Long Before Daniel Penny Killed Jordan Neely, There Was Death Wish

It’s been nearly 50 years since Charles Bronson first mowed down New York muggers in Death Wish. But defenses of the recent killing of Jordan Neely suggest that the film’s reactionary, Wild West–style vigilante violence still holds the imagination of many.

Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) pointing a gun in the 1974 film Death Wish. (High-Def Digest / YouTube)

The New York City subway killing of Jordan Neely by ex-Marine Daniel Penny has stirred up heated commentary across the political spectrum. One common denominator in the discourse has been a frequent tendency to reach for a comparison to the notorious 1974 film Death Wish, a neo-noir film starring Charles Bronson as an affluent New York City dweller whose family is attacked in a violent home invasion. In the aftermath, he becomes a vengeful vigilante prowling the streets at night hoping to attract muggers — so he can shoot them. The subway scene in which he shoots two would-be robbers who approach him threateningly, and is acclaimed by the public for it, achieved added notoriety when the scenario was eerily carried out in real life.

In 1984, Bernhard Goetz shot four black teenagers on the subway whom he claimed tried to rob him. Goetz was dubbed “the Subway Vigilante” by the New York press and ultimately tried on multiple charges, including attempted murder. But he was convicted of only the most minor charge of carrying an unlicensed firearm.

The shooting and trial ignited a volatile public debate between those claiming Goetz as an urban hero fighting the forces of darkness in an increasingly crime-ridden New York, and those appalled by how self-appointed vigilantes, especially when they’re white and attempting to execute people of color, are applauded by the public and let off lightly by the criminal justice system. It’s nauseating reading the accounts of the Goetz case, because there are such marked similarities to the Daniel Penny case — especially in the public commentary afterward.

The New York Post op-ed by Rich Lowry, titled “Daniel Penny is NOT a Vigilante, But the Left Can’t Stop Pretending,” typifies much of such commentary. He begins with Death Wish:

Pretty much everything you need to know about the Daniel Penny case you can learn from the “Death Wish” movies.

Or so you might conclude if you took seriously the left’s analysis of the tragic incident in a New York City subway car this month that has led to Penny, a former Marine, getting charged with second-degree manslaughter.

The upshot of this commentary is that conservatives favor “vigilantism” and support it, of course, because it’s a bulwark of white supremacy.

“The Republican Embrace of Vigilantism Is No Accident,” according to New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie.

Lowry goes on to cite a series of op-eds and think pieces making supposedly left-wing accusations of right-wing tendencies to support vigilantism. He then argues that Penny can’t be a vigilante, relying on a dictionary definition of the word, as if he were a desperate undergraduate the night before a paper is due: “Merriam-Webster defines a vigilante as ‘a member of a volunteer committee organized to suppress and punish crime summarily (as when the processes of law are viewed as inadequate).’”

Lowry promptly invalidates the point by conceding that there can be “loner vigilantes” too. But in his view, the term still applies only in a Death Wish scenario, when someone like the Charles Bronson character is deliberately stalking local malefactors, trying to get himself almost-mugged so he can shoot someone. Lowry then makes his main claim:

By contrast, conservatives are, as a general matter, viewing Penny as a defender of himself and, most importantly, those around him — not an avenging angel administering the justice that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg refuses to.

Indications are that Penny (and his fellow passengers) sincerely believed Jordan Neely, suffering from untreated mental illness, was a threat to people on the train.

There’s still much we need to know about the particulars of the case, but the impulse to protect others is deeply admirable and rare.

Anyone who’s watched Westerns or action films could tell Lowry about vigilantism, which involves a self-appointed guardian or guardians of the public welfare acting like judge, jury, and executioner in meting out sloppy individual notions of justice — generally very rough, often fatal types of “frontier justice” — without due process under the law as defined by the Fourteenth Amendment.

In short, little Richie Lowry really needs to put some more thought into defining his terms and rebutting implied counterarguments when writing essays. Grade: D-.

All of which makes it interesting to go back and watch Death Wish, which remains so disturbingly pertinent. If you’ve seen it, you may not remember it as well as you think you do, as the cultural memory of the film is skewed by its notorious context. It touched a cultural nerve and was embraced by the kind of angry “silent majority” that’s never actually silent in the United States, and its popularity led to four hit sequels.

