When I was a little kid, I used to watch Adventures of Superman. In one episode, “The Stolen Costume,” which aired in 1952, a criminal and his girlfriend discover that Superman’s identity is Clark Kent. To keep them from talking, Superman takes them to a cabin on top of a mountain, telling them that he will bring them supplies from time to time. After he leaves, they try to climb down, but fall to their death. Obviously, what Superman did was against the law. But I was fine with that. What he did was for the greater good of mankind (although I was not capable of expressing my feelings that way at the age of six).
In 1963, when I was sixteen years old, I saw the coming attractions for Dr. No (1962). It said that James Bond had a license to kill, “whom he pleases, when he pleases, where he pleases.” That made sense to me. Government agents, acting for the greater good of mankind, should be able to execute bad guys without bothering with the usual legal niceties. And indeed, Bond does kill a man in cold blood, just after delivering a wisecrack, even though he could easily have called the police and had him arrested.
I do not believe I was unusual in this regard. A lot of people felt that way in those days. After the Vietnam War and Watergate, it became clear that people with power could not be trusted, as our Founding Fathers clearly realized when they framed our Constitution. At least, it became clear to a lot of people, but for others, not so much. Some people just naturally have a fascist bent that is a permanent feature of their character.
The idea is that all too often the law just gets in the way of true justice. In the movie Dragnet (1954), Frank asks why the laws always protect the criminals, and Friday answers, “Because the innocent don’t need them.” For a long time, the law that protected the criminals that the innocent did not need was habeas corpus. In Scarface (1932), Tony Camonte says that he was released on a “writ of hocus pocus.” But after 1966, the bane of the fascist cop was the Miranda ruling, something that the title character of Dirty Harry (1971) just never could quite get his head around, not in that movie, nor in any of the sequels.
At one extreme, the fascist is the president of the United States, as in Gabriel Over the White House (1933), or as in real life, unfortunately. At the other extreme, it is the ordinary citizen, the greatest example of which is Death Wish (1974), which was so popular that is spawned four sequels and a recent remake.
When this movie starts out, Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) and his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) are at the beach on vacation. It’s a deserted beach, so Paul suggests making love right there in the open, but Joanna says they are “too civilized,” so they go back to the hotel. When he returns from his vacation, we find out from his coworker, Sam, that the murder rate in New York City is getting worse, saying that decent people will have to work in the city and live somewhere else. Paul notes that by “decent people,” Sam means those who can afford to live somewhere else. His coworker accuses him of being a bleeding-heart liberal in his concern for the underprivileged, saying that they should all be put into a concentration camp.
Meanwhile, back in the jungle, Joanna and the Kersey’s daughter Carol are at the grocery store where three hooligans are behaving so obnoxiously that we don’t even need to see the rape and murder that come later. We are ready for someone start wasting these characters right now. As they follow Joanna and Carol to their apartment, we see some nuns crossing the street, as if to make it clear that we live in a godless universe where faith is folly. Pretending to be the delivery boy with the groceries, they get in. What follows is a nightmare of cruelty and horror, as Carol is brutally raped and Joanna is murdered. The funeral, where words are spoken over Joanna’s grave by a priest, acts as a bookend to the nuns, further driving home the pathetic impotence of religious belief in the face of so much evil in the world. Had Carol died as well, there might have been a period of grieving and then moving on. But Carol degenerates into a catatonic state, thereby acting as a continual reminder of what happened to her and her mother.
If this had happened to Sam’s family, and he got out his gun and started blowing away the city scum, this would have been all wrong, for two reasons. First, since he is already a fascist, there would be little dramatic value in seeing him put his beliefs into action. Second, as he is played by William Redfield, we would know that someone who looked like that in a movie would never be able to do what someone who looks like Charles Bronson could do. Of course, speaking of looks, we had a hard time accepting that Bronson’s character was a bleeding-heart liberal in the first place, but we knew that we were just being set up for a reluctant-hero situation.
Paul puts some roles of quarters in a sock to act as a homemade blackjack, which he gets to use in short order when someone tries to hold him up. But as he reenacts the scene at home in his elation, the roles of quarters bust apart, so we know that something a little more dependable will be needed.
