Saturday, August 23, 2014

Portland Exposé (1957)

Portland Exposé is a low-budget 1957 noir from the Allied Artists off-shoot of Monogram Pictures. It’s included in the first of VCI’s excellent Forgotten Noir boxed sets.

Portland Exposé deals with organised crime involving the Teamsters’ Union. This was a subject much in the news at the time and this notoriety was something that producer Lindsley Parsons hoped would help the movie at the box office. His instinct was correct and the movie, made on a budget of less than $200,000, performed quite well commercially.

George Madison (Edward Binns) runs the Woodland Tavern with his wife Clara (Virginia Gregg). George has been persuaded to install pinball machines in the tavern. He’s not too thrilled by the idea, believing that pinball machines are a step on the road that leads to gambling, vice and social disintegration. He now finds himself under pressure from Teamsters’ Union mobsters to install more machines, along with slot machines.

George is not the kind of guy who likes to be pushed around and he’s keen to fight back against the growing tide of intimidation and corruption in the city. He joins forces with a couple of crusading reporters and an honest union boss. The idea is for George to play along with the mobsters and infiltrate their organisation. While he’s doing this he’ll be recording everything on a miniaturised tape recorder that the two reporters are very proud of. It’s so tiny that it’s only about the size of a house brick so when you wear it under your suit it’s no more conspicuous than a house brick would be. You will not be surprised to find out that this tape recorder nearly gets George killed when the bad guys inevitably discover it.

George has however gathered quite a lot of evidence. Now he just needs to stay alive, but soon he has other problems when the creepiest of the bad guys (played by Frank Gorshin) tries to rape his daughter Ruth, and Ruth later gets menaced by a maniacal hoodlum with a bottle of acid.

By the standards of 1957 this is quite a violent movie, and quite a sleazy one as well. The mobsters are pushing narcotics and prostitution as well as gambling. This relatively harsh edge is one of this film’s two notable features, the other being the topicality of the subject matter that I referred to earlier. There’s also one memorable brief scene of a gang murder that is quite remarkable for its sadism, and for the maniacal laughter of the perpetrator.

Unfortunately, while the intentions were good the execution is not quite so hot. The dialogue is stilted and the acting is a bit on the wooden side. Frank Gorshin provides the acting highlights with a chilling performance as a particularly nasty thug with a taste for young girls. Joseph Marr is also excellent as a psycho heavy.

The movie was shot entirely on location in Portland, despite threats to the producers by armed goons from the Teamsters’ Union.

Director Harold D. Schuster helmed the rather good 1954 noir Loophole. Considering the limited budget and tight shooting schedule for Portland Exposé he does a fairly solid job.

Stylistically this is not a particularly noirish movie. There are a few night scenes but they don’t have the genuine noir feel.

VCI have done a fine job with the presentation of this movie. The transfer is good and is 16x9 enhanced and there’s an exceptionally informative audio commentary by Lindsley Parsons Jr who was assistant director. He’s the son of the movie’s producer and he provides some fascinating glimpses into the world of low-budget film-making.

Portland Exposé is by no means a great movie, it’s not even a very good movie, but its fairly unflinching (by the standards of the day) portrait of the effects of corruption and gangsterism make it worth a look, and give it a certain noir flavour. The Forgotten Noir boxed set can be very highly recommended, and if you buy the set there’s no reason not to give Portland Exposé a spin.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Holiday (1938)

I approached Holiday with some trepidation. Like The Philadelphia Story it’s based on a Philip Barry play and has a screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart. Like The Philadelphia Story it’s directed by George Cukor and stars Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Given that I found The Philadelphia Story to be a total bore I was understandably not terribly confident about enjoying Holiday. It turns out I was right to be worried.

Cary Grant is Johnny Case and he’s about to be married to Julia Seton (Doris Nolan). Johnny is a successful businessman. He’s not short of money, but his money is new money. The Setons are old money. Julia has quite a deal of trouble persuading her crusty and very straitlaced father (Edward Seton, played by Henry Kolker) to agree to the marriage.

