The difference between the political left and the political right is not necessarily one of observation. With crime, for example, both will concede it is an issue but the difference comes in how each chooses to solve the problem. The right is a politics of the individual—of bad actors and bad apples—while the left sees the same problem as systemic failures encouraging bad behavior—a series of interconnected parts in a machine that rely on one another to function properly. So the solution to crime can either be punishing individual criminals for their transgressions or a much larger project that seeks to attack the underlying conditions that create crime.
The vigilante film is an interesting case study in how these ideas manifest in the popular imagination as it is a subgenre of exploitation cinema that arose out of a very specific set of social conditions in the United States. It can be loosely defined as a film in which a protagonist sheds the niceties of polite society to violently force out a social ill that has infected his or her community. As academic Glenn Novak observes, it “depicts an apparently normal citizen who, if left alone by the criminal elements of society, would have no complaint and no reason to strike back.”¹ This stands in contrast to other contemporaneous but still distinct relatives like the rogue cop movie, as depicted in films like Dirty Harry (1971) and Magnum Force (1973). Police, by their nature, cannot be vigilantes, at least not until they lose their badge—their actions, even when not officially sanctioned under the law, are a reflection of the state. When a character like Harry Callahan, the hero of the Dirty Harry series, murders a criminal in cold blood, he is still acting on behalf of the state, to accomplish what it cannot by resolving contradictions in its laws. Vigilantes, on the other hand, are members of society responding to crime outside of any official jurisdiction. This is because, as Novak goes on to state, “[t]he protagonists [of rogue cop films] are not private citizens, disillusioned with the police, who choose to take the law into their own hands.”² To be a vigilante one must acknowledge the law has its limits and then be willing to reject those limits in pursuit of justice.
Vigilante films developed out of a milieu of political paranoia in the sixties and seventies. Rising crime rates in cities fomented hostility among the American middle class towards liberal criminal justice reforms. Politicians, looking to ride that growing wave of resentment, began arguing for “tough on crime” laws; notably, Alabama governor George Wallace challenged President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” reforms—specifically Johnson’s support for policies that extended civil liberties to African-Americans—in the 1964 Democratic presidential primary and 1968 general election. Wallace couched racist appeals to fear in his criticism of the Democratic Party and its softening position on crime. In 1963, opposing integration, he insisted that America was becoming lawless, because if “men in high places in Washington can break the law of our Constitution, then every revolutionary—every thug who can assemble a mob—will feel that they, too, can break the law.”³ Filmmakers responded with movies embracing this climate of fear, to both engage with and attack it.
Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974) is often regarded as the first official vigilante film. While vigilante precursors like Joe (1970) and Outrage (1973) predate Death Wish, the film struck a chord with the public and defined the vigilante film writ large by establishing a template: the urban vigilante thriller. These movies hinged on wronged-liberal-turned-conservative narratives set in major urban centers like New York City and Los Angeles. The leads, typically white men, confronted the deleterious effects of American deindustrialization: once powerful cities emptied due to white flight; bustling factories reduced to blown-out, crumbling buildings; and immigrant communities, long the backbone of American labor, forced into a cruel perversion of the American Dream as their children moved on from their ethnic enclaves to assimilate into multicultural gangs. At the center of the urban vigilante thriller was a paranoid fear of America—what it had become, what it could become.
Death Wish and its many imitators were vilified. In one of the more notorious reviews of the film, Vincent Canby of The New York Times argued cities had as much to worry about from Death Wish’s solution to crime as it did the real-world problem of crime. While conceding Death Wish was competently made, Canby summed up its “message” as “KILL. TRY IT. YOU’LL LIKE IT.”⁴ This poses a question: can the vigilante film—or problematic art, for that matter—be “good?”
Much has been made of the politics of Death Wish and its imitators. Canby invoked liberal truisms in his review to argue it is simply bad art; and Roger Ebert, in his review of Death Wish II, went a step further when he stated, “I award ‘no stars’ only to movies that are artistically inept and morally repugnant.”⁵ Others like writer Christopher Sorrentino have tried to minimize the presence of politics in the film altogether. In his monograph on the book, Sorrentino dedicates a chapter to this issue, “Death Wish and Politics,” in which he argues the film never clearly explicates a coherent ideology.⁶ Any liberal or conservative identifiers, in his view, exist as shorthand for viewers to understand the hero’s journey akin to tales pulled from classical mythology, so a viewer cannot judge the quality of the film on any perceived political leanings.⁷ The problem in all of these arguments is that judgments of quality are not exclusively tied to ideology. Art can be both morally repugnant and good. The politics that underpin Death Wish and a certain subset of vigilante films are morally repugnant, and Death Wish is an engrossing and effective film. But rather than being good in spite of its problematic nature, it is a good film because it is morally repugnant. Erasing the politics at the heart of Death Wish diminishes its power. It understands how feelings of resentment and disempowerment—real or imagined—can fester beneath the surface of polite society until they explode in brief and blinding moments of violence that permanently scar everyone and everything they touch.
