The 1974 original version of Death Wish proved to be so successful at the box office that it spawned four sequels and the remake of 2018. When the original 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” for that, so they go back to the hotel. When they return from their vacation, Paul finds 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, Joanna and the Kersey’s daughter, Carol, are at the grocery store where three hooligans are so 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 just as the two women pass by, but before the three men do. Literally, the nuns come between the men and the women, but figuratively, they do not, 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, the bad guys 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 faith 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, that 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 can 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 prepared for a reluctant-hero situation, so that made it all right.
Paul puts some roles of quarters in a sock to act as a makeshift blackjack, which he gets to use in short order when someone tries to hold him up. But as he re-enacts the scene at home, elated at the discovery that he is not powerless and does not have to be a victim, the roles of quarters burst 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 a cowboy wannabe.
They go out to where Aimes wants to build his houses, and while they are looking around, we see a real cowboy named Judd herding cattle through the area. Aimes says he doesn’t want to bulldoze the hills. Paul says the hills 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? You can’t herd cattle through the middle of a suburban neighborhood, even if the hills do remain in place. 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 be oblivious to, and which we are supposed to overlook.
Speaking of Western nostalgia, they next find themselves in “Old Tucson,” 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 she’d have to be petite. 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. Whatever the caliber, though, it had to be a revolver. A semi-automatic lacks the cowboy juju that is needed to bring Western justice to the big city.
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: in part, because the bad guys are afraid they might run into the vigilante; in part, because other law-abiding citizens start fighting back too.
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 vigilante’s job is not done, that he will soon be cleaning up the streets of Chicago.
So, what can we say about the 2018 remake starring Bruce Willis as Paul Kersey? Let us consider a few of the differences. First, in the 1974 original, what happens to Paul’s wife and daughter is much worse than in the 2018 remake. The daughter is brutally raped in the original, while her mother watches helplessly. It is pathetic and horrifying. In the remake, rape is only threatened, and the women are able to fight back: the daughter slicing a man’s face; the mother throwing boiling water in the face of another. The daughter never recovers psychologically in the original; she makes a full recovery in the remake.
Second, whereas Paul was an architect in the original, in the remake he is a doctor who works in the emergency room of a hospital. At first, I thought this was for the sake of irony. I could almost imagine a tagline: “He removes bullets from bodies by day. He puts them back into bodies by night.” However, the purpose of his being a doctor was really to provide him with a way of finding out who the perpetrators were, which begins when one of them is brought into the emergency room. Paul of the original never even imagines that he will encounter the men that killed his wife and raped his daughter. All the men he kills are just bad guys, none of whom he has any personal connection with. He just walks the streets at night as bait, luring them to their doom. Paul of the remake does kill a few bad guys unrelated to the assault on his family, but then the rest of the movie is about tracking down all the men that had anything to do with killing his wife and assaulting his daughter. Actually, even the killing of one of the men who had nothing to do with the assault on his family is an act of revenge in behalf of a boy who came into the emergency room with a gunshot wound. Presumably, the producers of the remake thought this would make the movie better. It doesn’t, and not simply because the original is more realistic in this regard. Between getting revenge on the men that attacked his family and having his daughter make a full recovery, Paul of the remake gets closure. The situation for Paul of the original remains forever unresolved, for those men are still out there somewhere, and his daughter will never be the same.
Third, there is no Western theme in the remake. Though the Western comparisons in the original were a little corny, yet they kept the film upbeat. Paul is at one with himself in his new role as vigilante. And when he talks to his son-in-law about whether it is better to fight back or to hide, he is reflective and philosophical. In the remake, Paul is conflicted. When his brother (Vincent D’Onofrio) confronts him about what he is doing, his attempt to justify himself comes across as whiny and moralistic. Moreover, at the end of the original, when Paul forms his forefinger and thumb into a gun, we believe he will continue to be a vigilante after his move to Chicago. When Paul does that in the remake, we don’t believe him. Having killed the men connected to his family’s tragedy, there no longer seems to be sufficient motive for him to continue in that vein.
There is one similarity worth noting. As I mentioned above, it was important that Paul be given a gun as a gift, because normal, law-abiding citizens that buy guns in movies usually end up getting killed. In the remake, Paul starts to buy a gun, but changes his mind when confronted with the regulations. He later sees a gun drop from a victim in the operating room, and he opportunistically secretes it on his person to be used later, thereby avoiding the jinx of buying it. He does buy a gun later, a machine gun no less, but that is after he has already done a lot of killing.
All in all, the Death Wish of 1974 is by far the better movie. The remake is just another revenge movie. The original is existential.
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