Julia has a brother, Ned (Lew Ayres). Ned is permanently drunk because he blames his father for stifling his creativity and preventing him from following his dreams. Julia also has a sister, Linda (Katharine Hepburn). Linda feels just as stifled as Ned although she hasn’t yet given up completely. She has however retreated into neurotic hypochondria. If you’re thinking that this sounds like a remarkably depressing setup for a romantic comedy then you’re dead right.

Given that Linda is played by the movie’s star Katharine Hepburn while Julia  is played by an actress no-one has ever heard of, we naturally never doubt that Johnny will end up marrying Linda rather than Julia.

Even though it’s painfully clear that Johnny and Julia are not only spectacularly ill-matched but actively dislike each other the movie insists on making us wait until the very end before these very obvious facts occur to the characters concerned.

This brings us to an obvious problem. Julia is such an appalling character that we cannot possibly believe that Johnny could ever have been remotely interested in her. Like Edward Seton she’s a cardboard cutout villain whose only purpose in the story is to make Johnny and Linda seem more sympathetic. To me this is lazy writing. Two-dimensional characters are fine in comedy but since the movie seems more interested in being a social satire and a psychological drama than a comedy then I think it’s a valid criticism.

I have to come clean at his point and confess to a rather considerable dislike of Katharine Hepburn. Linda as portrayed by Hepburn strikes me as being a shrill, tiresome hysteric. This dislike of Hepburn may to some extent explain why I found it impossible to like this movie, although in my view it has plenty of other problems.

Cary Grant does his best but the script just doesn’t give him enough to work with. Grant was one of the finest comic actors of all time but when the gags aren’t there in the script there’s little he can do.

The big problem is that there are very few laughs in this movie. Edward Everett Horton provides most of the movie’s very rare amusing moments. A lack of laughs is a pretty serious problem for a comedy, but Holiday is not just unfunny, it’s often perilously close to out-and-misery.

This movie also has a rather stagey feel to it at times. Some of Hepburn’s dialogue is too overwrought and too much like speechifying - you might get away with it on stage but on film it seems clumsy.

It’s worth pointing out that while Holiday is often included on lists of screwball comedies it is most emphatically not a screwball comedy. I’m not even sure it’s a comedy, but it certainly isn’t a screwball comedy. The intention seems to have been to make a romantic comedy with some social comment and some class consciousness and the two latter commodities sink the comedy (as they almost always did). There are so few laughs and there’s so much angst that I think we’re entitled to suspect that director George Cukor was not even attempting comedy in this movie.

Columbia’s Region 4 DVD release is barebones and the transfer is very grainy.

I found Holiday to be an ordeal. It isn’t funny and I didn’t like any of the characters enough to care particularly what happened to them. I can’t recommend this one, even as a rental.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Violent Saturday (1955)

I like odd but interesting little movies and Violent Saturday certainly fits into that category. It’s a mixture of film noir and melodrama but its real oddity comes from its frequent changes in mood.

It was shot in colour and in Cinemascope. There are very few night scenes and visually those scenes have nothing remotely noir about them. Mostly the movie is bathed in bright sunshine. It takes place in a small town but it’s a rather picturesque small town. All this should be enough to disqualify it as film noir but when it comes to content there’s more than enough darkness and moral ambiguity to put it right back in the noir category.

Bradenville is a peaceful little town but it’s a town of secrets. All of its inhabitants, even those who seem most innocent, have dark secrets. The arrival of three bank robbers will not only bring violence to Bradenville but also bring the various secrets of its inhabitants into the open.

Shelley Martin (Victor Mature) works at the copper mine which is the town’s major industry. He’s the right-hand man to the boss. He’s happily married with kids and he’s fairly content with his life, although he is having a few problems with his son Stevie. Stevie’s best pal at school is the son of a war hero. Shelley Martin was in a reserved occupation and therefore didn’t fight in the war. Shelley is not bothered by guilt about this. He was willing to fight but he was a key man at the mine and he understood that he could contribute more to the war effort by helping to keep the mine running efficiently. He has no problems with this but Stevie is too young to understand the complexities of life and he feels bad because his father wasn’t a hero.

