January 14th, 2009


Ya Gotta Start Someplace

I caught most of the film Death Wish a few days ago. I’m talking about the original 1974 hit that starred Charles Bronson as a man who becomes a gun-toting, violent vigilante after a gang of bad guys murder his wife and rape his daughter (she goes catatonic and has to be institutionalized).

It’s a tricky movie to evaluate, particularly if one wasn’t around or aware in 1974. From a movie-making standpoint, it’s kind of crappy. Bronson turns in his usual dependably wooden performance, though it must be said that it kind of works for his character, so I’m actually going to put that one down in the asset column. The direction and camera work are uninspired and occasionally downright clunky. The background music is all over the map – a mish-mosh of inconsistent styles, replete with occasional flourishes of the fake rock n’ roll music so often found in background music of this era.

One might well wonder what all the fuss was about at the time. You have to understand that it came out in an era of high crime and violence in many of our major cities. This film poised itself squarely upon the electrified third rail of many Americans’ worries and fears. Its message was not necessarily a comforting one, but it was cathartic for many viewers in 1974. It spawned a long series of sequels over the ensuing 20 years. I have never met or read of anybody who thought that any of the sequels measured up to the original. I haven’t seen any of the sequels, but the general word seems to be that the later films made Bronson’s character into more of an infallible hero and abandoned any pretense of thoughtfulness, irony, or serious social commentary.

There are two actors who appeared in Death Wish in small roles many years before they became famous. As a member of the murderer/rapist gang early in the film, who should turn up but Jeff Goldblum! His character is named in the credits as “Freak #1.” And late in the film, a young policeman with maybe half a dozen lines is played by a terribly young, skinny Christopher Guest! To put it another way, this makes for a terrific movie trivia question – What movie did Jeff Goldblum and Christopher Guest both appear in?
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