As an architect, Paul is sent to Arizona to have a look at the real estate project proposed by Aimes Jainchill (Stuart Margolin). Never mind that places out West like Texas and Arizona are just as modern and urban as the rest of the country, the movies still like to play up the idea that cowboy culture is alive and well. And this movie really lays it on thick. As Paul is arriving at the airport, we see Aimes pushing open a couple of swinging saloon doors underneath a sign that reads “Last Chance Cocktails.” He is dressed in full Western regalia. Except it’s modern Western clothes, and he is wearing glasses, so he’s kind of an urban cowboy.
They go out to where Aimes wants to build his houses, and while they are looking around, we see a cowboy named Judd herding cattle through the area. Aimes says he doesn’t want to bulldoze the hills. Paul says that will take up a lot of space. Aimes replies that the open spaces are what this part of the country is all about, saying we need space for life, for people like Judd, for horses and cows. That sounds nice, but once the houses start being built, won’t Judd and the horses and cows find themselves in the same situation we have seen in Westerns many times, where the free-range cattlemen find themselves shut out by homesteaders? There won’t be any range war, of course, but it just shows how silly the whole Western nostalgia business is, something Aimes seems to oblivious to, and which we are supposed to overlook.
Speaking of Western nostalgia, they next find themselves in “Old Tuscon,” a movie lot for Westerns and a tourist attraction where scenes are acted out in which a sheriff takes on the bad guys. These were the good old days, when outlaws met with swift justice. Subsequently, Aimes takes Paul to his gun club, where we find out that Paul was a conscientious objector during the war. It seems his father was killed in a hunting accident, and so his mother turned Paul into a pacifist, but not before his father had first taught Paul how to use a gun, so he is a crack shot. After solving the real estate problem he was sent to fix, Paul heads back home. Before he leaves, Aimes puts a present in his suitcase. When Paul gets home, he discovers that the present is a thirty-two revolver.
Now, wait a minute! Did some city slicker write this script? No self-respecting, macho, urban cowboy would buy someone a thirty-two unless it was for his wife, and even then it would probably be a thirty-eight. Nothing less than a forty-five would be the thing for Charles Bronson, even if his character is a bleeding-heart, conscientious objecting, momma’s boy.
In any event, it is important that someone gave Paul this gun. It is standard in the movies that if a civilian buys a gun, he is just going to get himself killed. But if he acquires the gun in some other way, then he will be able to use it effectively. And that he does. Not only does he successfully kill hoodlums right and left, but he causes the crime rate to go down as well. He never does encounter the men who murdered his wife and raped his daughter, which is just as well, because that would really have been a stretch.
At the beginning of the movie, “civilized” just meant not having sex on the beach. Later in the movie, it acquires a more pejorative connotation. Jack, Paul’s son-in-law, says they should have moved to the country, out of the city, where Joanna and Carol would have been safe, recalling Sam’s remark about what decent people would soon need to do. Paul is contemptuous of this idea, of running away, suggesting that if the police cannot protect people, they should do it themselves. Jack says, “We’re not pioneers anymore, Dad.” Paul asks, if we are not pioneers, what are we then. “I mean, if we’re not pioneers, what have we become? What do you call people who, when faced with a condition of fear, do nothing about it? They just run and hide.” Jack answers, tentatively, “Civilized?”
As we get toward the end of the movie, more Western tropes start piling up right along with the bodies. Paul tells one bandit to “fill his hand,” to “draw.” Later, when a police lieutenant (Vincent Gardenia) tells him to leave town, because the higher ups don’t want him arrested for political reasons, Paul says, “By sundown?”
Paul does move to another city. Chicago, of course. And when some punks in the station harass a woman, Paul helps her with her packages, and then uses his thumb and forefinger to suggest a gun, pointing it at them, allowing us to enjoy the thought that this fascist fantasy is not really over.
So, what moral, if any, should we draw from the popularity of fascist fantasies like this one? It’s hard to say. Just because someone has a fantasy, it does not mean he really wants it to happen. I knew a guy who had a fantasy that his ex-wife would come over one day, lock the door behind her, and say, “We are going to go in the bedroom and have unprotected sex, and we are going to have a baby.” As arousing as he found this fantasy, however, he said that if she really had come over and said that, he would have replied, “No, we’re not.”