Spot the Difference: Death Wish (1974) vs. Death Wish (2018)

New York in 1974 was a frightening place. Not only was it not safe to walk down the street for fear of being mugged but, even at home, that last bulwark against the horrors of the street, there is the very real danger of invaders raping and pillaging. So is the New York of Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974).

Time has been good to New York, which is now touted as one of the safest cities in the world. It makes sense then, for a remake of Death Wish to seek out a new location for its vigilante hero – and where better than the City of Death, Chicago?

While initially following the same plot, there is a point of divergence at which more than just the location makes these two films so very different. Once such difference is Bruce Willis’ Paul Kersey having a brother rather than the weaslley son-in-law of the Bronson film. Maybe it just couldn’t be expected, in the 21st Century, that a man would remain to support a wife who had been raped and traumatized to the point of catatonia? As annoying as Steven Keats’ character, Jack Toby, may be, he does prove himself a loyal husband and worthy son-in-law.

Divorce rates in the United States rose from 33% in 1970 to 48% by 1975, so it’s not as though society’s prohibitions exerted pressure on Jack to stay by his wife’s side. Though not a particularly likeable character, Jack Toby does prove himself a most stalwart man and, as unlikely as it seems, in a film about the break-down of society, he becomes something of an ideal example of a what a man should be – a kind of civilized everyman, who finds it within himself to carry on in the face of adversity without – contrary to his father-in-law – allowing the nasty and brutish pulling him up short.

Vincent D’Onofrio’s Frank Kersey plays no such contrasting role in Eli Roth’s 2018 remake of Death Wish. Though D’Onofrio takes what he’s given and runs with it, as he always does, his character is there, not to question his brother Paul’s actions, but to offer support and assistance. Although Jack Toby is successful in his own right, Frank Kersey is, almost inevitably, that Hollywood-movie stereotype of the less successful brother who sponges off his wealthier sibling. The only hint of originality in the drawing of this character is that he gets to pay back the $2000 he borrowed.

The distinction between these two characters is important. In the 1974 version of Death Wish Paul Kersey’s options are not limited to picking up a gun and blasting muggers to Hell. He has the option exemplified in Jack Toby, of responding stoically to the tragedy visited upon his family. By 2018 there is no such option. There really is no need for that speech delivered by Paul’s father-in-law as he blasts away at poachers. This Paul Kersey has no other option but to take up the gun. Stoicism in the face of adversity is no longer an option – no one lives the example.

In a culture that seeks to personalize rights, there is no need for stoicism, no option but to seek vengeance on those who have transgressed the individual boundaries that separate, paradoxically destroying the very idea of a society, for how can we possibly live together when our all-consuming concern is with what is right for me rather than us?

Though he might adopt questionable methods, the Paul Kersey of 1974 seeks only to take on the threat to society, never showing any compulsion to find and punish those who murdered his wife and rendered his daughter a vegetable. As odd as it may seem to those brought up on films like Eli Roth’s Death Wish, Paul Kersey, in Michael Winner’s original, never takes what has befallen his family personally. Bad things happen because there are bad people, and Paul seeks to reduce their numbers as a favour to a society living in fear. There is no hint that Charles Bronson’s character ever believes that, for whatever reason, fate has chosen him from among the inhabitants of New York to suffer and, through that suffering, rise to a task only he is fit for. There is no wailing about having failed in his duty to protect his wife and family. No guilt over having failed in this duty.

We cannot ignore, however, the character development that reveals that Paul Kersey actually is suited to the task. He is, because his father was a hunter, expert with a gun. He is a war veteran, albeit a conscientious objector during the Korean War, which also serves to show him to be not only a man of conscience but one willing to stand up for what he believes. And he is angry, as we see in his reaction to Jack Toby asking him how he can appear to be so calm after he has so recently been to see his catatonic daughter.

There is a logic to Paul Kersey’s actions in 1974’s Death Wish that doesn’t exist in the far inferior 2018 remake. By the time Paul takes to the streets, placing himself exactly where he needs to be to encounter those who would take advantage of others who seek only to live according to society’s norms, we know that his actions are in-character. In 1974, Paul Kersey does not need his audience’s approval. Having made the choice to live only for personal gratification at the expense of others, the muggers Paul hunts have forfeited the right to legal protection. He will be their judge and executioner because his conscience insists he take a stand and, once having done so, he must act according to what he believes.

It is probably unfair of us to expect a director who was only two years old when the original Death Wish was released to have a similar sense of character development. If Eli Roth does actually have any sense of how to develop either a character or a story, it is not in evidence in his remake of Death Wish. As Max Zoller Seitz points out, this version depends entirely upon our recognition of Bruce Willis and thus our willingness to simply take for granted that he is not biting off more than his action-hero credentials can chew.

The development we do get is superficial at best. Willis’ character’s first act of vigilantism is random – he comes to the aid of a car-jacking victim. Though he deals with it far more efficiently and cold-bloodedly than any neophyte should, it serves as a learning experience, preparing him for the far more emboldened attack on the Ice Cream Man, a dealer forcing kids to sell his drugs in their neighbourhoods and schools.

It is at this point that the more recent version of the film shatters the template of its 1970s progenitor. As mentioned, all of the earlier Paul Kersey’s ‘victims’ are random – either they attack his person directly or are caught in the act of beating up on another. In 2018, only the first act of vigilantism is random. The second, the Ice Cream Man, is selected because Dr. Paul Kersey assures a young patient that he’s going to be alright. In 2018, a doctor’s duty of care towards his patients includes ridding the streets of those who prey upon the young and innocent!