What Death Wish did for the vigilante film was a formalization of a solution to crime. It presented one of the clearest arguments for a conservative perspective by reducing focus to the smallest (and most manageable) unit of action possible: a neighborhood, a block, a street. Which is to say, crime is not a large, unknowable problem, it is a collection of much smaller problems that one can solve at the local level. To win back a city, to fight crime, you must focus on crime in the singular. In Death Wish, Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) first attacks muggers with a sock full of quarters near his home, then graduates to stalking the city to shoot freaks on the subway and gun down muggers in the park. He identifies and attacks individual offenders. The film never fully addresses where these criminals come from or why crime has become so rampant beyond a vague sense that extant laws are no longer enforced. Crime persists because criminals go unpunished—and criminals go unpunished because of liberal tolerance of crime as a condition of poverty. “The underprivileged are beating our goddamned brains out,” says Kersey’s co-worker at the beginning of the film, attacking Kersey’s liberal beliefs. His solution is unsparing: “Stick them in concentration camps, that’s what I say!” The problem of crime in Death Wish is one of inaction, echoing an adage frequently misattributed to conservative philosopher Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Put simply, people no longer stand up for society at the level of the individual. This perspective would reach its apotheosis in the eighties. Instead of reacting to gang violence, individual vigilantes began responding to their liberal enablers: activist judges and do-nothing city governments.
Fighting Back (1982) and Vigilante (1983), two of the best films of the cycle, may be the subgenre’s most darkly cynical works. Vigilante follows a factory worker as he navigates the legal system to pursue justice for the murder of his son. But he runs into a snag when a judge, too focused on procedure and legalese, allows his child’s murderer to walk free on a technicality. The hero responds by murdering both the gang members responsible for his son’s death and the judge that allowed them to evade the law. The film ends with its hero rigging a car bomb to explode in the film’s finale, the vigilante having graduated fully to domestic terrorist. Similarly, Fighting Back is about an aggrieved Philadelphia deli owner failed by the system as he tries to press local officials to step in and help him find the men responsible for robbing his store and assaulting his mother. Fighting Back moves beyond the vengeance of Vigilante’s ending—even as it ends in another act of terrorism—by forcing the vigilante to confront the failures of the system head-on. In a pivotal scene news anchors compare the movie’s hero, John D’Angelo, to real-world vigilante Anthony Imperiale and his advocacy of “white self-defense.” Based on his actions in the 1967 Newark riots, Newark residents elected Imperiale to its City Council in 1968.⁸ Fighting Back ends with D’Angelo winning a seat on the Philadelphia City Council, the vigilante (or terrorist?) now entrenched in the system that wronged him.
In “I Did It My Way,” a survey of recent vigilante throwbacks, critic Nick Pinkerton identifies a condition that propels the vigilante film. “They each create and draw upon a sense of cataclysm,” he observes, adding, “the source of the cataclysm may vary, as do the cultural assumptions behind it, but these films share the certainty that no help is coming from higher up, as well as the gnawing imperative that something, anything, must be done in the meantime.”⁹ The initial wave of vigilante films, with special consideration to Death Wish and its conservative progeny, drew upon an apocalyptic paranoia that American society was in collapse and the only way to survive was through violence. The targets? Those responsible for the collapse, most often society’s underclasses—the poor, the destitute, and the mentally ill. But could that paranoia also target the audiences consuming these movies? The urban vigilante thriller, as articulated by films like Death Wish, was but one of many different types of vigilante film. Others attacked the very (white) foundation on which it rested.
1. Novak, Glenn D. “Social Ills and the One-Man Solution: Depictions of Evil in the Vigilante Film.” International Conference on the Expression of Evil in Literature and the Visual Arts, Nov. 1987, Atlanta, GA, pp. 4-5, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED301896.pdf.
2. Novak, International Conference on the Expression of Evil in Literature and the Visual Arts, pp. 4-5
3. Carter, Dan T. The Politics of Rage. 2nd ed., Louisiana State University Press, 2000, pp. 304-305.
4. Canby, Vincent. “‘Death Wish’ Exploits Fear Irresponsibly.” The New York Times, 4 Aug. 1974, https://www.nytimes.com/1974/08/04/archives/death-wish-exploits-fear-irresponsibly-death-wish-exploits-our-fear.html.
5. Ebert, Roger. “Death Wish II.” The Chicago Sun-Times, 01 Jan. 1982, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/death-wish-ii-1982.
6. Sorrentino, Christopher. Death Wish. Soft Skull Press, 2010, pp. 31-32.
7. Sorrentino, Death Wish, pp. 37-38.
8. Halbfinger, David M. “Anthony Imperiale, 68, Dies; Polarizing Force in Newark.” The New York Times, 28 Dec. 1999, https://www.nytimes.com/1999/12/28/nyregion/anthony-imperiale-68-dies-polarizing-force-in-newark.html.
9. Pinkerton, Nick. “[Film] I Did It My Way.” Harper’s Magazine, 17 Jan. 2019, https://harpers.org/2019/01/i-did-it-my-way/.