Old vigilantes never die. OK, so sometimes they do.
It's arguably unfair to link the late Charles Bronson—a star of iconic stature, but an actor of limited range—to Clint Eastwood, a performer and filmmaker of much greater talent. But they've been bound since the beginning of their careers. Director Sergio Leone had approached Bronson to play what became Eastwood's breakthrough role in A Fistful of Dollars (1964); a few years later, he gave Bronson a part in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) that by some accounts was written for Eastwood. Then Dirty Harry (1971) and Death Wish (1974) appeared within a few years of each other, movies that looked like angry reactions to the purported social breakdown of the '60s but in retrospect were as eager to exploit Hollywood's new permissiveness as Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde had been. As Paul Kersey and Harry Callahan, the vigilante hero of Death Wish and the rogue cop of Dirty Harry, Bronson and Eastwood channeled the rage of right-wing populists, drew yet more rage from liberal critics, and were affiliated forevermore in the pop-culture pantheon. Now Bronson's death comes just as Eastwood is rumored to be mulling retirement, raising the possibility that the two careers will conclude in tandem as well.
In Death Wish, Kersey loses his family in a terrible crime, then starts killing criminals as an anonymous avenger known only as The Vigilante. The film is an effective thriller, as even its opponents frequently admit, but its politics made it a lightning rod. Vincent Canby wrote that it "raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers." More tersely, Roger Ebert called it "quasi-fascist," which is entirely inaccurate: A fascist movie about crime would demand a powerful police force, while this one regards the government as practically useless—an ass-covering bureaucracy that couldn't control crime if it tried. The film's politics are actually individualist, and its villain is the city itself—or, better, the habits it accuses urban life of breeding. "What this city needs is more cops than people," one character declares. (A coworker replies that the plan wouldn't work—"no one could pay the taxes.") And when a policeman tells Bronson that his wife's killers probably won't be caught, he adds, "In the city, that's just the way it is."
So while contemporary efforts like Deliverance (1972) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) drew their power from the city dweller's anxieties about the primitive countryside, Death Wish inverted their approach, playing on the rural suspicion of the urban—and the urban dream that a more idyllic life still lurks out there on the frontier. Kersey's transformation from liberal conscientious objector to freelance crimebuster is completed after he befriends a man on a business trip to Arizona. His new friend preaches the virtues both of unspoiled open spaces ("space for life, space for people") and widespread gun ownership ("unlike your city, we can walk our streets and through our parks at night and feel safe"); he's the man who gives Kersey the pistol that becomes his weapon against New York's muggers. The movie holds out some hope for the city: The vigilante's success inspires imitations, and street crime starts to drop. But if things are to be different, it tells us, civilized man must rediscover the self-help spirit of the pioneers.
I'm told that in the original book The Vigilante was a morally ambiguous figure. The filmmakers, by contrast, ask no one to doubt his righteousness; their Kersey is closer to Batman than to Travis Bickle. That's one substantial difference between him and that other infamous Miranda foe of '70s cinema, Dirty Harry—a peeping-tom cop driven to sadism by the horrors of street crime and his department's inability to contain it. Director Don Siegel was clearly trying, in the words of one critic, "to test the limits of audience sympathy." Apparently he passed the test: Harry was embraced by audiences even as he was attacked by critics, and in a series of sequels made by other hands he grew ever more cuddly and middle-of-the-road. The domestication of Harry Callahan was matched by another change: He gradually grew almost superhuman, dispatching domestic villains as easily as Rambo wiped out Communists.
The latter transformation also infected Paul Kersey. From 1982 to 1994 Bronson starred in four increasingly ridiculous Death Wish sequels, of which I can recommend exactly one: Death Wish 3, the installment in which the series started to veer into self-parody but had not yet been reduced entirely to a fistful of boring shoot-em-ups. As the third film's Kersey sets up one elaborate deathtrap after another, he starts to seem less like Batman and more like Wile E. Coyote—except that his Acme gear actually works. His enemy-cum-ally is a cop with Harry Callahan's ideas about civil liberties; in one priceless scene, as the officer interrogates Bronson, the latter snarls, "Do you always violate people's constitutional rights?" It's not clear whether this movie is supposed to be a comedy, but it succeeds surprisingly well on that level.
The invulnerable hero was one of the reigning archetypes of the '80s and '90s, from the Reagan-era Vietnam cycle, in which supersoldiers conducted a vigilante foreign policy, to Treat Williams' goofy Substitute series, which somehow manage to be revenge movies, soldier-of-fortune movies, and idealistic-young-teacher movies all at the same time. Another archetype took Eastwood's domestication of Dirty Harry one step further: Now we had the P.C. vigilante, whose approach to criminal justice may be as right-wing as Callahan's but who leans left on questions of race and gender. Apparently, if a graphic rape scene inspires a man to seek revenge, it's a sign of sublimated sexual paranoia—but if the same scene unleashes the fury of a woman, why, that's just empowerment. And so we had feminist revenge movies, like the Australian Shame (1987) or the American Eye for an Eye (1996), in which the female hero is trained in the arts of vengeance not by an Arizona gun buff but by an urban black lesbian.
Films like these walked a delicate ideological line. Thelma and Louise (1991)—not exactly a vigilante movie, but it comes close—was derided as "fascist," just like Death Wish and Dirty Harry. Unlike those tales, though, it also attracted liberal defenders.
We also had vigilante blacks, like the young Sean Nelson in the enjoyable Fresh (1994) or—more typically, alas—Samuel Jackson in A Time to Kill (1996). Jackson's character is neither a Bronson figure nor a blaxploitation hero; he's nothing but a man who has to kill his daughter's assailants because he knows they'll get no justice from a southern white jury. Naturally, the film's actual hero is the white liberal lawyer who defends the shooter in court. (This follows the pattern established in 1988 by Mississippi Burning, in which a white cop uses Dirty Harry's methods to bring some racist killers to justice. It also helped indicate that a new breed of cinematic avenger had arrived: the crusading paralegal or lawyer, a la Erin Brockovich.)
Today the superhuman vigilante and the liberal vigilante have converged, with a series of wildly successful films about sensitive crime-fighters in costume. If you're curious about how Hollywood has changed in the last 30 years, meditate on the differences between Bronson's middle-aged killer and Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man. Stronger traces of the old days persist in the films of other nations—the Japanese picture Gonin 2 (1996), for example, did not merely deploy a Death Wish-style subplot but somehow found an Asian man who looks like Bronson to cast in the appropriate role. But if pop music has taught us nothing else, it's that there's no contradiction between being popular in Japan and forgotten in America.
So farewell to Paul Kersey, and farewell to Dirty Harry Callahan. In the '70s you were vital; in the '80s you were invulnerable; in the '90s you were just old. Now you're fading away, and your place has been filled by angry women and teens in tights. Enjoy your retirement.