In 1967 Stanley Fish published a seminal work that reconceptualised the understanding of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In Seduced by Sin Fish argued that the true subject of Paradise Lost was not Satan, or Adam and Eve, but the reader himself who, through the epic poem’s structure and use of recognisable narrative forms (Satan’s heroic journey being patterned on The Odyssey and The Aeneid), experiences his own fall. For Fish the reader is “confronted with evidence of his corruption” (1967, ixxii) when he realises his seduction by Satan’s heroic narrative and should, by the end of the work, come to realise his own temptations and spiritual limitations, becoming a sort of guilty reader who develops an understanding of the limits of his own spirituality.
At first glance a 17th Century English poetic work seems to have little in common with Death Wish, a film that has long been neglected by serious critics despite its box-office success and evident influence on cinema (arguably starting a whole sub-genre of vigilante/revenge films which continues to this day, with a 2018 re-make). Indeed Death Wish was received with outright hostility by most main-stream critics in the US and UK, and still exists as a sort of by-word for violent exploitative film – happily referenced during real-life crimes, such as those of Bernie Goetz in 1984, by lazy journalists.
On its release Vincent Canby, in The New York Times, called it
a despicable movie, one that raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers
in July 1974, returning in August to decry its popularity with “law-and-order fanatics, sadists, muggers, club women, fathers, older sisters, masochists, policemen, politicians, and, it seems, a number of film critics”. Roger Ebert denounced it as “propaganda for private gun ownership and a call to vigilante justice”, and Richard Schickel called it “vicious”. Judy Klemersud was sent by The New York Times to answer the question “What do They See in ‘Death Wish’?”, noticing how audiences cheered when Bronson (as the audience identified him, not his character Paul Kersey) gunned down muggers, and confessing that she too found herself, much to her shame, “applauding several times.” A clear characterisation of the film and its audience emerged, but if it was intended to warn away movie-goers it failed as the film took over £20 million in the US on a budget of $3million (Talbot 2006, 8).
But what if there’s something more complex at work in Death Wish? What if we can take Fish’s ideas about the reader in Paradise Lost and apply them to a film written off as exploitation? What emerges is a film much more complicated than previously assumed – one that tempts the spectator into identification with a psychotic protagonist, forcing them to reflect on their own sense of law, order and justice and the lure of simplistic answers to complicated problems.
Use of Myth & Genre
Many critics have perceived Death Wish as a sort of “urban Western”, an attempt to relocate the form to a more relevant setting, taking account of the demythologising of the genre that occurred through the 1960s and the early 1970s (through the Spaghetti Westerns and revisionist films such as Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970)). There is much on the surface that makes this suggestion appealing; Death Wish repeatedly references the codes of law and order represented in the Western, most notably in Paul Kersey’s journey to Tucson where his is schooled in “the old American tradition of self-defence” by Aimes Jainchill, the sort of man who carries a gun openly and has bull horns on his car. The casting of Bronson as Kersey, who came to fame in The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960) and cemented his association with the genre in Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968), furthers this, lending the theory some pertinence which is helped by the film’s direction.
Winner directs the film in a traditional Hollywood style (despite his English nationality), eschewing the experiments of form that characterise the New Hollywood period when the film was produced. Indeed one could quite happily label his work as heavy handed, if efficient in covering ground quickly. Generally speaking, except in the infamous rape scene, Winner avoids using subjective techniques, instead allowing the spectator to remain distanced from the action, watching it unfold rather than being in the centre of it. This lends the film a sort of comfort in its spectating position, as does the use of genre tropes from the Western, helping to put the spectator at their ease.
When Kersey’s wife and daughter are attacked the attacker’s behaviour can easily be compared to that of the “Red Indians” in any of the multitude of Westerns audiences had familiarised themselves with through film and television during the past decades.
Much of the initial critical opprobrium directed at the film stemmed from the rape scene and Winner directs it to cause maximum offence and impact – the effect of this is two-fold. First it brings to life the implicit rape threat that was contained in many Westerns for a modern audience more accustomed to such images by films such as A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971) and Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah, 1971), but also it’s critical for the rest of the film that the crime be sufficiently disturbing that Kersey’s reaction to it seems, on the surface at least, reasonable. From this Kersey’s rediscovery of a Western code of justice follows, with the crime fitting that code – it is after all his “women-folk” who have been attacked in his urban “home-stead” (his wife is killed, the daughter is left in a vegetative state, conveniently unable to voice her own views).
