June 10, 2009

Subways, Shitholes & Death Wishes

by Vadim Rizov

Taking-of-Pelham-123.jpgReleased three months apart, Death Wish and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three are twinned images of the subway as a microcosm of 1974 New York City: Death Wish the urban hell variant, Pelham a dystopian playground. Both focus on people with guns infesting the transport system and start a general acceptance of the city being as violent and out-of-control as could be. (The next year, the city almost had to declare bankruptcy, leading to the infamous Ford to City: Drop Dead Daily News headline, which pretty much sums up the overall tenor.) Both have lasted far past their initial sell-by dates as basic programmers. On the occasion of Tony Scott's ill-advised remake of Pelham, it's worth thinking about the ways the films complement each other.

What, Me Worry About Killing Scumbags?Death Wish came first and struck a major nerve, making back over seven times its budget. The asinine tale of a man (Charles Bronson) whose female relations can't go anywhere without getting raped or murdered, the film quickly devolves into Bronson prowling the subways and shooting anyone who tries to mug him, which seems to happen every damn night. It wasn't just the vigilante justice that struck a nerve with New York's weary citizens, who appauded every killing in the theater and even gave an ambivalent thumbs-up to Bernhard Goetz's real-life subway adventures. While some critics huffed and puffed, they couldn't tear the film down at the time; it took years for it to become a pop-cultural punchline. If critics' objections were mostly moral, it has to be said that on pretty much every level, Death Wish is a lousy, laughable work. There's a reason the superficially similar Dirty Harry has outlasted it. Dialogue is flatly expository whenever criminals aren't flouncing. My favorite bit is an early exchange between Bronson (at this point, still a left-leaner), who cops to being a "bleeding-heart liberal" for the "underprivileged." His co-worker proposes in return a rounding-up of all those people and "putting them in camps." Cuz, you know, they're "animals." Death Wish has no sense of humor to leaven its lack of proportion; its fascism is decidedly unstylish.

Death Wish 3: The Video Game Four increasingly cheap and laughable sequels aside, Death Wish's legacy is rather indirect. The Brian Garfield novel it was adapted from was supposed to condemn vigilante action, not endorse it; Garfield wasn't pleased by what happened. Ever since then, it seems like every time the material's revisited, it's been with the intent of subversion. A few years ago, another Garfield novel—Death Sentence—received an even more incompetent rendering, in which star Kevin Bacon's fighting back against the gang who started all the fuss in the first place meant more dead bodies than ever. Even worse was Jodie Foster's turn in The Brave One, in which post-Giuliani New York appeared, somehow, to be more dangerous than Bronson's. If the original film's essentially sociopathic urges can no longer be straight-facedly endorsed by Hollywood filmmakers, they've been (in an oddly predictable way) embraced by the more extreme right-wing blogosphere nuts. The quasi-lovable loons over at Big Hollywood use it as a constant reference point for great filmmaking endorsing "conservative" values. To commemorate its 35th anniversary, one S.T. Karnick praised its "uncompromising truthfulness." Similarly and more recently, Taken got the highest possible marks of praise for its portrait of Liam Neeson blowing away Arabs, a ready-made metaphor for defending vague Judeo-Christian values from terrorists, neatly combining xenophobia with a fundamental distrust for the creaky, slow-acting procedures of the law. Death Wish remains as disreputable now as when it came out. The basic template (man with guns stands up to villains, but outside the law) can be updated to the post-9/11 age as a justification for NRA membership, waterboarding, the works. It's so crude and generic you can tweak it however you like.

THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE's Robert ShawThe Taking of Pelham One Two Three's legacy is weirder and harder to pin down. Though it's pegged as a heist movie, that's just the ostensible plot; the real subject seems to be growing pains of a city adjusting to its sexual, professional and (especially) racial mores one day at a time. Death Wish hedged its bets by being colorblind about the muggers, many of whom are lily-white (including a young Jeff Goldblum!); Pelham puts its racial cards face-up on the table, most notably in the moment when Walter Matthau finally meets up with police officer Joe Seneca, realizes he's black and mutters "Oh, I, uh, thought you were, uh, like a shorter guy or... I don't know what I thought." There's an openness to the racial conflict and disagreement (a willingness to even acknowledge it exists) that only really continued on-screen in other movies until (arguably) 1982's 48 Hours, then disappeared again until Inside Man (Pelham's spiritual descendent, with Spike Lee's usual racial over-concerns wisely used for comedy). HBO's "The Wire" featured characters honestly acknowledging the gap. Tony Scott's Pelham remake appears to be facilely "post-racial" in its pretense that we've actually healed all those divides, as if the fact that NYC's cleaned up in the last 35 years means they solved all the ethnic interaction problems at the same time. The thing about Pelham is that its vision of subway violence doesn't really mean anything: it's a hook for developing whatever kinds of tensions need to emerge between characters and groups. Unlike Death Wish—archetypal enough to be a crude Western update—it has no reusable application.

Spiro T. Agnew's America The original movies still circle one another, with their differing visions of what New York means, or might mean. Both are heavy on the 1974 atmosphere and the feeling that New York is, generally speaking, a shithole. For Death Wish, that's a call to arms, an excuse to blow the outsiders away and make Spiro T. Agnew's America great again; for Pelham, it's a prompt—not only to defuse and have fun with the tensions in scabrously enjoyable, honest dialogue, but to begin acknowledging that the problem isn't "haves vs. have-nots" or "law-abiders vs. criminals" or even simple recessionary criminal economics. The issue is a history of racial tension and how to defuse it; in the era of Jeremiah Wright and Gloria Sotomayor, when opponents find themselves unable to openly name their problems with people who engage in any kind of ethnic identity politics, that idea remains as prescient as ever.

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Posted by ahillis at June 10, 2009 1:37 PM


Very astute analysis. To me, TTOP123 uses the heist plot merely as a skeleton over which to layer various wry textures, in the same way that Peter Stone's earlier screenplay for "Charade" did. Of course the remake completely misses that point.

Posted by: Rob at June 13, 2009 12:52 PM

That wasn't Roscoe Lee Browne that Matthau was talking to. I think it was Joe Seneca (from Walter Hill's "Crossroads"). Do they look the same to you?

Posted by: Jason K. at June 17, 2009 1:07 AM

Man, not at all. I have no idea why I thought it was Browne, except that he's the kind of '70s character actor who *seems* like he should be in here. (And I saw UPTIGHT recently, so he's been on my mind.) But you're absolutely correct.

Posted by: vadim at June 19, 2009 12:39 AM
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