It makes sense, then, that, after acting on behalf of another, seeking revenge on an identifiable individual for the hurt caused to an innocent, that Dr. Paul Kersey would seek to cauterize his own wounds by seeking the same brutal justice on those who injured him. How can a man who believes that the murder of his wife and coma-inducing attack on his daughter are personal attacks on him, not take matters into his own hands and assuage his sense of personal failure by hunting down those responsible?

In Roth’s version of Death Wish, there is no sense of justice for all. Dr. Paul Kersey is not acting out of some misguided belief in the need to protect society, nor out of the strength of his conscience, as we might see the architect Paul Kersey doing in Michael Winner’s Death Wish. Dr. Paul Kersey acts, as one can only expect in a world of personalized rights, entirely selfishly, for his own personal ends, with no thought or consideration for issues bigger than himself.

Whatever one’s views on the morality of the original Death Wish, there is an argument within the film that suggests its hero need not have taken the course of action he did, that there was at least the possibility of Paul Kersey opting for Jack Toby’s stoicism. Even if one does not agree with the character’s decisions and consequent actions, it is possible to still identify with him because he is a man who must do as his conscience dictates and not for his own personal, selfish reasons, but for the good of society.

Dr. Paul Kersey is no better than those who invaded his home. He is one of the bad people who make bad things happen. For, like the criminals he seeks to punish, he cannot see beyond his own personal needs.

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Dirty Harry: A conflicting vision

The conflicting visions of which Peter Lev writes in his book American Films of the 70s are largely the differing world-views of the generations before the Sixties and the hippies and other subcultures that arose during the decade of flower-power and free-love. The former represents all that is conservative and right-wing and the latter all that is experimental and left-leaning. Though a gross over-generalisation, Lev does classify films in favour of the counterculture and those opposed. Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood’s 1971 film, Dirty Harry, definitely falls into the opposition.

Roger Ebert calls the moral position of Dirty Harry fascist. Lev informs us that Pauline Kael slammed the film as “fascist medievalism” and a “right-wing fantasy.” (Lev, 2000, p.35) Lev, himself, says of the film that it “advocate(s) a more-or-less autonomous police power.” And, Daniel Baldwin, writing for Forbes, says of the character at the centre of the film, “Harry Callahan was never really tolerant of anyone, no matter what their gender or skin color was.”

Looking back on Dirty Harry from the perspective of the Twenty-first Century, we might not so readily categorise the film and its protagonist in what are meant to be pejorative terms.

At the time of its release, it would have been a relatively simple either/or – either Harry Callahan is a fascist, or he’s not. Just as easily, one can plainly see that Harry is no counter-cultural hero. On the contrary, it is the killer, Scorpio, who wears the peace-symbol on the belt buckle, thus bearing a more recognisable link with the hippies of the previous decade. And, as Harry asks his famous, “Well, do you feel lucky, punk?” of a wounded black bank robber, clearly he is not of the Sixties and all that they surely wore the flowers in their hair for.

Therefore, QED, Harry is the man and the powerful phallic symbol he holds in his right hand certainly seems to prove it.

It would seem to me, looking back on the film and the decade of the Seventies, that labelling Harry a fascist is too much of a diversionary tactic, a means of escaping the reality he confronts us with – nothing less than having to admit that our biases prevent us from really seeing the consequences of our desires.

The Liberals coming out of the Sixties were bound to be shocked at the prospect of a rogue cop, seemingly taking the law into his own hands, executing his verdicts with a grim smile. Wearing his $29.50 slacks and holding his .44 Magnum in his fist, Harry Callahan is anything but a sharer in the liberal values that brought about the Miranda warning in 1966. From Harry’s perspective, the more rights granted the criminal – or suspected felon – the more difficult his job. Liberal values simply make it easier to get away with murder!

To a certain extent, one has to agree with him.

Whatever the motivation behind the need for the Miranda warning and other expressions of individual rights, the push to Liberalise society and culture resulted only in polarising interest groups, each standing for parochial concerns that almost by definition must transgress the liberties of those who oppose or dissent.

To wander off topic momentarily, in a recent Guardian article, it was suggested that we must simply accept an individual’s right to be referred to by gender-neutral pronouns such as ‘they’ rather than the more traditional – and socially conservative – or usual ‘he’ and ‘she’. There are, we are told, no sound arguments for supporting the continued use of the gendered pronouns and that it is “wrong to use pronouns that deny someone’s identity.”

Obviously, anyone who continues to insist on the gendered ‘he’ and ‘she’ is in danger of being labelled a fascist for the refusal to recognise the rights of others. Just as Harry Callahan is so labelled for refusing to uphold the Miranda warning. Despite the term ‘fascist’ being fairly specific, according to Dr. Paul Jackson (Senior Lecturer in History at The University of Northampton), referring to a person with nationalistic leanings, it is – or was in the Seventies – used for anyone who had the temerity to disagree with the liberal agenda.

Whether a given individual wishes to be referred to as ‘they’ is of no matter – no damage is done to the language and all the planets will continue to spin on their axes. What is important, however, is whether that individual’s rights are more important than anyone else’s. That the writers of the Guardian article claim that it is wrong to go on using gendered pronouns for someone who wishes otherwise leaves little doubt over whose rights are of most importance.

This is the liberal strategy par excellence.

It is also completely fallacious.

An individual with identity issues will only ever overcome them when they are able to come to terms with who they are. As long as the individual is unhappy with their own self, it makes little difference how anyone else may or may not refer to them. Someone who identifies as genderqueer does so as a result of choices and decisions they have made about themselves and their sense of self. Whether this will ever be a healthy identity choice depends entirely upon their own continued belief that it is right for them. Another individual’s choice of pronoun usage has little to no direct impact upon the choices that were made and pose absolutely no threat to the stability of the identity. Unless, of course, the genderqueer individual isn’t quite so convinced of their choices as they might like to appear.

