Politics & Policy

Vigilante Films and the Left

Charles Bronson in Death Wish
Liberals have a knee-jerk reaction against vigilante films.

On Tuesday, director Joe Carnahan announced on Twitter that he had embarked on a remake of the Charles Bronson vigilante classic Death Wish. The main question, for any director approaching such a topic, especially with source material as infamous as Death Wish, is “Have you read any reviews lately?”

Vincent Canby, in the New York Times, dubbed the original Death Wish “a despicable movie, one that raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers.” Dirty Harry, whose 40th anniversary passed in December, attracted similar distaste. Pauline Kael savaged the film’s “fascist medievalism,” and described it as a “single-minded attack against liberal values.” Variety called it a “specious, phony glorification of the police and of police brutality.” Roger Ebert condemned its “fascist moral position.”

#ad#Let’s look to recent years; little has changed. Christopher Orr, writing in The New Republic, called the 2007 Jodie Foster revenge film The Brave One “the most morally repellent film of the year.” The Times (of London) appointed the 2009 Michael Caine vigilante film Harry Brown “morally and politically repugnant.” New York magazine film critic David Edelstein commented, about the same film, “Moral artists have no business making a fascist, reactionary movie this effective. To hell with them.”

One fact is clear about vigilante films: Critics revile them.

But film critics are such inveterate moralists, directing their principled scorn on every deviation from strict correctness and crossing with the light, right? Not in any world we’ve seen. Something in the vigilante film seems to foment a strident exception to typically (and reasonably) agnostic views toward violence in the review community. There’s a limitless history of criminal anti-heroes, and their violence never seems to invoke much explicitly “moral” response. Pauline Kael hated Dirty Harry and loved Bonnie and Clyde. To brand (frequently murderous) “youth on the run” films as objectionable would only earn rapid branding as a hopeless scold, while ex cathedra warnings against the evils of vigilante cinema seem almost a critic’s sworn duty. How to explain this double standard? It’s, well, simply a strain to explain this without looking to the political connotations of the works in question.

The vigilante, ontologically, acts outside of conventional channels of law to enforce some sense of justice; legal due process is accordingly lost along the way. The abrogation of the rights of the accused has directly concerned liberal critics since Dirty Harry itself, whose direct dialogic address of this point alarmed the American Civil Liberties newsletter sufficiently to address it in an issue. As Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman noted in his book The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties:

Dirty Harry was deemed important for a report in the American Civil Liberties Union Newsletter, which observed that the movie really begins at the point where the fourteen-year-old-girl is discovered dead and the idiot DA attacks Harry: “Does Escobedo ring a bell? Miranda? Ever hear of the Fourth Amendent? That man had rights.” Harry (and we) have nothing but exasperation for the pointy-headed Berkeley law professor who tries to educate him in the niceties of constitutional protection — which, in Scorpio’s case, has been violated under the Fourth, the Fifth, the Sixth, and possibly the Fourteenth Amendents.

It’s difficult to deny that Dirty Harry and Death Wish were topical entries into a larger cultural dispute surrounding the Warren Court’s contemporary jurisprudence concerning the rights of the accused, one which certainly horrified left-minded critics. These and subsequent ’70s vigilante films also directly addressed notions that most liberal critics preferred to ignore: that crime was rising in part because of the notion that policing was repressive, and indeed, that policing could not solve crime. As John Lindsay commented in the 1968 Vassar commencement address, “Peace cannot be imposed on our cities by force of arms, nor can people be converted at the point of a gun.” Large segments of the population saw utopian sentiments such as this and a 137 percent increase in the murder rate in New York City during the Lindsay administration as more than coincidentally linked. Vigilante films offered a fantasy retort, one anathema to modish notions of crime as a pure consequence of poverty.

#page#This brings us to another strange point about critical disdain for the vigilante film; movies ask us to identify with characters who break the law virtually ceaselessly. The tension between the spirit and the letter of the law is a dramatic nexus as old as Billy Budd and a good deal older, yet only with vigilante films does this divergence ever seem to be regarded as morally suspect. Just as cinematic bank robbers are usually painted with empathetic backstories, vigilantes do not simply indiscriminately kill anyone who appears poor or menacing; they almost invariably respond to explicitly presented provocation. “Are you feeling lucky, punk?” is not an everyday conversational interjection. Cinema offers fantasies and wish-fulfillment; vigilante films are no clearer an argument for jettisoning the Bill of Rights than Fried Green Tomatoes is an endorsement of cannibalism as a retort to domestic abuse, or Tower Heist is an endorsement of theft from tall buildings.

#ad#What, then, is the problem? A closer look at these criticisms seems to suggest that a core objection is to the justification of any violence against criminals, or the presentation as crime as something without empathetic roots. It’s one thing to point out that some villains in these films are cartoonishly evil; it’s another to object that this portrait lends undue justification to violence. Vincent Canby, after sneering at the simplistic portrait of criminals in Death Wish, notes that it “sometimes succeeds in arousing the most primitive kind of anger.” Christopher Orr, in his The Brave One review, tires of the usual litany of “Big Apple baddies” and says that the film “unambiguously endorses vigilante killings.” The principal objection, in each case, seems not aesthetic, but moral; the offense is to create one-dimensional criminals that one need not regret seeing handled with summary force, with nary a glance at their broken homes, or hungry children, or kindness to animals. It’s tut-tutting not unlike wondering just how many maidens are actually tied to railroad tracks by top-hatted brutes each year, and whether this really justifies sending them over waterfalls without due efforts at rehabilitation and legal counsel.

To a continuing worldview much like John Lindsay’s, in which crime seems an inevitable consequence of poverty and violence against the violent is held as unsavory, few thoughts would seem more unsavory than James Q. Wilson’s at the close of Thinking about Crime that “wicked people exist. Nothing avails except to set them apart from innocent people.” It remains to be seen just what Carnahan will do with his Dirty Harry remake, but if it’s anything like the spirit of the original, he’d best brace himself for much of the critical community that seems to find this idea still unthinkable.

— Anthony Paletta is a writer living in Brooklyn.

Editor’s Note: This article has been amended since its original posting.

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