A poster for Michael Winner’s 1974 vigilante thriller Death Wish, starring Charles Bronson. (Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images)

The first Death Wish is an odd film, one of a number of films that reflected the United States’ rough political transition from a period of gains on the political left starting in the post-WWII era, culminating in the radical demands for change and countercultural turmoil of the 1960s and early 1970s, through the political malaise and stagnation of the mid-to-late 1970s, to the right-wing Reagan Revolution of the 1980s. In certain scenes, Death Wish actually signals a surprising awareness of how readily smug left-liberalism, entrenched in its societal gains and cultural mores but cut off from any socialist principles or serious critique of the political status quo, swings rightward under pressure toward fascism, expressed as violent, generally racist fantasies of “cleansing” a corrupt population by force.

There’s good reason not to remember the film’s more compelling ambiguities, since its other lurid elements — such as manifest hatred of the poor and racist dog whistles — draw all the attention.

It’s the story of how mild-mannered architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) goes from being a “bleeding-heart liberal” to a crazy-eyed vigilante after his family is brutalized by thugs. His wife Joanna (Hope Lange) dies as a result of the attack, and his daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan) is gang-raped and so traumatized she has to be institutionalized. Soon afterward, Kersey is using the nighttime urban scene in New York City as a hunting ground, tracking malefactors, mainly unwary muggers, whom he shoots to kill.

Several of the would-be robbers Kersey shoots are black. But regardless of race, they all approach him in states of excessive, sneering villainy and unambiguous threat, generally pulling out knives and waving them in his face. There’s no indication, through editing or cinematography, that this is the subjective vision of Kersey, deranged by the horror of his family’s experience. It’s clear that these are essentially bad people acting out of evil impulses because they enjoy it, not because they might desperately need the money they always demand with demeaning curses.

The three men who commit the home invasion are white (startlingly, one of them is portrayed by the very young and still unknown Jeff Goldblum), but they’re the most cartoonishly villainous of all, exuding a kind of giggling depravity and love of violent chaos that ignites the protagonist’s determination that such people be put down like rabid dogs for the good of society.

Which is the attitude expressed earlier by Kersey’s business partner (William Redfield), a fat cat in a business suit who makes a Taxi Driverstyle argument that approximates the wish for a cleansing rain — or perhaps a hail of bullets — to wash all the scum off the streets. New York City is being made unpleasant for the rich and respectable, because they share the streets with the increasingly poor and desperate, which means the poor and desperate must be erased: “I say, stick them in concentration camps.”

This is unusually bold, forthright fascism. Usually, in real-life public commentary, such statements vaguely indicate that people like Jordan Neely, who are homeless and mentally ill and shout about their misery and appear threatening to people, need to be removed from public life somehow. How often have we heard this line of talk in real life? Tech employees in the Bay Area, for example, made the news regularly for a while, demanding that the homeless be “somehow” removed from their sight while they commuted to and from work at Apple or Google or Yahoo.

In response to his colleague’s insane rant, Kersey makes a vague, rote, half-hearted mention of his sympathy for the “underprivileged.” We’re clearly supposed to recognize the troubling weakness of his response. The early scenes of the film all indicate that Kersey, happy and successful as he is, is straining at the confinement of “civilization” and wants to break out in some way. We first meet him on vacation in Hawaii with his wife. When he proposes sex on the deserted beach instead of waiting to go back to the hotel room, she objects mildly: “We’re too civilized.”

Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) turning around to attack a mugger in Death Wish. (High-Def Digest / YouTube)

“We’re too civilized” is meant to resonate thematically throughout the film as a critique of American society, referring to the idea that the solid bourgeoisie allows itself to be terrorized by the raging criminal underclass out of brainwashed liberal guilt. But is it just Kersey’s fast conversion to this idea that we’re watching, or the film’s overarching argument?

There’s plausible deniability built into the film at certain points — the final image, especially, which shows Kersey arriving at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, having left behind “that toilet,” which is how his Arizonan colleague describes New York. He watches a couple of teenage boys harassing a girl and points his finger in the shape of a gun, making the “pow, pow” sign at their backs as they run off. The film freezes on that image, capturing the insane look in Kersey’s eyes and showing that he’s going to continue his lone vigilante killing spree.