Boyd Fairchild (Richard Egan), the son of the owner of the mine, has bigger problems. He’s an alcoholic and his wife has been having affairs. Their marriage seems on the point of final collapse. It has reached crisis point but they are making one last effort to save it.

The manager of the Bank of Bradenville, Harry Reeves (Tommy Noonan), is a timid young man suffering from a hopeless infatuation that is causing him to make a bigger and bigger fool of himself.

The town’s librarian is trying to solve her desperate financial problems by indulging in a spot of thieving.

The only people who don’t seem to have any problems are the local Amish community, people like prosperous farmer Stadt (Ernest Borgnine) and his family.

Bradenville might not exactly be a powder keg but it’s obvious that there is plenty of tension which might well be explosive for some of its citizens. The arrival of Dill (Lee Marvin), Harper (Stephen McNally) and Chapman (J. Carrol Naish) will light the fuse. They have what they think is a foolproof plan to rob the Bank of Bradenville. This plan will entail murderous violence and the taking of hostages and will confront several of the story’s key characters with difficult moral dilemmas. Stadt in particular will discover that it is not enough simply to try to avoid evil - sometimes all you can do is to choose a lesser evil to avert a greater evil.

The changes in mood are also matched with some interesting visual variations. Bradenville itself is a very attractive little town but its main industry is copper mining and the movie switches back and forth between the picturesque town and the stark landscape of open-cut mining. Open-cut mining may well have been a deliberate choice since the movie lays the motivations of the townspeople open as uncompromisingly as the mine lays the landscape open.

What really makes this movie interesting is that it doesn’t succumb to the temptation of cynicism. Most of the characters have serious character flaws and they have done foolish, selfish or thoughtless things but they are not monsters. They’re just human, with the usual quota of human weaknesses. The movie is not trying to tell us that small-town people are vicious hypocrites. These are people who have given in to temptations but they are not irredeemably lost. They are capable of seeing their own faults and they are capable of trying to do something about them. The eruption of violence that follows the arrival of the bank robbers offers chances for redemption.

The movie also resists the temptation to condemn the Amish for their uncompromising stand on violence. Stadt and his family are not portrayed as bigots or fools for their beliefs, even if the movie does suggest that their beliefs may not always work in the real world.

While the movie suggests that it is sometimes necessary to choose the lesser of two evils it also suggests that this is not a reason for surrendering to despair or cynicism or moral relativism.

Sydney Boehm, who provided the screenplay, wrote a number of superb noirs including The Big Heat, Union Station, High Wall and Rogue Cop. Director Richard Fleischer helmed some notable noirs including Narrow Margin and Armored Car Robbery

Lee Marvin gives another of his trademark intense sadistic and twisted performances. Watch out for the scene where he stomps a child’s hand! Victor Mature gives his usual effortless and assured performance. Marvin and Mature take the top acting honours but the supporting cast is quite capable.

Violent Saturday misses out on being top-flight film noir but it gains points for being interesting and unusual. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 11, 2014

King of the Khyber Rifles (1953)

King of the Khyber Rifles is a swashbuckling adventure starring Tyrone Power  and set on India’s North West Frontier. 

The movie was based on the classic adventure novel King of the Khyber Rifles by Talbot Mundy. In fact the story told in the movie has absolutely nothing in common with Mundy’s excellent novel other than the fact that both take place on the North West Frontier. 

The movie is set in India in 1857, just prior to the outbreak of the Mutiny. Captain Alan King (Tyrone Power) has been posted to a garrison on the North West Frontier. It starts promisingly, throwing us straight into an action scene when when the supply column under Captain King’s command is ambushed by Afridi tribesmen.

King’s arrival at the garrison causes some unease when it becomes known that he is a half-caste. His father was a British officer, his mother a Moslem. Brigadier Maitland (Michael Rennie) is determined to give the obviously very competent young officer a fair chance although his tolerance is strained somewhat when it becomes obvious that a romance is blossoming between Captain King and the brigadier’s daughter Susan (Terry Moore). 