Underpinning the Western genre is a binary opposition between the Wilderness and Civilization, the former a male environment in which the hero belonged, versus the feminizing force of the latter and Death Wish plays with this suggesting that the feminising power of civilization has left Kersey unable to protect his family, and the authorities impotent in the face of crime. Such a philosophy is espoused by Jainchill during the Tuscon segment, where the wide open spaces are contrasted to the dark alleys of New York. Here Kersey witnesses a Wild West show, an artificial and corny representation that beguiles him. Here he discovers a simple answer to New York’s crime problems – the good man versus the bad man.
There is no doubting the seriousness of crime, and especially mugging, during the 1970s so one can assume a certain pre-existing sympathy on behalf of the spectator, especially as they had paid to see a film in which the advertising campaign had highlighted the controversial elements (the tag-line read “Vigilante, city style – judge, jury and executioner”). But the film goes further in seducing the audience towards being sympathetic to Kersey by surrounding his actions with supporters and suggestions that his acts would have a significant impact on crime (the DA claiming a reduction in mugging from 950 per week to 470). The representation of the media within the film, complete with Western inspired imagery such as a noose and the headline “Frontier Justice in the Streets” on the cover of Harper’s, serves to cement this. A consistent narrative of Kersey’s effectiveness is built up – so much that it inspires other New Yorkers to defend themselves (such as Alma Lee Brown, seen in a TV news report, defending herself with a hat-pin).
These elements, alongside the comforting familiarity of the Western model, invite the spectator to align more closely with Kersey as the film continues, as does the comparison provided by Kersey’s ineffectual son-in-law and the scenes in which Kersey is confronted by a police force unable to catch his wife & daughter’s attackers. Having primed us in Tuscon the film returns to New York where Kersey starts acting out his new found sense of law and order, imaging himself to be the lawman of myth.
Kersey’s first act of violence is in self-defence (using a sock filled with a roll of coins), his second (this time with the revolver given to him by Jainchill) saves a man from being mugged. These actions fit within the narrative conventions of the Western, ideas of self-defence or helping the defenceless. They may be the acts of a vigilante, but they retain a certain sympathy, especially as Kersey reacts traumatically (vomiting after the first instance).
From then on Kersey’s actions become more sinister: he begins riding the Subway miles away from home waiting for someone to attack. He cruises the parks with no intent to look for people to save, rather he deliberately makes himself a target, enticing attackers by placing himself in vulnerable positions. And he begins to enjoy it. At home he surrounds himself with the newspapers and magazines that detail his exploits, watching the news reports that validate his actions with a broad smile on his face. He has moved well beyond the desire to protect himself and, of course, he has spent no time at all searching for those who harmed his family. It’s an often neglected detail, but a key one;
Death Wish is not a film about vengeance, at least not in a direct sense. Although the attack on his wife and daughter instigates a change in how Kersey views the world, none of his subsequent acts are directed towards punishing those responsible.
To have done so would have more easily placed Kersey into a pre-existing narrative schema, recognisable from films such as The Searchers (John Ford, 1956), but the film simply elides its way past this point and takes the spectator with it. We have the justification for Kersey’s crusade, but by omitting a direct vengeance against the criminals responsible the film moves slowly away from expectations towards something more complex and troubling. By the time Kersey is shooting men in the back, about as far from the Western code as you can get, the spectator is positioned so as not to notice the departure from expectations.
Revealing the Truth
On reflection cracks in this world appear early, indeed even in the opening prologue (added by Winner, and not present in the original novel by Brian Garfield) in which Kersey and his Wife enjoy a holiday. Ostensibly included to increase the tragedy that follows and to draw a direct comparison with the Hellish New York that follows, Hawaii is represented as an Edenic space, a land of plenty. However anyone with a cursory knowledge of crime on the islands can recognise this image as a sham, the resort an artifice behind which lies high levels of violent crime and drug-use. This effectively preys on our understandings of binary oppositions, the calm pastoral idyll as opposed to the degradations of civilization – however this Eden is so obviously false, as is the world of Tucson presented later which Kersey is so beguiled by. The Wild West show, from which Kersey draws inspiration, is over the top, a tired rehash of clichés for children and tourists in which the gun shots and deaths are clearly fake. Jainchill himself is an over the top caricature. Winner gently suggests to us here that the world that Kersey identifies with is a sham in itself; what values can possibly be drawn from it?