Brian Garfield, the author of the original 1972 novel Death Wish, hated the adaptation:

The point of the novel Death Wish is that vigilantism is an attractive fantasy but it only makes things worse in reality. By the end of the novel, the character (Paul) is gunning down unarmed teenagers because he doesn’t like their looks. The story is about an ordinary guy who descends into madness.

According to Garfield, the admired actor Jack Lemmon was initially slated to play the lead role, with Sidney Lumet directing rather than Michael Winner, which gives some idea of how differently the adaptation might have turned out. Once Charles Bronson was set to star, the shift from thoughtful drama toward brutal neo-noir action film was set.

Garfield so disapproved of the eventual film, he did “penance” by writing a 1975 sequel underscoring his own critique of vigilantism called Death Sentence. Meanwhile, the four increasingly violent and successful sequels to Death Wish, all vehicles for Bronson, rocked on.

Making Kersey look like a menace to society at the end of the film is interesting, especially in terms of the ignoble way he’s shooting at retreating backs, something we’ve seen him do several times when using a real gun to finish off wounded robbers running away. It’s something no classic Western hero would ever do, because “honor” supposedly defined all his actions. The film contains a thoroughly developed Western theme, evoking a genre known for celebrating vigilantism and “frontier justice.”

On a business trip to Tucson, Arizona, Kersey is brought to a fake-Western town, maintained for tourists and occasional Hollywood filmmaking, and gets strangely caught up in watching the actor playing the heroic sheriff gun down bank robbers who are shooting up the town. His colleague and host during the business trip is a gun enthusiast who celebrates how freely people like them move around in the world, carrying guns that supposedly guarantee their safety from outlaws and evildoers. And it’s revealed that Kersey was raised with guns, attaining almost sharpshooter abilities growing up, before his father was killed in a hunting accident and his mother banned all guns from the house. Kersey also mentions that he was a conscientious objector in the Korean War and served as a medic. His colleague’s response: “You’re probably one of them knee-jerk liberals, thinks us gun boys shoot our guns because it’s an extension of our penises.”

Returning to the world of guns seems to revive his father’s frontier-style legacy, which had been interrupted by his mother’s presumably weak, “too civilized” fears. It also places Kersey back within Hollywood Western mythologizing, where it seems he longs to be.

This mythologizing was accepted by many Americans as close enough to the nation’s actual history, which Hollywood studios encouraged. The harsh revisionist Westerns of the 1960s and early ’70s, aiming at greater authenticity about the inglorious vigilante violence, robber baron capitalism, cynical land grabs, racism, misogyny, and drug use that were widespread in the actual Old West, came as a rude shock to fans and all but killed off the genre.

That Kersey develops an idea of himself as the Western hero is clear when he challenges the last mugger he encounters, who’s succeeded in wounding him, to “draw,” as if he were starring in Shane. It’s another of the film’s ambiguous scenes emphasizing Kersey’s mental collapse, and in this case also satirizing his inability to live up to his own heroic image of himself, especially when he faints from loss of blood.

In the end, Kersey the anonymous vigilante has gotten so popular with the public, the police don’t dare arrest him, though they know he’s the killer. They’re trying to avoid making public Kersey’s success in reducing the number of street crimes, which might unleash an epidemic of vigilantism. Kersey’s given the option to avoid arrest by relocating, and he’s told by the police officer heading up the case to get out of town. Kersey echoes a phrase used by lawmen in Westerns, asking, “You mean get out before sundown?”

The persistence of the inflammatory discourse around vigilante violence in the United States, whether it revolves around actual events in the world or fictionalized representations, indicates strongly that many Americans, like the Paul Kersey character, are still enamored of the vigilante justice celebrated in old Westerns. The belief is widespread that we live in an ever-degenerating society, a “jungle,” beset by vicious “animals” and mobs of rampaging savages that can only be quelled by a lone “hero” ever prepared to shoot and claim self-defense and defense of others, no matter what the actual circumstances. Outraged and outrageous commentary cheering on Paul Kersey and Bernhard Goetz and Daniel Penny all blurs together, making it terrifying to contemplate who’s going to be the next Jordan Neely, whose publicly distraught state should have brought him offers of help but got him murdered instead.