The same stands for the rights of Scorpio in the film Dirty Harry. Just as we cannot know what might motivate an individual to choose a genderqueer identity, so we cannot know what motivates a killer like Scorpio. But, we do know that he chose to prowl the rooftops seeking unsuspecting and innocent victims through the high-res sights of his hunting rifle. The difference between Scorpio and the genderqueer individual is that the latter poses no physical threat to anyone – certainly not as a direct consequence of the identity choices made.

That Scorpio does choose and that his choices directly impact the rights of others should count for something. Ann Mary Deacon’s life is ended unmercifully with no consideration given to her rights. Her identity is snuffed out at a whim. While he believes she is still alive, Harry Callahan does all that he can to save her. As a true agent of the rights of the individual, Harry is prepared to go further than might be deemed acceptable. Unlike Scorpio, Harry isn’t acting out of self-interest, isn’t inflicting pain on a sadistic killer for the kicks. His objective is the saving of the life of another human being.

Harry Callahan’s methods don’t stem from the personality of a sadist or even a fascist. They stem from the concern one man feels towards the dissolution of all that he has upheld as right and wrong. The truth of Dirty Harry that the likes of Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert are unwilling to face is that Harry cares. In fact, in the film, Harry is almost the only one who does care. He cares so much that he is willing to risk his job – and possibly his life – in order to save Ann Mary Deacon.

Peter Lev, in American Films of the 70s: Conflicting Visions, suggests that Harry is shown to be a Christ-like figure in his taking a beating at the hands of Scorpio at the foot of the concrete cross on San Francisco’s Mt. Davidson. I’m not sure this reading works. The cross, precisely because it is concrete, is just an empty symbol, signifying nothing in particular. It is merely cold and grey and concrete, with no overtly religious meaning attached whatsoever. That Harry takes a beating at its base signifies that this man, this very human and frail person, who can be beaten into semi-consciousness, will, out of his very humanity, do all within his power to save another human being – especially an innocent who in no way deserves what has befallen her.

The Liberal Left would callously let Ann Mary Deacon die a horrendous death in their self-righteous sanctification of the killer’s rights. As with the genderqueered individual mentioned earlier, in the battle for rights there will always be losers and they will always be the innocents that offer no vindication to the ideals of the advocates. Standing for the rights of Scorpio makes far more of a public impact than does the saving of a young girl’s life.

Harry Callahan may not be a member of the hippie generation but nor is he a fascist. Clearly, Harry is not prejudiced against any race or creed or sex. Harry never transgresses the “rights” of a person because of who they are. Let’s not forget that, despite all his station house banter, it is Harry only who we see from the San Francisco Police Department visiting Chico, his Mexican partner, in hospital. The race, colour or creed of the hostages on the bus is completely irrelevant; all that matters is that innocent children are in danger. And Harry will, once again, put his own life on the line to save them.

The Omen: how a silly plot can make a great film

If one were honest, one would have to admit that the plot of The Omen (1976) isn’t exactly Shakespearian. The Devil fathers a child – a perfectly healthy human child – on a jackal! Upon the boy’s fifth birthday, bad begins to happen – usually in the form of someone dying in various supernaturally influenced ways. Apart from the boy’s mother. No, the boy himself does for her! His father eventually allows himself to be convinced of what is happening and plots the boy’s demise.

Doesn’t it make you wonder just how the Hell this became the great film it so obviously is?

Who makes a movie what it is? Was it the Studios, back in the 1940s? Or the Directors, in the Seventies? Or the Stars, of the Two-Thousand-Tens?

I am firmly of the belief that it is some alchemical mix of all three. Not forgetting to add the seasoning of a good script. The Omen, as much as any other film, shows, however, that the script, like the seasoning in a good winter soup, is variable. One wonders if The Omen could ever have been as good as it is if not for Gregory Peck and David Warner? Or if the Director, Richard Donner, had not decided to include only what was realistically possible.

Just how does this film work? It’s a story of the Devil spawning a child, yet the Demon King makes no personal appearance. It’s the story of an evil child who does nothing overtly evil – even his mother’s fall could, just about, have been an accident. After all, Damien isn’t looking where he’s going as he races along on his tricycle – though I’ve always thought the child’s indifference gives this one away. It’s the story of the fight between good and evil, yet the good guys are a mad priest, a photo-journalist with a damaged lens and a father wrung-out after the death of his wife. And they conspire to murder a child!

Aha! Could it possibly be that this is what it all comes down to?

Whatever the weakness of the plot, the actions of the characters are made believable through the superb – and wholly serious – performances of the actors. One of my favourite scenes is the one in which Gregory Peck’s ‘Robert Thorn’ receives the call telling him his wife is dead. Peck’s face, the way it changes as the news permeates his stunned brain, is the epitome of horror, especially of the type of horror that this film is all about.

It may clothe itself in the guise as a tale of demonic takeover but, in reality, it is, as Donner wisely pitched it, far more a story dealing with very human concerns.

We are actually forced to ask two questions. Firstly, can a child really just be born evil? And, secondly, is evil not less about the inherent nature of a thing and more to do with our perception of it?

A film, as a film, is, first and foremost, an entertainment – if we apply as wide a definition of the term as possible. Even a Schindler’s List (1993) or a Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008), despite the content, are encountered through the medium of entertainment and, therefore contain those elements a story requires in order to be entertaining. That they tell horrific stories – and, even worse, stories based on actual events in our shared human history – detracts nothing from their power as stories, as entertainments.