Alone in the film, as a voice of reason, is Detective Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) edging towards the only logical conclusion about Paul Kersey: that he has become a serial killer. Ochoa provides an alternative protagonist in the film, but he is drawn to be uninspiring, a man of stubby cigars and crumpled coat, stuck with a permanent cold, as if crime was a literal disease. In a different edit of the film one could imagine Ochoa becoming the hero, tracking down Kersey the killer, but this would remove the growing moral complexity from the film, cemented when Ochoa tells Kersey to leave New York.
What of Kersey at this point? He has descended into a psychotic state, believing himself to be a lawman in the Old West; of course his targets aren’t the Native Americans of the films, or the bad men in black hats, but young urban men whose lives can only be hinted at.
During the final confrontation the young black man Kersey has chased and cornered can only be confused by the demand to “Draw” and “Fill your hand” – codes utterly inaccessible and irrelevant to someone who had previously exhorted Kersey to “Come on down, Mother Fucker”.
When confronted by Ochoa Kersey inquires if he has to leave town “by sundown?” Slowly, but inexorably, through the film, Kersey has bought into his own fantasies of law and order, coming to see himself as the hero of the West, but moving on to being someone who cannot distinguish between reality and fantasy.
During the final moments of Death Wish Paul Kersey arrives in Chicago and, having disembarked from his train, is confronted by the sight of a gang of young men harassing a woman. As Kersey helps the woman recover the belongings that have been scattered over the floor he turns to the young men and forms his fingers into a gun shape, smiling broadly. But look at that shot again and you can see that the finger, ostensibly aimed at the young men, is pointing straight at us. It’s an image that reaches all the way back to 1903 and the first Western, Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, which, as the legend goes, had the audience ducking under their seats with its final image of a bandit shooting straight towards the camera. The image has been remade, but the implication is the same – you’re next. The modern audience of course considers itself too sophisticated to duck their heads at such an image, but have they been too sophisticated to be seduced by Death Wish?
Through its use of familiar tropes and structures Death Wish plays out a tempting fantasy, one of easy answers to complicated questions. But rather than simply endorse Paul Kersey the film turns to the spectator and asks whether they too have been drawn in to this fantasy – a fantasy in which complex problems of urban degradation are made into narratives of good men versus bad men. The subtle hints that pepper the narrative, undermining its representations, point to a question for the spectator – are they too to be seduced like the Kersey’s many supporters in the city? As he turns to the camera in the final seconds Bronson reveals the film’s trick – a gothca moment designed to entrap us.
Just as Fish suggests regards Paradise Lost, the real subject of Death Wish is the audience. The question it asks them: are you conscious enough to see your own temptations?
Ebert, Roger (1974) Death Wish. Chicago Sun Times. [online] http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/death-wish-1974 [accessed 10 September 2017]
Fish, Stanley (1967) Seduced by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Gilliat, Penelope (1974) Death Wish. New Yorker Magazine. 26 August.
Klemersrud, Judy (1974) What do They See in Death Wish? The New York Times. 01 September.
Schickel, Richard (1974) Mug Shooting. Time. 19 August.
Talbot, Paul (2006) Bronson’s Loose! The Making of the Death Wish Films. Lincoln: iUniverse
Full disclosure: Cobra is not a good or interesting film in any of the traditional ways. It lacks narrative coherence; the story is bare to non-existent, and the performances are largely one-note. It is, however, a film that allows us to explore how the audience can be employed in the creation of meaning; in fact I’d go as far to suggest that the audience makes the film themselves due to it being a thoroughly disjointed film; the spectator becomes the main agent of meaning culling from their own understanding of genre, narrative and various intertexts in an act of creative spectatorship. In this it emerges as a key action text of the 1980s, telling us just how tuned into the genre action fans were.
To say that Cobra was critically unloved on its release would be something of an understatement. Nina Darnton, in The New York Times, suggested that the film was “disturbing for the violence it portrays” and showed “contempt for the most basic American values embodied in the concept of fair trial”. Sheila Benson, in the Los Angeles Times, cited the films “pretentious emptiness, its dumbness, it’s two-faced morality”. David Denby went even further titling his New York Magazine review “Poison”, and comparing Cobra to Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971), citing the former’s lack of “the peculiar sad gravity that Clint Eastwood gave him.” None of this seemed to harm Cobra’s box office, with it gaining $49 million in the US alone (ww.boxofficemojo.com), and totalling $160 million worldwide (Fisher, 2016), helping to continue Stallone’s profitable run at the box-office (although it did show a significant drop from the less explicitly violent Rocky and Rambo films).