The whole sub-plot involving the romance between a brigadier’s daughter and a half-caste is anachronistic and irritatingly heavy-handed in execution. The movie threatens to become that most tedious of all Hollywood genres, the Social Problem Movie.

King’s parentage also creates some worrying plot holes. We’re told that King was an orphan who was raised by a Moslem, and we’re told that his father’s family disowned him, 
but we’re also told that he’s just graduated from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. How on earth did he manage to get into Sandhurst?

His parentage also plays a vital part in the more interesting main plot which involves simmering unrest on the Frontier that seems to be about to break out into full-scale rebellion under the leadership of Karram Khan (Guy Rolfe). Karram Khan just happens to be the son of the man who raised King. The two boys were raised as brothers. It’s all rather far-fetched but at least it promises to lead to some action.

The Mutiny also plays a part in the somewhat over-complicated plot. The garrison has just been issued with the new Enfield rifled musket. This weapon of course became the catalyst for the Mutiny when religious agitators spread rumours that the cartridges had been greased with animal fat. The agitators told Hindu soldiers the cartridges were greased with beef fat while Moslem troops were told they were greased with pig fat. Since the cartridges had to be opened with the teeth before loading this led to mutinies in many native regiments. British India was held almost entirely by native troops under British command and the spread of the Mutiny almost led to the end of British rule, and did lead to immense bloodshed. The movie offers only a very cursory explanation for these events and audiences without a reasonably working knowledge of British imperial history may well have found the plot slightly bewildering.

Captain King has been given command of the Khyber Rifles, an unruly but formidable Moslem regiment. King finds himself in command of a mutinous regiment at a very awkward moment, to say the least.

The beginnings of the Mutiny present Brigadier Maitland with a problem, since he is also facing the rebellion of Karram Khan. Of course the problem would be solved if Karram Khan were to meet with an unfortunate and fatal accident, an accident that might possibly be arranged by his adoptive brother Captain Alan King.

The various plot strands do weave themselves together after a fashion, and we do eventually get some rather good battle sequences.

Director Henry King was something of a specialist in action adventure movies and he handles proceedings with his usual skill. This was a big-budget production in Technicolor and Cinemascope by 20th Century-Fox and the money was well spent. It looks quite splendid.

Tyrone Power was one of the great screen swashbucklers and he’s in fine form. Power was particularly adept at playing complex and troubled swashbuckling heroes so this role is right up his alley. Michael Rennie does very well with the role of Brigadier Maitland, also a somewhat complex character who finds himself faced with some rather tricky dilemmas.

Guy Rolfe tries hard as Karram Khan but his rather plummy English accent is a bit off-putting. Terry Moore as Susan Maitland is adequate.

I have no problem with stories being substantially altered when novels are adapted to film but in this case the story has not been altered, it’s been replaced by an entirely new story. Personally I’m not quite convinced by this screenplay (by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts) which becomes a little preachy at times. Despite these minor reservations about the script I have to admit it’s a handsome production, it has plenty of excitement and it has fine performances by Tyrone Power and Michael Rennie. 

As adventure movies set in British India go Paramount’s 1935 Lives of a Bengal Lancer is still the best of the breed but King of the Khyber Rifles can still be recommended.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Loan Shark (1952)

Loan Shark is a 1952 low-budget crime B-movie from Lippert Pictures that doesn’t exactly set the screen alight but it does deliver decent entertainment and film noir fans will find that it’s worth a look.

George Raft is probably best known for the parts he turned down than for the parts he actually played. He turned down lead roles in High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. He arguably did more to make Bogart a star than Bogart did! With a propensity for making such disastrous decisions it’s not surprising that by 1952 Raft’s career was on the downslide. Loan Shark is in fact, by the standards of the movies he was making in the 50s, pretty good.

Raft plays Joe Gargen who’s been doing time in the state penitentiary. He got into a fight with a guy in the bar, and since Joe had been a professional boxer he was charged with assault with a deadly weapon, the deadly weapon being his fists. Now Joe has turned up on the doorstep of his sister Martha (Helen Westcott). Martha’s friend Ann Nelson (Dorothy Hart) is the secretary of the boss at the nearby tyre factory and she’s offered to try to get Joe a job at the plant. When it turns out that the boss is actually looking for somebody to do some undercover work Joe declines. He just wants to be a regular guy doing a regular job. 