The Omen tells an entertaining tale of an attempt by evil means of taking over the world. As such, it is not unrelated to the other two films just mentioned. This connection is made all the stronger by Damien’s being born into a political milieu. It could be said that Schindler and Striped Pyjamas are tellings of the story of what would have happened if Damien hadn’t ultimately been defeated.

This political background to the events of The Omen is no accident. This is, after all, a film of the Seventies, the decade that ended with – in Britain, at least – the demonic, in the form of Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013), well and truly in political control. There is absolutely no need for any form of religious conviction to be able to relate to this movie and its commentary upon the times.

There are those who would argue that Thatcher was anything but demonic, of course. Very few of those who fly to her defense would have been living in Council housing back in the Seventies and Eighties, threatened on an almost daily basis by the ever-rising costs of basic amenities like water and electricity which Thatcher privatized. Their jobs weren’t in danger of disappearing before their eyes while the right to voice concerns and struggle for basic human rights were being denied them.

The evil that was Margaret Thatcher, born out of the Seventies as a political force, is open to angles of perception but, the simple fact is, as with Damien, people actually died as a direct and indirect consequence of her policies. Our sense of evil here need not be religious, our Devil may be nothing more than a person lacking the human decency to care for those caused to suffer, and those tasked with bringing her down might be seen as traitorous and slightly mad, yet, as film after film from the Seventies were determined to show us, there was evil abroad and threatening all that had so recently been fought for. Such evil manifested in the form of politics.

One certainly wouldn’t want to portray Thatcher as inherently evil. This does seem to be a very American way of looking at things. Maybe it relieves the burden of responsibility if one is able to blame some outside agency or inherent nature for all the evils of the world? It is a trend that continues to this day in Hollywood movies, so it seems to be a deeply ingrained belief in the culture. They seem not to accept the argument that evil is a matter of perception, preferring to see it more as nature rather than nurture. But, in this movie, all that guff about Damien’s parentage is there merely to enliven the story not to heighten the threat. As the literal son of the devil, Damien actually becomes less of a horror.

If Damien is, instead, the product of a mother suffering some degree of mental instability and a father used to wielding the power of politics – the power to make decisions which affect the lives of others in very real ways – then he becomes a very real threat, for he has it within his power to wreak the horrors we know humans are very capable of.

Irrespective of his natural parentage, having Damien adopted makes of his nature an unknown quantity. The Thorns can only contribute to his nurture and are portrayed, in the early part of the film, as doting parents. When Robert Thorn is finally persuaded to investigate Damien’s origins and makes the discovery of his parentage, we accept, as the movie expects us to, along with Thorn and Jennings, the evidence as presented.

What we are given very little perspective on, and very rarely are in movies – unless it be the whole point of the plot, which it isn’t here – is Damien’s perception of his nurturing. Generally, this would be due to the Hollywood belief that evil is born not made. The script plays with this idea, of course, especially in the scenes in which the Thorns arrive at church for a wedding and the Safari Park incident with the Baboons. It shouldn’t go without notice, though, that it is only after his father has left the car, at the cathedral, that Damien reacts violently, attacking his mother. Also, earlier, during the party for Damien’s fifth birthday, as he is being carried by his nanny and Daddy is talking with a number of men in military uniforms, Damien asks, “Want a bite, Daddy?” He completely ignores his mother, not even glancing in her direction.

While the entertainment value might lie in Damien’s having been sired by the Devil, the human element confronts us with the possibility that, despite all the best intentions of his parents, the child’s perceptions of them – father as a powerful man; mother as a weakness likely to get in the way of achieving the full expression of that power – which is, of course, why she must die on becoming pregnant! –  have more of an influence on his development than they can bring themselves to recognise. Imagine the consequences of such a realisation!

The Omen as political allegory is far more frightening than it is as a fanciful tale of the son of Satan. It is also far more in keeping with the general themes of Seventies’ cinema. In this sense, it has far more in common with Jaws (1975) than it does with The Exorcist (1973).

The Seventies Begin: Count Yorga, Vampire

The 1970s have been called “The Vampire Decade” (cf. Stacy Abbott  (2007) Celluloid Vampires: Life After Death in the Modern World) and you can easily see why. In 1970 alone, Christopher Lee appeared in three films playing his signature role of Count Dracula. Two of these films were for Hammer Films, the other for Jesús Franco, of whom the Guardian said was a “creator of erotic horror” and a “dedicated exponent of weird sex” and a “vast and complex body of work”. That same year, the first of the decade still, saw Ingrid Pitt kick-off Hammer’s ‘Lesbian Vampire’ trilogy in The Vampire Lovers – a subgenre to which Franco was almost destined to contribute (1971’s Vampyros Lesbos) – and Dan Curtis’ final killing off of Barnabas Collins in “House of Dark Shadows”. And, of course, 1970 gave us probably one of the best vampires ever committed to celluloid immortality in Robert Quarry’s portrayal of Count Yorga, Vampire.

Bob Kelljan’s film is to be noted for several reasons. If they’d gone with the original plan, Count Yorga, Vampire would have been The Loves of Count Iorga, Vampire, a soft-porn contribution to the vampire oeuvre – with little doubt that no one would be discussing it today – but notable for being one of the first of what was soon to become a popular take on the vampire’s place in cinematic history.

The film is notable, also, for its title. While we all know who and what Count Dracula is, there is nothing in that title per se which gives it away. Count Yorga, Vampire leaves nothing to the imagination. In this day in which we’re always being warned of spoilers when reading reviews on IMDb and elsewhere, one wonders what to do with a movie that contains the biggest spoiler in its title?