Revisiting the film now, one wonders why the reviewers were so worried as it’s such a disjointed and unbelievable film that its clearly addresses its audience in a self-conscious post-modern and shallow manner, to the point where it becomes sort of sub-Brechtian in its emptiness (although politically it’s about as far from Brecht as you can get in its continual celebration, and destruction, of consumer products). The critical comparisons to Dirty Harry are revealing as it’s in this that Cobra starts to come alive as a film, drawing much of it’s meaning from the earlier film series (it’s also notable that Dirty Harry was decried in similar ways on release). The opening of the film directly imitates the second Dirty Harry film, Magnum Force (Ted Post, 1973), both culminating in the hero’s gun firing out of the screen at the audience (immediately breaking the fourth wall and puncturing any claims to an immersive experience). The conflict between Cobretti (Stallone) and his superiors is lifted almost directly from the Dirty Harry films, but is subverted somewhat by the casting of Andrew Robinson who played the Scorpio Killer in Dirty Harry. Here, as Detective Monte, he continually challenges Cobretti – suggesting that the audience, upon recognition of Robinson’s distinctive face and voice should conclude that if that psycho thinks Cobretti is too violent, he must be heavier than Harry Callahan. Casting Reni Santini as Cobretti’s partner is a direct call-back to the almost identical role he played in Dirty Harry, both characters even being called Gonzales (the only discernible difference in the performances is a hat). The film sutures together the plots of the Dirty Harry films (excluding The Dead Pool, released in 1988) – the psychotic killer of Dirty Harry (now The Night Stalker), the fascist group from Magnum Force merges with the terrorist group of The Enforcer (James Fargo, 1976), with elements of the romantic relationship in Sudden Impact (the character of the turncoat cop Stalk in Cobra also looks very similar to unpleasant lesbian stereotype Ray in Sudden Impact (Clint Eastwood, 1983)). At this point the film is directly drawing from these films in a very knowing manner, clearly assuming that the audience knows the other texts – this knowledge functions as a series of narrative and characterisation short cuts. Exposition is barely required as the audience is already aware of how this narrative will play out – the opening action scene, in a supermarket, imitates similar Dirty Harry scenes, without requiring any sense of location or time – it is enough that a crime has occurred. Ritualistically we expect Cobretti to arrive and solve the problem, which he duly does, so no suspense or tension is created or necessary. It becomes a scene entirely designed to showcase how much dirtier Cobretti is than Harry (Cobretti wears his mirrored shades all the way through the scene; he pauses to sip from a Coors; his killer also has a bomb; he has his own catchphrase “You’re the disease, I’m the cure.”) Thus, the film works on a ritualistic and generic level, playing out exactly as expected in some ways, despite some particularly curious directional choices we’ll come to.
On an intertextual level it’s also worth discussing how the films’ studio backing primes the audience for the content. As both a product of The Cannon Group and Warner Brothers (as distributor) the studio logos that start the film suggest an uneasy nexus point between one studio known for cheap exploitation/action pictures and another with a rich history but also, during the 1980s, a skewing towards action films (Warner’s would in 1988, after all, give the world the dubious gift of Steven Seagal). Of course, the Warner link pulls straight back to Dirty Harry, whereas the Cannon group evokes the world of Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris and ultra-violent fayre like The Exterminator II (Mark Buntzman, 1984). Given the strength of the growing home-video market Cannon had become well-known, if not infamous, to audiences but the Warner Bros. logo gives the film a sheen of quality (original trailers trade on the Warner logo more than the Cannon connection). It’s also one of the first 80s action films to be set at Christmas, beating Lethal Weapon and Die Hard to the punch. Not that the Christmas setting has much purpose, other than occasional pans over nativity scenes or Christmas trees incongruous to the sunny LA setting, perhaps left over from the previous years Cannon action ‘epic’ Invasion USA (Joseph Zito, 1985).
The opening narration sets the tone for the film, but also a premise from which the subsequent action is contextualised to make sense;
In America, there’s a burglary every 11 seconds, an armed robbery every 65 seconds, a violent crime every 25 seconds, a murder every 24 minutes and 250 rapes a day.
With this, delivered in Stallone’s familiar drawl, the justification of all the violence that subsequently occurs is drawn (ironically Cobretti kills way more people than The Night Stalker manages). It’s worth noting that during 1986 there was an upswing in homicide (Wilkerson, 1987) but also that Cobra draws no attention to causes – the film exists in a Manichean universe in which archetypes, far removed from reality, battle.
