take place in an abstract, dreamlike realm of the perpetual present, the stories of our own commercial culture demand a hero whose struggle, however assured we are of its victory, unfolds through unforeseen obstacles and thus require a more extended, mundane temporality in their plotlines. In light of Winner’s “failed synthesis” of these two impulses, it would seem that the commodity character of the film ironically conspires in the steady waning of its most vital energies, which once again anticipates Kersey’s future fate in the Death Wish sequels.

Perhaps it’s really here that the ideological core of Death Wish may be grasped — not with regard to any of the more familiar liberal or conservative pieties that inform our quaint public debates, but rather in how the film offers its own partial, refracted image of a social phenomenon that we largely take for granted nowadays: the transformation of virtually all dimensions of human experience into fungible commodities. Insofar as Death Wish is no more exploitative of its subject matter than any other Hollywood production, Sorrentino’s critique of the backlash against it is entirely justified; indeed, the outrage of a Vincent Canby has its basis in how the customary distinction between “exploitation” and “mainstream” film genres easily promotes a condemnation of the former for what is often acceptable in the latter. At the same time, I think this double standard also provides the key for understanding how Death Wish, through its own studio repackaging of a grindhouse aesthetic, gives us something much more interesting than the vulgar incitement to violence that preoccupied its critics: for what is Kersey’s scandalous pathology, after all, but an exaggerated reflection of the eminently normal, respectable, everyday mode of consumer consciousness itself? This can be sensed not only in the process whereby a deeply alienated man learns how to find relief from his “real” problem through a compulsive, serialized ritual of substitute gratification, but also in how he finds further validation of this ritual from the media, as well as in how his pleasure soon loses its spontaneity and becomes a numbing routine in its own right; it can even be sensed in how Kersey’s behavior is ironically tolerated by the law once it’s been properly re-located in a different space, which parallels the psychic compartmentalization that already allows him to enjoy his leisure pursuits while maintaining his middle-class job. In these ways, Kersey’s solitary, private enjoyment of vigilante justice isn’t so different from the sort of enjoyment that Death Wish itself provides in an expanding market economy, which always has a proper niche for cultivating the very “pathological” consumer desires that inspire public hand-wringing from its salaried moral police — who of course occupy their own niche in the system as well. Thus we may sense an even deeper subtext in Ochoa’s conspiratorial smile to Kersey at the end of the film, as well as in Kersey’s own smile in the final shot: for when he squints his eye and aims his cocked finger at a new group of hoodlums, he’s also offering a wink at us. In more ways than one, it’s very much a wink of recognition.

To consider Death Wish as a pistol-packing allegory of its own commodity function may run afoul of Sorrentino’s more apolitical approach, yet it seems in keeping with some of his most incisive observations. It also seems consistent with his comments in the epilogue, where he notes how the film “began to strike me as an illustrative instance of the tension that occurs when a filmmaker begins to become involved in the art of making, while at the same time remaining focused primarily on the goal of commercial success. The production of Death Wish was motivated by the prospect of making a lot of money; otherwise it wouldn’t have been made” (87). For Sorrentino this recognition need not discount the accomplished qualities of the film, and in this regard his book is still the best, most thoughtful treatment of Death Wish one will find in the face of a stigma it still carries more than thirty years after its release. However, Sorrentino’s attempt to talk me out of my guilt didn’t entirely succeed, and this is probably because such guilt has become a necessary stimulant to my enjoyment of the film. Apparently the marketers anticipated this in the trailer, which culminates in a freeze frame on Bronson with his cocked finger: “Call him a mad vigilante. Call him a hero. Either way, he’s always on target. Never make a death wish. Because a death wish always comes true. And you get to love it.” It’s all there, really: the wry moral equivocation followed by the promise of a more visceral experience that, in some suggestively sadomasochistic way, will transform a forbidden wish into a newly activated form of pleasure. The moment I recognize this rhetoric for what it is, the recoil it inspires only intensifies the sleazy shudder of attraction: OK…let’s do it. So in my own fashion, I’ve indeed learned to love it.