More significantly, however, is the fact that the film is set in modern day Los Angeles. Bob Kelljan can be seen as stealing a march on Hammer Films with this move to a modern metropolis, making Count Yorga, Vampire a precursor of much of what was to come next in the vampire mythos.

Apart from Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula (1897), vampires make little impact upon the world of literature. Seemingly a constant presence in popular culture, the vampire is not a creature of high art and, until fairly recently, academic study. Who can listen to Herr Lang’s recitation of Van Helsing’s qualifications (in The Brides of Dracula (1960) – Doctor of Philosophy, Doctor of Theology, Doctor of Metaphysics – today without at least a smile, knowing that our most prominent atheists would dismiss, out of hand, two of the three? There is reason why the garlic and the crucifixes are always the defense of the ignorant and superstitious in Hammer’s 1950s and 60s Dracula movies. Those who possess a proper education – i.e. those who are not peasants – do not so readily believe in such nonsense. This is what sets Van Helsing apart and makes him such an interesting character. So interesting, in fact, that he makes a disguised appearance in Count Yorga, Vampire, under the name of Dr. James ‘Jim’ Hayes, and in so many other guises in other vampire movies.

This being a movie of the 1970s, one has to wonder whether that name bears any significance. Surely a filmmaker, even this early in the Seventies, would understand the irony of a character called Hayes (Hays), in his struggle to uphold the moral decency and save souls from damnation, being ridiculed by the authorities as he tries to inform them of the dangers their culture and society faces? And just after he gets out of bed with, well, let’s say, a woman who isn’t there for her stimulating conversational skills.

In these early vampire movies, it wasn’t unusual for them to start with some version of Jonathan Harker’s journey and arrival at Castle Dracula. In other words, we’re usually well into the movie before we gain our first glimpse at the Count. This is understandable in a genre that must build tension to keep its viewers’ interest.

After a wonderfully over-the-top introductory narration, Count Yorga, Vampire, as its title suggests, gives us the Count up front and in-your-face. He’s there, leading a séance with three couples. Donna, wishes to keep in touch with her mother, who has recently died of – this is a vampire movie! – pernicious anemia. At which point, this movie really lets us know that the vampire has transitioned from his Old World roots to the New World of opportunity and irreverence.

For instance, Madonna comes from the Italian and means My Lady. As a title, it is applied to Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is The Madonna because she is the mother of the Son of God and, by extension, the mother of all. Kelljan turns this relationship on its head by having the daughter called Donna, whose mother goes unnamed. IMDb lists Marsha Jordan’s role as simply ‘Donna’s mother’. When you see the end of the film you might wonder about this appellation. Throughout the duration of the film, Donna is the daughter who has lost her mother, thus bringing these people into contact with the Count, but, at movie’s end, her name may have greater significance.

After the entertaining but somewhat superfluous narration, we are treated to a group of people sitting around a table, with the rather handsome guy at its head doing most of the talking while the others are being not so subtle in their disrespect. Yorga, as can be seen by his style of dress – not to mention the classic line, “I believe I brought a cape?” – is the old fogey mixing it with the modern, and far more jaded, younger generation. We soon learn that he was, in fact, the lover of Donna’s dear departed mother. Yes, we are supposed to know the significance of the vampire’s kiss. This entire movie works because it’s playing with a mythos it is fully aware its audience is familiar with. What’s the point of hiding the vampire in a movie for a 1970s audience? Hammer never got this memo.

And so, the movie begins, with Yorga saying, in an irreverent paraphrase of Ephesians 4:4, “Our hands are joined. Hopefully we will be able to act as one body.”

What he goes on to say will be the focus of what comes next.

Vanishing Point (1971): Kowalski and the happy ending

Roger Ebert, in ‘The Great Movies’ (Broadway Books, 2002), praises Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ for not being about a character with a goal and, because of this, it is a rarity among film, it is “transcendent” and works “upon our minds and imaginations like music or prayer or a vast belittling landscape”. I suspect it may be some kind of blasphemy to discuss 1971’s ‘Vanishing Point’ in reference to the much revered ‘2001’, but, first of all, ‘Vanishing Point’ made as much of an impression on me as any film I’ve ever seen – definitely a once-seen-never-forgotten experience – as well as having, akin to 2001’s Dave Bowman, a main character it isn’t necessary to identify with. Whatever Kowalski’s goal is, that ending would imply it is one we’d not be too eager to emulate.

Kowalski does have a goal – to get to ‘Frisco by 3pm the following day – a feat deemed so improbable that his friend, Jake, is willing to bet the price of the speed he’s just provided to keep Kowalski awake enough to keep going. We know the driver – but only by his surname – we know the destination and the schedule. What we don’t know is the reason. It seems imperative that Kowalski keep going and, though he never seems desperate, he must keep going at speed if he is to meet his self-imposed deadline. The car he is delivering to San Francisco isn’t actually due until the Monday, so it isn’t an imposition from without.

Whatever Kowalski’s goal, if we take the film at face value, isn’t our goal. In fact, if we look at this film as little more than a prolonged car-chase with an overly dramatic ending, it hardly deserves the honour of ‘cult classic’, which it must be to get a mention by none other than Quentin Tarantino in ‘Death Proof’ (2007) – a film, incidentally, that made absolutely no impression on me, whatsoever – but, then, no Tarantino film has since ‘Pulp Fiction (1994).

I re-watched ‘Vanishing Point’ years ago while in seminary. At its end, one of the other students, who was going to be a Franciscan monk, asked what it was about. Of the two of us who’d recommended we watch the movie, neither one of us was able to supply a satisfactory answer. The air of disappointment was probably heavier than the entire audience.