After the voice-over opening and before the first action sequence the first of several montages plays out which are directed in an almost surreal manner, bearing more comparison to the work of Eisenstein in the juxtaposition of images than in a typical Stallone/Rocky training sequence. These contextless disconnected images of men clashing axes together, tattoos, graffiti and a motorbike are intercut rapidly giving the audience all the introduction to the films far-right group they’ll ever get or need (their politics almost subliminally suggested through their skull and axe logo). But of course, the audience needs no more introduction, it’s enough that these people exist to be opposed. A second montage, in which both Cobretti and The Night Stalker search for murder witness Ingrid (Brigitte Nielsen), set to Robert Tepper’s Angel of the City, cuts between protagonist and antagonist and Ingrid during a bizarre fashion shoot in which she drapes herself around various robotic creations – it introduces some almost avant-garde imagery into proceedings for no discernible purpose. Ingrid’s career, as a model, indicates her purpose in the film – beautiful object, nothing more.
From here the film proceeds much as one would expect, it just seems to lack many of the elements of character and dialogue any competently made Hollywood movie would have. Much of this relates to the disputed direction of the film, with some claiming that Stallone directed the film himself (when he wasn’t busy off set consummating his recent marriage to Nielsen). He certainly wrote the film (as much as it has a script) ditching any part of the novel Fair Game by Paula Gosling on which it is nominally based. It also has a troubled post-production with numerous cuts being made to secure an R-rating and to increase showings, removing around 30 minutes of material. Although this editing creates numerous continuity errors it plays into the audience’s ownership of the narrative, making them work to film in the gaps and the cuts remove the superfluous elements that the audience knows anyway.
And then there’s the hero, Stallone’s Marion Cobretti first-named, one assumes, in tribute to John Wayne (at one-point Stallone spins his semi-automatic Colt, with cobra picture on the grip, round his finger despite the fact this would, in all likelihood, result in him shooting himself). Even by Stallone’s standards his performance is low key, a sleepy re-tread of previous performances marked only by his continued wearing of gloves and innovative way of eating pizza (watch it, it’s very odd). Cobra exists purely as a series of attitudes, instead of a performance per se. The romance, between Cobra and key witness Ingrid), is particularly pallid but is part of where the film extends out from film and into Stallone’s real life – the fact that they were married in real life creates the sense that they’re a couple, so small details such as chemistry or interplay are moot. Similarly, the serial killing, far-right leaning, villain is played by Brian Thompson who bears a resemblance to Stallone’s great box-office rival Arnold Schwarzenegger (who himself was, for a time, dogged by rumours of far-right leanings and an admiration for Hitler (Left, 2003)). Again, the lack of characterisation is subverted through the casting, reaching into Stallone’s own life as a short-cut.
Scratch away at Cobra and one finds various palimpsests – the Dirty Harry films, Stallone’s own life and career, the Cannon imprint – and these are essential for understanding the film’s popularity. On its own it’s an incoherent piece, but as an intertextual construction it starts to make a certain amount of sense. It is Stallone’s life and career up to that point culminating on screen, taking aim at one of his direct progenitors while jabbing at the current competition. It remains, in most respects, quite a bad film but it’s one that highlights how the audience can be engaged beyond the text itself to create narrative and meaning – it’s a film that operates in the audience’s understanding of narrative and archetypes, allowing such niceties as character and plot development to be dismissed.
Darnton, Nina (1986) Film: Sylvester Stallone as Policeman, in Cobra. The New York Times. May 24.
Benson, Sheila (1986) Move Review: The ‘Cobra’ That Saves L.a. Los Angeles Times. May 24.
Denby, David (1986) Poison. New York Magazine. June 9.
http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=cobra.htm [accessed 13/06/18]
Fisher, Kieran (2016) Cobra at 30: saluting a Stallone action treat. [online] http://www.denofgeek.com/uk/movies/cobra/40861/cobra-at-30-saluting-a-stallone-80s-action-treat [accessed 13/06/2018]
Wilkerson, Isabel (1987) URBAN HOMICIDE RATES IN U.S. UP SHARPLY IN 1986. The New York Times [online]. https://www.nytimes.com/1987/01/15/us/urban-homicide-rates-in-us-up-sharply-in-1986.html [accessed 15/06/2018]
Left, Sarah (2003) Arnie Denies Admiring Hitler. The Guardian. 3 October. [online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/oct/03/usa.sarahleft [accessed 14.06.2018]
This paper was originally presented to London Film & Media 2011, and published in The London Film and Media Reader 1.
