Welcome to Fear City
Death Wish (1974)
So, I know this is not necessarily a cop movie, but with the recent headlines, Death Wish (1974) came to mind. As we commented this week, there has seemingly been an increasing number of incidents where citizens have been put in the position where they are forced to take action against criminals and people suffering with dangerous mental disorders. Death Wish echoes that narrative.
With the nationwide crime spike of the late 1960’s, the film was a clear statement of its time. The country’s homicide rate doubled between 1964 and 1974 and other violent crimes were rising in unison. Inner cities were dangerous, and people began to realize that the chaos was there to stay. Americans felt that the justice system was deteriorating, and that the police were not effective. They were right.
Vigilantism was always a theme in the United States and in our films. But that was a frontier phenomenon. The silver screen had its share of vigilantes, but they were set out west and before formal police departments (see Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name and Alan Ladd’s Shane). Death Wish brought that motif to Fear City – The Big Apple. It exposed the modern criminal justice system as a failure like no other movie had previously.
Charles Bronson is our protagonist here as pacifist, architect, and just regular guy, Paul Kersey. His Manhattan apartment (located and filmed at 33 Riverside Drive) is home-invaded by a robbery crew (including a remarkably miscast Jeff Goldblum). His wife is killed and his daughter is assaulted. Kersey is inconsolable and leaves the city. During a brief stay out west (hints of John Wayne) he picks up a revolver.
Returning to New York with his .32 Colt Police Positive revolver (a little light on firepower for your typical vigilante), Kersey takes to the streets. Perps and cops are both after him as he ends the criminal career of several ne’er do wells, delivering lethal one-liners as well as a deadly fusillade of bullets.
Bronson is the strong silent type in this film — a few good lines and not a ton of emotion. The supporting cast is not winning any Oscars. The bad guys are cartoonish, and the cops inept. But the film perseveres. You will be rooting for Kersey in his vendetta and, although predictable, you will be entertained.
Perhaps most importantly, you’ll be wondering: Is this where our cities are going again?
Death Wish runs about 90 minutes and is available for free on Tubi and Showtime on Demand. You can rent it on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, YouTube, etc. for about $3 or $4. It’s also available for purchase on those platforms. Check out the JustWatch website for more info. You can find current updates on where to watch any film or show for free or behind a paywall.
(Side Note: A glimpse at our today in law enforcement history series….. Fear City was NYC’s nickname in 1975 when the NYC Patrolman’s Benevolent Association printed up the pamphlet seen below, in an effort to play hardball with the Beame Administration, that had laid off cops and shrunk the force in the face of rising crime).