The obvious approach to ‘Vanishing Point’ is the one presented to us by the movie itself. DJ Super Soul (Cleavon Little) quickly dubs Kowalski ‘the last American hero’ or, more hyperbolically, ‘the last beautiful free soul on this planet’. Clearly, it is Super Soul’s role to ensure the audience has at least something to grasp hold of, giving some meaning to the action. The question is whether we are supposed to be satisfied with his interpretation, whether we should be willing to simply accept what we are told in a story whose main character refuses to accept he should just stop because he’s told to?

The almost supernatural manner in which Kowalski and Super Soul connect, the way they are almost able to converse across the ether will, either, give the whole film a spiritual dimension or, as I tend to think, make clear that the Director, Richard C. Sarafian is having a little fun at the expense of those who might still be clinging desperately, with one hand, on to the ideals of the previous decade and the flower in their hair with the other.

But, if this be the case, how do we explain the bright light and Kowalski’s beatific smile at the end of the film?

Well, I certainly don’t think we’re supposed to believe Kowalski is about to be transported to some heavenly realm, for such would seem to fly in the face of the counter-culture and all it stood for. Or against.

It isn’t Super Soul’s flowery religious language that should hold our attention but his emphasis on Kowalski being alone: “…there goes the Challenger, being chased by the blue, blue meanies on wheels.” The Challenger – the car and its driver – are noticeably singular against overwhelming odds – even the colour is repeated to emphasise the disparity in numbers.

But what exactly is Kowalski challenging? Does he, in any way, even metaphorically, lay down a challenge to those in authority? It is easy to see why there are those who might interpret his actions in such a grandiose way. In reality, Kowalski isn’t playing catch-me-if-you-can – would he stop to check on the cop, or the speed-racer, he forces off the road if it was merely a case of his being out to prove himself somehow superior? This is not just a hack speedway driver out to show the world that he is better than they ever thought. This is not a man out to show the world anything at all.

This is why Kowalski’s motivation is never explained. Whatever it is that drives him is not what drives each of us – that we will have to find for ourselves. That bright light and smile at the end of the film is Kowalski’s recognition that he has accomplished what he set out to do. His is a happy ending.

Wheeler Winston Dixon, in a review for Film International, claims that Kowalski is driving to escape his past and that he is bound to fail – as we all must. Wheeler goes on to describe a sequence in which Kowalski stops to pick up a hitchhiker – Charlotte Rampling – with whom he shares a brief romantic moment after she tells him she’s been waiting for him “[e]verywhere and since forever”. Wheeler claims that without this seven-minute sequence – which was cut from the original U.S. release – the film is incomplete and that its inclusion raises ‘the film to a much more thoughtful level of introspection’.

The Rampling character is seen to be ‘a metaphorical vision of the angel of Death’ thus giving the film a more overtly Freudian reading. Well, if it works for you, then fine. It just seems to me that a Kowalski engaging in risky behaviour and self-destructive acts at the risk of his very life lessens the film – if for no other reason than any foreshadowing of that ending will diminish its impact. The first time you watch this film, that ending has to come as a shock – it is, after all, what the whole 1 hour 38 minutes (of the version I watched recently) builds towards.

I would argue that, rather than seeking to fulfill some Freudian death wish, Kowalski is not so much running from his past as trying to put it in some perspective. When he looks back he sees but through a glass darkly – or, at least, through a mirror with bleary eyes. We only see brief glimpses of Kowalski’s life before the events of the movie, enough to know he’s an okay driver and a decent man, treated unfairly by that bitch called Life. It would be perfectly normal for him not to understand why a guy who only ever tried to do the right thing received the treatment he did. Kowalski’s life isn’t a mystery to be solved – it is a question to be answered.

Kowalski’s goal is not our goal, but his question is our question – how do I give meaning to this life over which I seem to have no control?

For Kowalski, that answer will not be found by giving himself up to some outside or higher power – hence his refusal to stop for the law and his wry amusement upon encountering J. Hovah’s Pentecostal meeting out in the desert. (Tell me that name is not Sarafian having a little fun at someone’s expense!!!) Kowalski’s only recourse is to be satisfied with those things he can control – and no one can doubt that he is in full control of that Challenger.

Something has changed for Kowalski. He is no longer being chased. During that final stop in the wasteland a decision is reached. When Kowalski gets back in his car, he is no longer running away from anything – he is heading, clear-headed (probably for the first time in the whole movie), towards the answer to his question.

Indeed, his is a happy ending.

John Wayne’s 1970s

Of the ten films in which John Wayne starred during the 1970s all but two of them were Westerns. Ranker.com lists 7 of these movies on its list of Top 45 Westerns of the 1970s – only ‘The Train Robbers’ (1973) failing to make the cut. According to this list, the highest ranked Wayne Western is, of course, ‘The Shootist’ at No.4. Flickchart.com has only four of John Waynes’s 1970s Westerns on its list of The Best Westerns of the 1970s, with, again, ‘The Shootist’ ranked highest, this time at No.9. Filmsite.org, which lists movies alphabetically rather than by rank, has only two of Wayne’s 1970s Westerns appear on its list of 100 Greatest Westerns – ‘The Shootist’, inevitably, and, surprisingly, ‘Chisum’ (1970). Time Out’s list of 50 Greatest Westerns has five John Wayne Westerns on its list, but none – not even ‘The Shootist’ – from the 1970s. Most-Wanted-Western-Movies.com has the same mix as does Time Out, minus ‘Rio Bravo’ (1959), so, again, the 70s go unrepresented. PasteMagazine.com has the largest selection of Wayne Westerns on its list of The 100 Best Western Movies of All Time. Fourteen of John Wayne’s Westerns appear on this list, with two, ‘The Shootist’ and ‘The Cowboys’ being from the 70s. More than the largest representation, however, this last list has ‘The Searchers’ (1956) ranked as the No.1 best Western of all time.