The Vigilante Thriller
This essay considers the condemnatory and heavily ideological critical reactions to a cycle of US vigilante thrillers from the 1970s. The cycle includes Straw Dogs (Peckinpah, 1971), The French Connection (Friedkin, 1971), Dirty Harry (Siegel, 1971), Death Wish (Winner, 1974) and Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976). A common accusation was that the films were ‘fascist’, made by ‘fascists’, or liable to encourage ‘fascism’ in the film audience. This was not a label that was necessarily rejected by all the film-makers – certainly Sam Peckinpah enjoyed baiting reviewers and interviewers with a series of abrasive, and often, contradictory statements – but the consistency of this criticism highlights an anxiety in the critical reactions about the meanings of these films and, on closer inspection, the meanings of the violence they portray.
Although the critical writings are an important reaction to the texts, discourse analysis reveals a series of inconsistencies and contradictions in their assumptions about the ways in which a film can be watched. Rather than relying on these critical responses alone to guide us in terms of spectator reaction, we should instead be analysing what Ellis terms the ‘narrative image’,
“an idea of the film [that] is widely circulated and promoted … the cinema industry’s anticipatory reply to the question ‘what is this film like?’” 1
It is important to investigate how this element of para-text fixes, or aims to fix, the spectator’s experience, since the narrative image is also essential in fixing the modality of the film text. Following Hodge and Tripp, ‘modality’ is being used here in the sense that it “concerns the reality attributed to a message.”2
This has specific implications for the reception of film violence, and it is the understanding of violence that I wish to concentrate on in this essay. These distinctions were missed by contemporary critics, who ignored the concept of modality, tended to see film violence as a singular issue, and recycled basic tropes about the effect that film violence might have on the audience. Despite the consistency of the critical reaction to these films, the narrative image of each film suggests a range of spectator positions. The desire to elide these films on the part of contemporary critics, on the other hand, signals a wish to simplify the spectator experience and ignores the shifting relationship that a spectator can have in relation to several connected but different texts.
Critical Reactions: The Politics of Violence
Even a cursory glance at the American and British popular press reaction to these films reveals two central concerns, both of which are linked to the possible effect of the films on the audience and the wider implications for society. The first concern, highlighted more by the American critics than the British, is the suggestion that these films convey and promote a fascist sensibility. The second concern, which is present on both sides of the Atlantic, concerns the portrayal of violence. This is often linked to a perceived increase in the amount of violence being portrayed in film, the explicitness of the violence, and the sense that the films in question encourage the spectator in turn to be violent.
Pauline Kael’s critical reaction to the films exemplifies the general tone of the reviews. For Kael, Straw Dogs is a “fascist work of art”3 that presents the “triumph of a superior man”. Dirty Harry is a “right wing fantasy” that attacks “liberal values” and draws out the “fascist potential” of its genre4. The French Connection, for its part, features “the latest model sadistic cop”5. Gareth Epps draws wider conclusions from Straw Dogs, The French Connection and Dirty Harry such as
“it has been obvious for a long time that American filmmakers are unable to deal with the politics of the left in any recognizable way”6 .
These films, he suggests, are symptomatic of a wider right-wing tendency in Hollywood. He adds that “recent American films have begun to show a frightening sophistication in at least one area of politics – the half-world of sadism and authoritarianism which is the breeding ground of the fascist mentality”. The accusation that the films are characterised by ‘fascist’ ideology betrays an anxiety in the reviewers towards the shifting political landscape in America through the 1960s and into the 1970s.
The effects of the Vietnam War on the collective American consciousness cannot, of course, be ignored. However the shifts in civil rights movements, crime and policing are also important here. The elements that were picked out from these films and directly linked to fascism included the representations of masculinity, race and violence. From a didactic point of view, however – and many of these reviews and reactions were written in a didactic mode – there is a recurrent flaw, namely an inability to define exactly what fascism is. Its recurrent use as a blanket term in reaction to these films shows a remarkable inconsistency in its application, and also a sense that the word is being used as a short-cut, a way of marking a text as unacceptable, with no underlying understand of the word and its political/philosophical application.
