Watching Death Wish at the New Beverly

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Quentin Tarantino, being the absolute movie fanatic that he is, couldn’t be content with just making movies that are pastiches of the ones he loves. No, he had to build a theater to show them. The New Beverly is located in the heart of Hollywood, right on Beverly Blvd, and specializes in showing genre films of all stripes, but especially the exploitation and kung-fu movies that are Tarantino’s first loves. He curates the monthly selection of films himself, and the preshow is made up of interstitials from old drive-in theaters and trailers for films of bygone eras (usually from the 70’s,) aiming to help create the mood for the film you’re about to see. That said, if you’re the kind who prefers forgotten family films or romances, weekend matinees are usually devoted to such features. If you ever wanted to spend an afternoon with a double-feature of The Other Side of the Mountain and its sequel, the aptly-titled The Other Side of the Mountain 2, the New Beverly is the place for you.

Death Wish is a movie I’d been interested in seeing for quite some time. Released in 1974, directed by Michael Winner, and starring Charles Bronson in perhaps his most iconic role, Death Wish is, as I understand it, the blueprint for the modern vigilante anti-hero, the cornerstone on which the likes of The Punisher and the Taken franchises were built. In fact, Death Wish is so influential it got its own loose kinda-sorta-remake in 2007 with the Kevin Bacon-starring Death Sentence, based on another of the Brian Garfield novels from which the original was based. It’s a simple yet effective setup: man’s family is raped and murdered by criminals, man buys gun, man shoots criminals with said gun. I was up for that, and if I was going to see it anywhere, I might as well see it at a midnight screening in a temple built to honor the kind of grungy cinema it both came from and influenced.

Seeing Death Wish at midnight at the New Beverly truly is like entering a pseudo-nightmarish dreamzone of cinema. The building itself is nice enough, utilitarian. The lobby is small, the bathroom smaller. The theater sits about 300 people, the chairs are nothing fancy. But once the film started rolling, it embodied the ‘grindhouse’ experience that Tarantino loves so much it drove him to make a movie called Grindhouse. Trailers of the 70’s are truly something else. A trailer for Drity Harry seemed to transplant entire scenes – what felt like minutes of characters just talking, one location after the other – before ending on a frame of Clint Eastwood jumping onto a moving truck, leaping right towards the camera, the title freeze-framing on his trademark grimace. The trailer for Hardcore spends a whole minute lingering on the weeping visage of George C. Scott, screaming at the unseen porno theater projector to ‘Turn it off!,’ presumably to no longer see his daughter debase herself on the big screen. Hardcore is written and directed by Paul Schrader, the man who wrote Taxi Driver, so presumably Hardcore is a pretty good movie. But you wouldn’t guess it from the reaction of the audience, who laughed their asses off, and I couldn’t blame them, because the emotion of that scene is not given context and it’s preceded by bizarre back and forth jumps in narrative and bad synthesizer music and sound that doesn’t sync up. It’s like watching a trailer for a movie from Japan and wondering how on Earth anybody can be excited by what they’re seeing, and it certainly drives home how much more complex the language for film marketing has become in the past couple of decades.

This is without even touching on the experience of watching Death Wish, a truly unnerving experience. On the technical side of things, the New Beverly certainly achieved its grindhouse aims by showing a pretty scratched up reel. It reminded me of when I used to see movies as a kid, when the print would generally look fine until the projector began to prepare for the shift from one reel of film to another, and the screen became awash in scratches, spots, dirt, blemishes. Many film buffs bemoan the fact that filmmaking and film projection have become almost entirely digital processes, that they are no longer ‘authentic,’ and I increasingly find myself on the side of ‘Fuck Authenticity.’ Say what you want about the fidelity of digital cameras, but at least digital film is unlikely to skip ahead a couple of minutes, seemingly starting in the middle of a scene we weren’t in previously, just because the reels changed over. But again, this is in keeping with the spirit of grindhouse, so who am I to complain, really?

Death Wish has also simply not aged very well. The 70’s are frequently heralded by critics as the Golden Age of Cinema, but Death Wish exemplifies a style of pop filmmaking that simply doesn’t work anymore. Quick cuts of simple actions that are supposed to go in time with the music – say, a man hammering a post with a shovel – instead feel oddly static, knocking you out of the experience. And said score, courtesy of jazz legend Herbie Hancock, is frequently at odds with what is happening on screen. When the just-brutally raped daughter of Charles Bronson is crawling over her mother’s dead body to grab the phone, and what you’re hearing is not ominous but some sort of jangly acoustic guitar tune, something is askew. Again, the language of cinema has evolved.

Of course, none of these are what really ruined my experience, since these are to be expected as part of the New Beverly experience. These imperfections are precisely part of the charm. What ruined my experience is that Death Wish is a morally reprehensible movie. I’d heard a little beforehand that the film faced controversy upon its release for glorifying vigilante justice, but little did I understand how true it was: this is a movie for gun nuts. Not only does feed a vivid fantasy for older white men to imagine how they ought to ‘take back the streets,’ but it shits on basic human principles like empathy. At the start of the film, we find Bronson overseeing a model of a proposed New York luxury apartment block. When he rightly asks how members of the working class are expected to deal with being priced out the area, his coworkers cow him as a ‘bleeding-heart liberal.’ When he visits a ranch in Texas, the man who runs it takes him to a shooting range, chiding him for thinking that guns ‘must be extensions of our penises,’ saying that they are merely a tool – never mind a tool whose only use is to murder as quickly as possible. This is not even mentioning the actions that Bronson takes once he actually gets his gun. Twice he happens upon a crime in progress and produces a firearm. In one instance, he shoots the criminals in the back as they start to run away. In another, he shoots a guy before he even has a chance to react, leaving him to writhe on the ground in agony.