Roscoe Lee Browne was advised by friends not to work with Wayne on ‘The Cowboys’ because the two had such differing political views. Wayne’s ultra-right-wing politics are well known and must have had some influence on the roles he chose or refused. Famously, he refused the lead in ‘Dirty Harry’ (1971) because he believed Harry to be a rogue cop. But, just like Wayne and Browne, let’s not discuss politics here.

In fact, Wayne was pretty honest in his explanation of refusing the ‘Dirty Harry’ role:

They offered it to Frank Sinatra first, but he’d hurt his hand and couldn’t do it. I don’t like being offered Sinatra’s rejections. Put that one down to pride. The second reason is that I thought Harry was a rogue cop. Put that down to narrow-mindedness because when I saw the picture I realized that Harry was the kind of part I’d played often enough; a guy who lives within the law but breaks the rules when he really has to in order to save others. (Retrieved from: http://www.manlymovie.net/2014/10/john-wayne-resented-young-upstart-clint.html)

The inescapable reality is that the 1970s saw Wayne’s lock on the box office jimmied by the changing times he so assiduously failed to notice. His two attempts at playing catchup, 1974’s ‘McQ’ and ‘75’s ‘Brannigan’ failed in their objective, if that was to keep Wayne up there with the young ‘uns. Six years after that car chase in ‘Bullitt’ (1968), Wayne, at 61, just couldn’t pull off a Steve McQueen impersonation – as much as the title of the film and that car chase would indicate his desire to. His riff on ‘Coogan’s Bluff’ in ‘Brannigan’ didn’t really fare much better.

It wasn’t just a case of blinkered vision, however. Wayne was perfectly well aware of the changes that were occurring in his industry. He simply didn’t agree with them and stuck by his principles, just as you’d expect him to. In a 1971 interview with Playboy, Wayne made very clear his feelings for recent developments in the film industry:

There was no need for rated pictures when the major studios were in control. Movies were once made for the whole family. Now, with the kind of junk the studios are cranking out—and the jacked-up prices they’re charging for the privilege of seeing it—the average family is staying home and watching television. I’m quite sure that within two or three years, Americans will be completely fed up with these perverted films.

When asked to clarify what films he thought perverted, Wayne identified ‘Easy Rider’ and Midnight Cowboy’, both from 1969. Both these films were significant contributions to ‘New Hollywood’ and therefore all that helped to make the movies of the 70s so special. (Not every movie, obviously. It’s worth keeping in mind that 1970 saw the release of ‘Hercules in New York’, while at the other end of the decade we have 1979’s ‘1941’ proving even Spielberg fallible.) From a man in his sixties, though, Wayne’s views are not too surprising or shocking, for that matter.

With his health the way it was, Wayne knew he wasn’t going to be around for much longer. It cannot be without significance that 1972 saw something of a passing of the torch with Wayne’s character dying in ‘The Cowboys’, thus leaving it up to the youngsters to ensure justice be done. Roger Ebert may put the death of Wayne’s character down to a violation of a Western convention, all the same, it seems – certainly with hindsight – that the moment was rather more significant than just a poorly crafted movie – even if, in fact, that might well be the case.

This reading of ‘The Cowboys’ is somewhat supported by Wayne’s two 70s cop films, neither one of which is a match for ‘Dirty Harry’. Just the fact that, so late in his career, Wayne finally made a cop movie has to have been influenced by both the success of the Eastwood/Seigel film and the realisation that the movies were heading towards a place Wayne would never feel comfortable. This probably partly explains the inherent weakness of ‘McQ’ and ‘Brannigan’ – they weren’t really John Wayne movies. They were nothing more than imitations – and not very good ones at that.

Ironically, Wayne’s best movie of the 70s, ‘The Shootist’ (1976), was directed by none other than Don Siegel, the director who had helped cement Clint Eastwood’s star to the sidewalk, most notably, for our purpose, with ‘Dirty Harry’, that albatross weighing heavy on the Duke’s broad shoulders.

It is hardly surprising that there be, well, let’s say, artistic differences between director and star. Despite giving Wayne “one last shot before the final farewell”, Seigel’s more 70s oriented approach was always going to clash with that image so many years in the making. It matters not what the real American West was actually like, in Wayne’s West good guys didn’t shoot bad guys in the back.

This is more than John Wayne feeling superior. It goes to the very heart of the change that will see the Duke happily off to those hunting grounds in the sky. Wayne belongs to that breed of men which would include the likes of Gary Cooper in ‘High Noon’ (1952), Alan Ladd in ‘Shane’ (1953) and Van Heflin in ‘3:10 to Yuma’ (1957). All men with a sense of honour and dignity. That he’d lasted as long as he had and was able to bow out with ‘The Shootist’ as his last film is testament to that Wayne j’ne sais quoi. If ever there is an appropriate time to pass along the trail and leave the round-up to the young ‘uns, Wayne was certainly fortunate in so far as he would not have to debase his long built up image any further. While not terrible films, ‘McQ’ and ‘Brannigan’ don’t belong in the Wayne canon and, for his sake, we should all be thankful there was no need for more.