Critical Reactions: Violence and Spectatorship
If fascism is one recurrent way of condemning these films, the other anxiety that emerges is the meanings and implications of violence in the films. As has been noted elsewhere, the depiction of violence in American cinema changed radically in the 1960s and 70s. There are various reasons for this, including the influence of non-American films, and the eventual dissolution of the Hays code. More important perhaps was the shift in the representation of violence on television where, from the shooting of LeeHarvey Oswald by Jack Ruby to the reports from the front line in Vietnam, violence was being shown more often and more explicitly.
Of course this form of violence, presented in news programmes, has an inherently high modality despite its mediated nature. In this atmosphere of a shifting depiction of violence, combined with a greater perception of violence in society through rising crime rates and civil unrest, the implications of watching – and more importantly enjoying – film violence became a point of anxiety for contemporary critics. The reviews of Taxi Driver generally avoided the same ideological criticism as the other films and one wonders if this is linked to the potential audience for such a film. Kael suggests, in reviewing The French Connection, that
“Audiences for these movies in the Times Square area and the Village are highly volatile. Probably the unstable, often dazed members of the audience are particularly susceptible to the violence and tension on the screen”7.
It is clear that a strain of elitism has entered the critical reaction here.
The New York Times felt the need to send reporter Judy Klemesrud to a theatre to gauge reaction to Death Wish, asking “What do they see in ‘Death Wish’?”. Klemesrud interviewed audience members and “Three mental health professionals” in the course of her quest.8 I think it’s important here to highlight the suggested opposition in that headline – “they” are clearly not “us”, “us” referring to those sophisticated enough to read the New York Times. Across many reviews and articles on both sides of the Atlantic there is a clear fear concerning the possible impact of a text on a supposedly less sophisticated audience.
These reactions were not without their contradictions. Charles Barr, for instance, noted the differences between the British critical reaction to Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick, 1971). 9 His conclusion, that the reaction differed because of the way in which violence was presented by each film – for example, by the use of telephoto lenses in Straw Dogs compared to the use of wide angle lenses in A Clockwork Orange – signals the inconsistency in the criticism of films marked as violent.
Stylistic distinctions are then critical, Barr argues, for understanding the ways in which the films operate: Minute-for-minute, A Clockwork Orange contains more instances of violence than Straw Dogs, but Straw Dogs does not allow the spectator the luxury of remaining distant through the use of the wide-angle lens. The fear of what Straw Dogs implied for cinema and the audience nonetheless moved thirteen British critics to write to The Times to decry the film’s certification, expressing their “revulsion” at the film and its marketing.10 In other reactions we see a clear perceived link between the film text and possible audience reaction (The Guardian, for example, felt strongly enough to send a reporter to New York to examine how Death Wish was inspiring American traditions of gun ownership).
The underlying fear in many of the critical reactions was that the audience, having watched the film, would themselves become vigilantes. That the critics themselves didn’t burst out of auditoria and beat up some muggers seems to have escaped their attention. Moving away from the discourse concerning the supposed effects of film violence we also encounter an inconsistency among critics to accurately differentiate between different types of violence, an inability to recognise the difference between the nature of the act being represented, and the method of its representation.
Modality and Narrative Image
The elision that the contemporary critics made between these films ignores the importance of the narrative image in conditioning the modality of the spectator’s engagement. Even if we acknowledge the polysemic nature of film texts and their para-texts, dominant themes from the marketing of the films suggest ways in which the spectator is primed to watch and respond to a text. The narrative image tells us the frame of mind in which a spectator receives a film; this in turn suggests a level of modality in which the spectator will receive the film violence. To suggest that all film violence can be measured the same way is to ignore the differing modalities of films. In short, not all film violence is equal.
The decision the spectator makes about whether to watch a film will often rest on several factors. One of the key elements is the marketing and promotional material of the film. When examining these for each film we see that they suggest several different ways in which to receive and understand the violence of the films, something typically ignored by the critics. We may thus conceive of the spectator as having a personal and private relationship with a film that takes place within the cinema, but we should also acknowledge that the spectator’s experience of the film begins with several para-textual factors that help condition their subsequent experience.
Take, for instance, the use of violence in the poster imagery for the films. Straw Dogs, whose central image is a close-up of Dustin Hoffman with one lens of his glasses broken, signals violence, but also the effect of violence on the protagonist. The French Connection uses a still of ‘Popeye’ Doyle shooting a suspect in the back as its main image. Dirty Harry concentrates on the persona of Clint Eastwood (but also the duality between the two main characters), while Death Wish uses the image of Charles Bronson. Taxi Driver’s central image, of a lost and isolated Travis Bickle posed in front of a New York street scene locates an alienated figure in a world of degradation.