The tyre plant is having trouble with loan sharks. Or rather their employees are having trouble with loan sharks, and it’s affecting the morale of the workers. The president of the company is the kind of guy who believes he has a responsibility to look after his workers and he wants this loan shark racket stamped out. Joe isn’t interested in joining a crusade until the loan shark racket affects his own family. Martha’s husband is one of the victims but he’d decided to fight back. Joe told him he was a fool and was asking for trouble and it turned out he was right. But Joe doesn’t like seeing his sister hurt so he changes his mind and takes the job. He’ll help the company take on the racketeers, but he’ll do it his way.

What Joe has to do is not just to find the loan sharks, which is easy. He has to find a way to get to the top men in the racket. He also has to find the loan sharks’ men on the inside in the tyre factory. These men have been encouraging other employees to become involved in gambling and then pointing them in the direction of the loan sharks when they start to lose. 

Pretty soon Joe has penetrated the racket. He’s now an insider, this being the only way to find the top man. This means Joe has to become a gangster himself, and as a result he finds himself hated by his former work mates as well as his sister. Even worse, it means he’s now hated by Ann, with whom romance had started to blossom quite promisingly. Of course Joe is also in real danger. The mobsters behind the loan racket aren’t likely to take kindly to amateur undercover men infiltrating their organisation.

Seymour Friedman had a fairly short career as a director, in both B-movies and television. The low budget on this film doesn’t offer much opportunity for doing anything fancy but he keeps the pacing taut and generally does a solid professional job. Cinematographer Joseph F. Biroc does a fine job, giving this movie a definite film noir feel. The excellent (and surprisingly brutal) opening sequence establishes the noir atmosphere very nicely.

George Raft isn’t everyone’s favourite actor. He’s often accused of being dull and wooden. Personally I like his hardbitten style and I find his performance here to be quite satisfactory. Joe is definitely a tough guy and Raft does the tough guy thing very convincingly.

He is however somewhat overshadowed here by a couple of very fine character actors who play the chief racketeers. Paul Stewart as Lou Donelli and John Hoyt as Vince Phillips  make superb mobsters and their performances are the highlight of the movie. Russell Johnson is better known as the Professor from Gilligan’s Island but he does well here as the crooked and slimy Charlie Thompson, proving himself to be better at playing crooks than he was at comedy. 

Dorothy Hart makes a decorative female lead although it’s not a part that offers  her much of an opportunity to display whatever acting abilities she may have possessed.

Loan Shark has been released by VCI on a two-movie disc paired with Arson Inc. This disc  is also included in their six-movie Forgotten Noir Collector’s Set. Loan Shark looks good although the sound is a little rough at times. Extras include an informative audio commentary track. VCI’s film noir releases always offer value for money and this is no exception.

Loan Shark isn’t a great movie but it’s a well-made B-feature with some good noir atmosphere, plenty of hardboiled dialogue and some good performances. On the whole it delivers the goods. Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949)

The Man on the Eiffel Tower is a 1949 murder mystery movie with a particularly involved and incoherent plot, but for all its messiness and muddle it’s worth seeing for some very clever action scenes.

This was a very troubled production with star Charles Laughton at one stage threatening to walk off the picture unless the director was replaced. As a result Laughton’s co-star Burgess Meredith took over as director. The chaos of the production is unfortunately reflected on the screen, with nobody seeming to have any clear idea of exactly the type of movie they were trying to make. Laughton and Meredith share top billing with Franchot Tone who was also the co-producer. All three leads give uneven performances but all three have their moments.

The movie was based on a Georges Simenon novel, with Charles Laughton as Inspector Maigret. Maigret was one of the more intellectual of the great fictional detectives and Laughton’s casting was odd to say the least.