In one sequence, before he has gone full vigilante, Bronson walks down a street and is startled when, in a dark alley, a black man lights a cigarette and makes eye contact, his face underlit menacingly with the match flame. Let me reiterate that: a black man lighting a cigarette is something to be feared.

The point where I walked out, where I couldn’t take anymore, comes about an hour into the movie. Bronson’s son-in-law comes to visit his apartment, where he has repainted the walls bright orange and is playing some chintzy new music, loudly. By this point, Bronson has murdered at least seven people, and his exploits have become the subjects of the local news and a city-wide manhunt. And yet he is jovial and dancing. Despite his wife being dead and his daughter so savagely raped she’s become virtually catatonic, he seems to have renewed his vim and vigor for life. Owning a gun and killing people, it seems, serves much the same purpose as a Viagra.

There’s only so much a man can take.

The more charitable part of me wants to say that the film is being more objective than I’m giving credit for, highlighting the ignorance of the character’s worldview by simply presenting the world the way he sees it. I shouldn’t need that spelled out for me, should I? Is Death Wish actually satirizing this extreme-right world view by showing it play out? Am I missing a much subtler point?

I remember when American Sniper came out and the controversy that surrounded it (or indeed the string of military conflict movies that have come out in the past five years.) I remember seeing a scene in the movie, early on, where a young Chris Kyle is having dinner with his family, and his evangelical father lectures his children on how their family are shepherds, and the American populace is sheep, and it is their job to protect them from ‘Wolves.’ In almost the same breath, he slams his fist on the table and screams at his children for breaking a minor rule. I thought, watching the movie, that it was very obvious this man was crazy, and that his views ought to be seen as such, and how this might have influenced Chris Kyle. I felt the scene was objectively showing an unstable family, but it struck me how someone with those beliefs could see the same scene and have them affirmed, or how someone else on the opposite end of the political spectrum could see that scene as propagating those beliefs and be offended by that. I read somewhere that American Sniper was essentially a modern litmus test for American politics: you see in it what you want to see. Maybe in Death Wish’s case, I’ve finally tipped over into the fuddy-duddy left wing critic who can’t see the objective forest for the trees and needs to have my beliefs recited back to me, lest a film be right-wing propaganda.

But I don’t think I am.

Still, credit where credit is due: one has to acknowledge the power of Charles Bronson’s performance. If there’s any reason Death Wish has managed to keep a hold in the annals of cinema history, it’s because of the gravitas Bronson brings to the proceedings. For all the faults I must give to script, Bronson’s transformation from the soft-hearted to the hard is not one of them. And if for whatever reason you still find yourself compelled to watch this, notice how often the camera rests on his face, his eyes, letting them tell the story. Bronson has a handful of solitary scenes, and they all play out in long shot, the camera merely following his movements. Notice his physicality, the character that comes through his body language when practices hitting a thug with a sock full of quarters on a houseplant, or when he stumbles home from shooting a man for the first time. He even supplies what few genuine laughs are to be found here through some inspired line readings (“I’m… good,” he stammers nervously to one of his staff as they leave the room, trying to hide his exhaustion from a night of vigilantism.) Of course, it doesn’t hurt that all the other actors are extraordinarily bad – especially his son-in-law – but that makes the weight Bronson carries on his shoulders all the more impressive. I guess there’s a reason they made five of these things…

Also, don’t let this put you off going to the New Beverly. If nothing else, it has the cheapest concessions I think I’ve ever seen. I got a small soda and medium popcorn for $4. I could’ve gotten a hot dog for $2! On that basis alone, you can bet your ass I’ll be back at the New Beverly one of these days! (Just not to see Death Wish.)

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One comment on “Watching Death Wish at the New Beverly

  1. James Bertis says:

    You make some interesting points. I’ve seen the film twice all the way through, once a long time ago on AMC when I was marathoning movies over a winter break, and once much more recently when it appeared for streaming for a minute.

    I will say, you didn’t miss much in terms of important plot points after you walked out; things continue, a sequel is set up, roll credits.

    Note, before I launch in to this, that it was popular with the audiences but not favored by the critics.

    You talked about the style (I’m taking that to mean visual and direction choices) being dated; a part of the 70s Pop style that doesn’t work anymore. I think in saying that, you’ve also touched on why you were so averse to the story, too. Let me explain.

    Watching the film today, we’re missing a lot of cultural context. Just like someone in the 60s or 70s watching one of today’s movies would be lost at the idea of Terrorists!, we’re a little lost on the idea of Vigilante Justice in Manhattan.I think we forget now that our society, or at least some of it, has matured, and while a black man lighting a cigarette is an easy scare in Death Wish, it’s unthinkable, unusable, and irrelevant as a moment now. But instead of dismissing it as bad writing, or just another example of bigotry in film, we can ask: what was it about American culture that made it work then?

    I also think that while there may have been a more subtle point, as you say, in the novel that the film is based on, that point was poorly communicated or, indeed, completely left out of the film. I think that the film is a good piece of cinema in that it appealed well to the public and overall isn’t a badly made film, and that says a lot: your critique of it now is very different from the ones it got from the general public and somewhat different from the ones it got from the critics in ’74. I believe that understanding context is vital to understanding and critiquing any film made any earlier than 10 years before the present, and while the best films don’t require familiarity with the context to still be great stories, a film that does isn’t necessarily a bad one, just one that doesn’t work now the way it did.

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