The Andromeda Strain: SciFi Horror

I have never been a great fan of horror movies. There are, of course, certain exceptions to this – as a kid I used to love going to bed straight after watching Christopher Lee play Dracula in a Hammer Horror film. And I didn’t sleep a wink after watching The Omen (1976). Though I remain quite partial to a good vampire movie (there not being that many good ones, these days!), horror is probably my least favourite movie genre. Why? Well, mostly just because I remain unhorrified.

It may well be, as Steve Rose claims in his article for The Guardian, that “horror is the place where we explore our mortal and societal fears”, but Edward Scissorhands on Elm Street wearing a ski mask to hide the weird possibility of the hills having eyes, wielding a Texas chainsaw while Conjuring the Blair Witch just don’t hold a candle to what I would consider one of the scariest movies of all time – 1971’s ‘The Andromeda Strain’.

Christopher Lee in his Dracula heyday was nowhere near as scary as Dr. Jeremy Stone, played pitch-perfectly by Arthur Hill. This is a man, a scientist, so soulless he likens being called away from a party by armed soldiers to lying in his wife’s arms. Stone by name and stone by nature.

Generally, the movies seem quite favourable towards science. The exceptions, of course, is the mad scientist. Science doesn’t kill, it’s the scientists!

‘The Andromeda Strain’ walks a fine line between these two positions. That Wildfire and Scoop were built for germ warfare, as Doctors Dutton and Leavitt discover to their dismay as they stare at the maps and discover they are for the purpose of “biological warfare”, is countered by the roles the facilities now play in saving the United States from that very threat – even if, as Dutton exclaims, “We did it to ourselves!”

Dutton and Leavitt are quick to accuse Dr. Jeremy Stone of being complicit in the development of these biological weapons of mass destruction. Not because they have any proof; just because he’s the type of conscienceless scientist who could do such a thing. And they know it!

This, again, is but an emphasis the film makes about science being morally-neutral. Dutton and Leavitt are scandalized; Stone, for all his protestations that he only found out about Scoop at the same time they did, just doesn’t sound convincing. It’s not the science that’s to blame, it’s the scientists.

‘The Andromeda Strain’ might appear to favour, slightly, the idea that science will save humanity – they do, after all, learn how to defeat the ‘organism’ and save the good ol’ United States. Consider, for all Stone’s inhumanity, he is counterbalanced by not one but two more human scientists – Dutton and Leavitt. For all that Stone might harp on about sticking to “established procedures”, Leavitt counters with “Establishment gonna fall down and go boom.”

No offense to Kate Reid, who plays Dr. Ruth Leavitt, but, for all her quips about bordellos and good places to grow pot, she’s hardly the poster child for the hippie movement. Indeed, Ruth Leavitt is not as she appears to be. Initially, she refuses to go when the soldiers come for her. Her experiment being at “a critical stage”, she claims she can’t just leave it. We might admire her dedication to her work, except she is putting her own personal success ahead of her country’s need. Only when the officer suggests she may not be well, that the physician could certify her unable to continue, does she suddenly decide she’ll go.

Again, one might, at first, believe she has realised the enormity of the situation and nobly, if belatedly, recognised the need to put country first. Later, we find out that she only agreed to go in order to avoid the doctor’s examination that would have made public her epilepsy – a condition that would have excluded her from Wildfire and Scoop and, as noted by Dr. Stone, in the closest he comes to a human sentiment, “Probably no top lab would have her if they knew. Insurance, prejudice, all that crap.” In other words, Dr. Ruth Leavitt, for all her counter-cultural irreverence, is not primarily motivated by a desire to save millions of lives but a selfish need to save her own career.

When the manure hits the fan, and the klaxons are blaring, and the red lights are flashing, Dr. Ruth Leavitt reveals, as we are fully aware, that her dislike of red lights has nothing to do with her years in a bordello. She is first transfixed and then goes into epileptic seizure. Fortunately, there are no direct catastrophic results stemming from Leavitt’s predicament, but would it just have been prejudice that ruled her unfit for the task?

While one might have a smattering of understanding for a woman trying to survive and succeed in the male world of science, it is difficult to feel sympathy for anyone who would willingly put the lives of millions at risk for their own personal gain, which is precisely what Dr. Ruth Leavitt does.

All the more reason for the scientifically objective and thoroughly dispassionate Dr. Jeremy Stone, the ideal man to head this team. This may well be true. What is so frightening about Dr. Stone is his complete lack of a sense of the value of life. Not even a human life, or human life generally, just life, itself, seems to be beyond his comprehension.

As Drs. Stone and Leavitt stare at the ever-greater magnification of the damaged satellite, he responds to her natural sense of wonderment at “some brand-new form of life”, with “Our best hope of cracking it is to be grindingly thorough with computer No.1” and taps Leavitt on the side of her head.

To be fair to Stone, he does give the threat to the people west of Piedmont as justification for his demand for a “712”, though it’s less about warm, fuzzy feelings for his fellow human beings and more a case of any argument that’ll get him what he wants. Throughout the movie, Stone is not motivated by an urgent need to save lives as he is by scientific curiosity for a conundrum he refuses to be defeated by.

A scientist to the core, Stone’s frequent use of the code ‘712’ and his reference to the ‘apparatus of self-destruction’ – both of which refer to the exploding of a nuclear device – are devoid of the emotion that would normally attach to the thought of the utter destruction to be wrought by either action.

It is this attitude, this complete inability – or, at least, unwillingness – to engage with life itself that makes Stone a good scientist and ‘The Andromeda Strain’ such a horrifying movie. It may be the politicians whose paranoiac fantasies dream up the need for ever-more destructive weapons, but it is the Dr. Stones of this world that make such dreams a reality. Once they have the weapon to hand, the politicians have a million reasons never to use it. The scientist has no reason not to devise it in the first place.