The plot starts with an American couple in Paris. Bill Kirby (Robert Hutton) and his wife Helen (Patricia Roc) have been living on credit for years, patiently waiting for Bill’s rich aunt to die. Or rather, impatiently waiting for her to die. Bill has also acquired a girlfriend, Edna (Jean Wallace), which has made things even more tense. In a cafe Bill is moved to declare that he’d cheerfully pay a million francs to anyone who would kill his aunt for him. His remark is overheard by someone who takes his offer both literally and seriously.

When Bill’s aunt is subsequently found murdered the chief suspect is an impoverished and ineffectual knife-grinder named Joseph Heurtin (Burgess Meredith). Heurtin is arrested. Heurtin would be more worried but he has been promised help in beating the charges. Heurtin subsequently escapes but his escape is in fact engineered by Inspector Maigret. From this point on the plot becomes less and less clear. The main thrust of the movie is a battle of wills between Maigret and a Czech former medical student named Johann Radek (Franchot Tone). We know from the start that Radek was involved in some way although his motivations and many of his actions are decidedly puzzling.

This movie has two things going for it. The first is the battle of wills between Maigret and Radek, with Franchot Tone and Charles Laughton indulging in elaborate psychological game-playing. Tone and Laughton really do strike sparks off each other in their scenes together and Tone is quite disturbing and convincing as the highly intelligent but thoroughly unhinged Radek.

The second thing the movie has in its favour is the very skillful use of the Paris locations, especially in several clever and imaginative chase sequences. There is a chase across the rooftops of the city, and later a chase on the Eiffel Tower. It’s fairly clear that these sequences, particularly the Eiffel Tower sequence, were inspired by Hitchcock (most notably by his famous Statue of Liberty sequence in Saboteur). These sequences can’t quite match the brilliance of Hitchcock but they’re worthy attempts and they are quite successful in themselves.

The movie would have a lot more going for it in visual terms if it could be seen in a decent transfer. The copy I watched was from a Mill Creek public domain set and it really was atrocious (and apparently all the other public domain editions floating about are just as awful). The movie was shot in a process called Anscocolor. Unfortunately the colours have faded very very badly. This is a great pity because the movie makes extensive use of location shooting in Paris and at the time it must have been quite stunning. 

The Man on the Eiffel Tower is an oddity. It’s far from being a complete success but it’s undeniably intriguing. It’s a movie that I suspect I’d be a good deal more enthusiastic about if I had the chance to see a restored print. Recommended, although with reservations. If you can find one of the public domain DVD editions of this movie for rental then I’d say to go for it.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Death Wish (1974)

Death Wish was possibly the most controversial crime movie of the 1970s, even more so than Dirty Harry. Death Wish made Charles Bronson a major star and it spawned no less than four sequels.

Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) works for a large development corporation based in New York. He is described by a friend as “a bleeding heart liberal” and he does not dispute the accuracy of the tag. His beliefs are about to collide with reality as his wife and daughter are attacked by street thugs who force their way into the Kersey apartment. His wife Joanna (Hope Lange) is killed, his daughter Carol is brutally raped. Carol never recovers psychologically from the attack.

It soon becomes obvious that there’s little chance of the criminals being brought to justice. 

Kersey’s company decides it would be a good idea if he got out of New York for a while so he is sent to Tucson to check out a development there that they’re thinking about financing. Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin) is a slightly eccentric real estate developer. He and Kersey strike up a surprising friendship while working out the details of the proposed development. Jainchill is a gun enthusiast and he invites Kersey to the local gun club. Kersey makes the admission that he was a conscientious objector during the Korean War, reinforcing his bleeding heart liberal credentials. He then surprises his new buddy by proving to be a crack shot with a pistol. When it’s time to return to New York Ames presents Kersey with a parting gift - a pearl-handled .32 calibre revolver.

Since Kersey is now understandably a little nervous about walking the streets of New York he takes the revolver with him. And when he is confronted with an armed mugger he uses the gun.

It’s not quite clear whether Kersey had simply decided he felt like going for a walk, or whether he was secretly hoping to encounter a mugger. This point is left deliberately vague, presumably because Kersey himself probably could not have answered that question. What is certain is that his next nocturnal expedition into New York’s mean streets  was a deliberate hunting expedition. Paul Kersey has declared open season on muggers.

