Tue
Nov 15 2011 1:00pm

Death Wish: Pure Vengeance

Death Wish PosterIt was a late, rainy afternoon in the city as I sat at the stick belonging to my new favorite watering hole. The name of the joint was My Wit’s End, and that made me laugh…

“Where are you, honey?” she said.

“I’m at My Wit’s End!”  he replied.

I’d changed bars because I’d given Bill and The Cornerstone the ol’ heave-ho (for very good reasons you can find here).  In front of me on the on the gashed, burnt, and scarred stick lay a copy of Brian Garfield’s brilliant crime novel, Death Wish. I’d finished it earlier in the morning, after finding an old 1974 copy from Coronet Books, London, on teh Internetz Tubez. I was very happy to find that the book was every bit as enjoyable as the movie. If you can track down a copy, and there are still some 1989 editions left here and there, you will not be disappointed. Trust me on this.

Anyway, there I sat, drinking my Johnny Walker, tapping my fingers on the book’s cover. And what, you may ask, was I thinking about?

Revenge. I was thinking about revenge. More specifically, about the nature of revenge. (Just an aside: I’m going to stick with the movie version of Death Wish here, as I think there are more people out there that have seen the movie than have read the book, okay?) Anyway, the movie is about Paul Kersey (Paul Benjamin in the novel), a non-descript New Yorker who works in an architecture firm. He has a wife he loves, and a daughter he adores. Kersey’s wife and daughter are attacked by a trio of thugs (look for the cameo by a VERY young Jeff Goldblum, in what I believe is his first role on film) who force their way into their apartment on the pretext of delivering groceries. The daughter is raped, the wife killed. And I have to add, this is just not any New York, this is 1970’s movie New York: gritty, ugly, and dangerous. It’s the proverbial “concrete jungle”, a fitting backdrop for the story.

Well, Paul ends up with nowhere to turn. The police tell him that finding these three scumbags will be akin to finding gold in the desert. His daughter survives, but is left catatonic, running away from her experience. His son-in-law, Jack Toby, is useless: a whining, throw-up-your-arms type, easily moving into victim-hood himself. Toby’s character represents the law-abiding society, best exemplified in this exchange between Paul and Toby after they sign the papers to keep Paul’s daughter in a sanatorium:

Paul: I mean, if we’re not pioneers, what have we become? What do you call people who, when they’re faced with a condition or fear, do nothing about it, they just run and hide?

Jack: Civilized?

Charles Bronson in Death WsihAnd that’s the corner Paul turns in his life: He wants revenge, an emotional state that runs darker and deeper than vigilantism, the major theme in the film. Paul wants an eye for an eye that can never be replaced, and he tries to go and get it. He doesn’t want to right wrongs, or use his actions to electrify society into action. Yeah, it may look like that, however, I feel he’s using it all as an excuse, in his head, for his revenge. He tries to fill the hole made up of his pain with as many bodies as he can shoot. He wants his universe back in balance, and that’s what revenge is about, in my opinion: putting our universe back in balance.

But is Paul really ever satisfied? I don’t think he is. His wife can never come back. His daughter will remain forever unable to face up to the horrors she experienced. So, what does he really gain? The fact that Paul keeps on shooting muggers, NONE of which are the three who attacked his family, makes me believe that hole inside Paul will never be filled.

I had to wait to continue this interior line of thought because the bartender came over to me, a short, stocky woman with short, spiky hair the color of rusty pipes. I placed my order for another Johnny Walker, neat. She seemed far away. I asked if there was anything wrong.

“I got robbed the other night,” she replied. “Mother F’r broke into my apartment. Took my computer and my mother’s jewelry. That jewelry’s all I had left of her, too.”

“What do the police say?”

“What the hell do you think?”

“I hear ya, and sorry to hear about it.”

“Man,” she replied as she put the drink down in front of me, “if I could find that guy, I would take a bat to his knee caps and elbows, then throw him into shark-infested waters.”

“Wouldn’t get your stuff back, yeah?”

She looked at me like I’d just pissed in her mouth. “Yeah, and? At least I’d feel like he’d paid something real for it.” And with that she walked off.

I watched her go, realizing that the urge for revenge runs deep in just about all of us, except maybe someone running for Buddha hood. What would I do, if what I loved most in the world had been taken from me? How far would I go? I looked down at the iconic image of Bronson on the book’s cover, half turned, gun pointed back up the stairs, ready to shoot.

Would that be me, under similar circumstances? I’d like to think it wouldn’t be, but . . . man . . . who can say?


Robert Lewis grew up under the pier at Venice Beach, CA. There, by firelight, he would entertain the stray dogs with weird and wonderful tales. He’s still telling stories, but now he lives in a place with walls, a roof, and cases of red wine. Crime fiction and blues guitar are his things. He blogs over at NeedleCity, and twits sporadically and nonsensically as @robertklewis.

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6 comments
1. BPoelle
Oh man, I LOVE talking about revenge in bars, why does that always make the best backdrop for that particular conversation? Also, you know what other movie about revenge just gets me? The Last Of Shelia. SO many LAYERS to that one! Do you think Hollywood will ever get around to making a remake of that? And if so, WHO WOULD YOU CAST?
2. rklewis
Kris Kristopherson in the Coburn role.
Robert Downey Jr. in the James Mason role.
Daniel Craig in the Ian McShane role? Hmmm... not sure there.
We already know who would play the Dyan Cannon role. ;-)
Lindsay Lohan in the Raquel Welsh role, lololol...

Hell, I'm just not sure!

Glad you dug the post, you!
Carmen Pinzon
3. bungluna
I saw the movie at a relatively young age and blame it for my life-long fascination with revenge cinema. I can take any hideous crime as long as I know that someone will open a can of whoopass for the latter part of the movie. Keep all the nuanced movies with ambiguous endings; I want me some maimed, dead bad guys by THE END.
Laura K. Curtis
4. LauraKCurtis
I also saw the movie much too young, when I was actually living in 70's NYC. I was terrified and had nightmares for ages, but later on I appreciated it much more and grew to love it. But I still can't watch the scene that sets Bronson on his path of vengeance.
5. RKLewis
Laura, I totally hear you, regarding "that scene". Very brutal. I'm like you and bungluna, as I saw this, and other films, way too young. My folks had divoriced, and my old man never wanted to do visitation weekends unless we did something HE wanted to do, such as see movies like this, Serpico, French Connection, etc.

Thanks for stopping by, both of you!
6. db
I remember seeing Death Wish well after The Big Chill and The Fly. I spotted Goldblum, and for a second I thought "Holy cow, why is he doing such a small, unflattering role?"

Then, of course, it hit me how old the movie was and how lucky Goldblum probably felt at the time, even to be playing an amoral rapist thug -- just to be in a major movie with Charles Bronson! Heh.
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