Death Wish: Then and Now

With respect to the Death Wish remake currently out, I’m struck by the significant ‘White Panther’-esque “moviegoer vs movie critic” split in terms of the film’s favorability/unfavorability.

In his review of the film at Variety, Owen Gleiberman (sigh) establishes his liberal bona fides, which for his type and his social milieu, is almost an obligation when reviewing a film like this:

“Death Wish,” make no mistake, is a movie that has its heart in the wrong place. It’s an advertisement for gun fetishism, for taking the law into your own hands, for homicide as justice, for thinking of assault weapons as the world’s coolest toys…

“Death Wish” is designed to ring right-wing alarm bells, but mostly it’s designed to inspire nihilist chuckles at seeing bad-guy scum get killed real good.

However, Gleiberman then reports to us that actual man-on-the-street reactions to the remake are rather… different:

[Bruce Willis] walks up to a drug dealer who he’s learned was guilty of wounding and terrorizing a young boy. The dealer, known as the Ice Cream Man, is slumped in his chair, surrounded by thug bodyguards. He barely has enough time to take out his gun and say who the f— are you before Willis announces, “I’m your last customer,” and pumps half a dozen bullets into him. No muss, no fuss.

The scene, by all rights, ought to be a nasty bit of business: a middle-aged white avenger in a hoodie, popping out of nowhere to blow a black drug dealer away. But that “last customer” line plays like an old Schwarzenegger kiss-off, and the lawless killing is followed by equal-time commentary from black and white talk-radio hosts — the film’s explicit attempt to defuse any racist overtones.

More than that, the reality of a glib execution like this one is that audiences have been consuming overripe revenge thrillers for 45 years now, and they no longer take them all that seriously. Blowing someone away with unsmiling moral cool is now an act of violent comedy. (That’s certainly how the multi-racial audience reacted at the preview showing of “Death Wish” I attended; they hooted and hollered with glee.)

Note the similarities with this 1974 NYT review of the original Death Wish by Judy Klemsrud (sigh):

The critics who dislike the film have complained that it exploits fear irresponsibly; that it gives an exaggerated picture of crime in New York; that it glorifies vigilantism; that it endorses violence as a solution to violence, and that it was, made by out‐of‐towners with a distorted vision of New York…

However, in random interviews I had with people coming out of the two theaters where “Death Wish”, is playing, I found it hard to find anyone who was critical of the film. Of the 30 people I talked to, only four objected to the film. The others loved it.

“It’s great—this is the second time I’ve seen it,” said George Flynn, a 47‐year‐old Manhattanite who describes himself as a poet. “It’s very entertaining and very lively, and tremendously well done. I don’t necessarily agree with the vigilante philosophy, but the movie is so entertaining that I don’t bother with the morality.”…

The crowds at both theaters were a mixture of well‐dressed older people and casually dressed youths. The number of moviegoers over 40 seemed to be higher than is usual these days. Whites outnumbered blacks greatly at both theaters, with more blacks and working class people at the Astor Plaza theater.

“I think it’s lovely, a very comfortable picture,” said Anne Mitchell, a white‐haired 62‐year‐old secretary from Queens, who saw the movie alone. “I like Charles Bronson don’t approve of killing, but at least the people he killed were not good people. I’m glad the police let him go at the end.”…

Many, but not all, of the women interviewed defended Bronson’s vigilante actions more than the men did.

This part of the 1974 review cracked me up:

Two couples who walked out of the Astor Plaza theater at the same time had widely differing opinions of the film. “Not at any time was it racist,” said Lorenzo Powell, a black 23‐year‐old teacher’s assistant from Brooklyn. His date, also black, Gail Gordon, 23, of Brooklyn, agreed.

Behind them, Joseph Delon, 30, of Brooklyn, an Oriental [Yes, in 1974 even NYT liberals used the word ‘Oriental’ – LM] who described his occupation as “bum,” shouted so people entering the theater could hear: “This is the worst picture I’ve ever seen in my life. A white man can get away with anything in America. I’ve never seen so much racism in a movie — six blacks get killed for every white.”

His 30‐year‐old black wife, Vonnie, who was carrying their month‐old daughter, Nia, added, “This picture stinks. I wish we had our $8 back.”…

Moral of the story: The perception/opinion gap between elites (MSM movie critics) & John Q. Publics, while perhaps not as wide as it was in 1974, is still quite significant in 2018.

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