As Kersey starts thinning out the mugger population the police and city officials are in something of a quandary. They don’t want a vigilante wandering the streets, but they don’t want to arrest the vigilante - they know he is becoming a popular hero and if arrested would become a martyr and that’s the last thing they want.

While the police have been entirely unsuccessful in catching the murderers of Paul Kersey’s wife they have had somewhat greater success in hunting down the vigilante. They’re fairly sure they know who their man is, but what is less certain is what they’re going to do about it.

When judging this movie it is important to put it into its historical context. In 1974 crime in the US really did seem to be out of control and ordinary people really did have serious doubts as to the ability and willingness of the police and the courts to protect them from violent crime. This situation had arisen over a fairly short period of time, not much more than a decade, and it seemed to be accelerating. New York in 1974 was a much more violent place than it is today.

The movie is certainly sympathetic to Kersey’s vigilante activities but it’s not as simplistic as some of the more hysterical reviews would lead you to believe. Kersey certainly has ample justification for feeling anger and frustration. There are quite a few references to westerns in the movie and the revenge western was a well-established and relatively respectable sub-genre. If Death Wish had been set in 1874 it would have raised few eyebrows. It might well have received a good deal of critical praise. A western hero who has seen his family killed by outlaws and who then dedicates himself to ridding the world of such outlaws would be seen as a fairly commonplace western hero.

The western comparison can be taken a stage further. All of Paul Kersey’s killings are in fact committed in self defence. His victims are always armed and they always initiate the violence. He is as scrupulous in this regard as the hero of any classic Hollywood western. Although it is never actually mentioned it can be assumed that that is part of the reason the police don’t want to arrest him - they would have great difficulty in securing a conviction against him. It’s true that he deliberately puts himself in situations where he is likely to encounter muggers but he cannot be accused of setting the muggers up. In each case he is (apparently) quietly minding his own business when he is confronted by attackers brandishing weapons with obvious criminal intent. 

Predictably critics mostly hated this movie and the public mostly loved it. It was a major box office hit, thus further enraging critics. After this release of this film it is difficult to find a critic saying a single positive word about director Michael Winner. In fact Winner was very good at directing violent action movies such as the excellent The Mechanic (also with Bronson as star). It is perfectly legitimate to dislike violent action movies but it has to be admitted that Winner did them very well. And he does a fine job with Death Wish. This is a movie in which the violence for the most part feels more graphic than it actually is, due to Winner’s very effective directing.

Mention must be made of jazz maestro Herbie Hancock’s superb (and surprisingly varied) score.

As for Bronson, this movie certainly stereotyped him but it brought him genuine US stardom after a very long wait (he already had an enthusiastic following in Europe). Bronson says very little in this movie. That of course is part of the Bronson persona but it works well in this film. If Paul Kersey was a man who could articulate his feelings he quite likely would not have become a vigilante. Although it’s worth pointing out that being good at articulating your feelings doesn’t help very much when you’re confronted by a knife-wielding hoodlum, a situation in which Paul Kersey might well argue that a loaded gun is rather more useful.

Death Wish is a troubling and confronting movie but at the time it was made violent crime was a troubling and confronting reality. It was one of a number of movies made about that time, movies like Dirty Harry and A Clockwork Orange, that tackled the issue in an uncomfortably direct manner. Death Wish might at times be exploitative but the same can be said about A Clockwork Orange

Does this movie really portray Paul Kersey as a hero, or is he a victim? Would he have been better off putting his personal tragedy behind him and moving on with life? Or is Kersey correct in believing that this would have amounted to running away? How would we have felt about the heroes of westerns like High Noon and Shane if the heroes had chosen flight rather than confronting evil? 

Death Wish is a product of its era in more ways than one. It’s not the sort of movie that could get made today. A remake is supposedly in the works but I think one can be forgiven for doubting whether it will be able to address the relevant issues as uncompromisingly as Michel Winner’s 1974 movie.

Death Wish is not exactly pleasant viewing but it’s one of those movies that you have to be able to say that you’ve seen.