Popularity and controversy are highly contextual and difficult to reconstruct. For example, you can ascribe the success of Michael Winner’s Death Wish to rabble-rousing vigilantism and derive gloomy conclusions about the early 1970s. Certainly its violent, seedy New York City, described as a “toilet” by one character, will surprise a generation used to thinking of the Big Apple as a playground for the rich. Nonetheless, it is difficult to feel in our guts the same angst and paranoia, to understand fundamentally why audiences at that time would have accepted such a negative, exaggerated depiction.
On the other hand, it is easy for the credulous to mistake the film’s gritty, superficial Realism as an accurate reflection of social realities. New York in the 1970s may not have been entirely pleasant, but people were not mugged the moment they stepped out on to the street either. It is worth recognizing, for example, that the film’s murderous protagonist, Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is sympathetic only because his victims are little better than mad dogs. Who would criticize putting down a mad dog? It is the persuasive combination of Realistic texture with moral certainty that gives the film its incendiary power.
The “street Western,” the sub-genre from the early 1970s of which Death Wish is an example, jacked up audience bloodlust by transferring the black-and-white moral certainties of the Old West to violent urban jungles. The killing machine protagonist is the only character. The bad guys are stick figures, no good, pre-judged as Evil and exist only to be killed. The rest of the characters are faceless victims or props. In Death Wish, Stuart Margolin as the Arizona real estate developer who turns Bronson on to the pleasures of shooting, for example, is a collection of colorful “characteristics,” but they add up to nothing more than a goad for Kersey, while Vincent Gardenia as the detective in charge of stopping him, is little more than a cop with a bothersome cold—almost literally a drip.
With so little to care about, the action in Death Wish moves from one impersonal killing to another in a manner that is almost as formal as a ritual. Instead of suspense, there’s very efficient mayhem. In 1973, Kersey’s epic revenge might have worked like the salving of an open wound by giving audiences vicarious, temporary control over a frightening reality, but now it feels just a bit remote. Our obsessions have moved on, partly because American cities have become safer, but mainly because today’s horrors are so horrendous as to make the violence in Death Wish seem, aside from the initial rape and beating of Kersey’s wife and daughter, almost quaint. The only real question is how the movie will end, and given that this is a star vehicle, it’s a cinch the protagonist will survive. It is not that we don’t care; we can’t care when the problems Death Wish exploits have been replaced by far, far worse.