This image for Taxi Driver places the spectator in a very different relationship to the violence of the text than the other posters. By not signalling the violence but concentrating on the alienation of the protagonist (in effect hiding the violence), the poster prepares us for a film where acts of violence, when they do occur, have greater weight. The casting of De Niro (still relatively unknown at this point and thus ‘absorbed’ by his role in the film), and the setting of the film in real areas of New York, confer a high modality.
This is reinforced by the presentation of the violence in the film. This is not expected in the same way as in an Eastwood or Bronson film, where violence is an inherent part of the experience. Indeed the marketing of both Dirty Harry and Death Wish so connects the characters to their actors as to create a direct intertextual link to their other films. In these circumstances film violence becomes a ritualised part of the cinematic experience. The French Connection, however, with its concentration on reality, linked to the oft-repeated information that the film was based on real events, suggests a higher modality for the film violence which it contains.
We are watching here a reproduction of real violence, not the heightened and stylised violence of an Eastwood or Bronson film. The ritualisation in Dirty Harry and Death Wish confers a lower modality on the violence, which has become part of the expected generic formula of the text, an inevitable and unsurprising element. Through its enigmatic title and ambiguous central image, on the other hand, Straw Dogs denies the spectator a secure sense of how violence will operate in the film.
The explicitness (or lack) of generic context creates other issues here. It has been noted, for instance, that both Dirty Harry and Death Wish bear relation to the Western film, in casting (the stars of both had previously appeared in successful Westerns), iconography and structure. Perhaps the relocation of the generic elements to a modern day location, stripping away the mythic trappings of the narrative, creates this discomfort around the violence.
The recognition of Western genre conventions in the narratives of Dirty Harry and Death Wish may confer a different level of modality than a film such as Taxi Driver, which has a less clear generic definition. The ritual of genre, the procession of structural and iconic elements, reminds the audience that what they are watching is a structured creation – when it runs true to form, the text offers much reassurance but little by way of surprise. This, I would propose, effectively lowers the modality.
Too often film violence is taken out of the context of reception. Film violence occurs within several frameworks, including the textual implications of narrative and genre. The narrative image of a film is explicit in its attempts to set up these elements for the spectator. Thus the debate about film violence should be embedded in not only the referential and aesthetic components of film violence, but also in analysis of the place that violence has within the contextual, paratextual and textual experience of the film. For contemporary critics of these films however, socio-political concerns of the day outweighed the specifics of the textual/para-textual experience.
Notes and References
1 John Ellis, Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television, Video, London: Routledge, 1982, p. 30.
2 Bob Hodge and David Tripp, Children and Television, Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1986, p. 104.
3 Pauline Kael, Deeper into Movies: The Essential Collection, from ‘69 to ’72, London: Marion Boyars, 1975, p. 398.
4 Kael, Deeper into Movies, p. 385.
5 Kael, Deeper into Movies, p. 316
6 Gareth Epps, ‘Does Popeye Doyle Teach Us How to be Fascist?’, The New York Times, 22 May 1972, II:15, p. 1.
7 Kael, Deeper into Movies, p. 316.
8 Judy Klemesrud, ‘What do they see in Death Wish?’, New York Times, 1 September 1974, II:1, p. 5.
9 Charles Barr, ‘Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange and the Critics’, Screen, vol. 3 no. 2, 1972, p. 23.
10 Fergus Cashin, John Coleman, N. Hibbin, Margaret Hinxman, Derek Malcom, George Melly, T. Palmer, J. Plowright, Dilys Powell, David Robinson, John Russell Taylor, Arthur Thinkell, and Alexander Walker, ‘From Mr. Fergus Cashin and Others”, The Times, 17 December 1971.
First Presented at the American New Wave: A Retrospective, Bangor University, 4 July 2017
Within the latter three months of 1971 two of the most influential American Police Thrillers were released. One was to fit naturally into the aesthetic of New Hollywood and its creation echoed the narrative of auteur cinema and innovation that would define an era “of stylistic experimentation” (Langford 2010, 134). The other was directed by an old hand who started in Hollywood in the 1940s, was based on a script that several stars had circled and starred the then “world’s favourite movie star” (Life 1971). Although both films were financial successes, the critical reactions were polarised. Of the major US critics only Jay Cocks of Time (Jan, 1972) praised Dirty Harry (Lev 1999), whereas The French Connection was widely lauded and went on to win five academy awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor.
This paper will discuss the reactions and suggest that the critical establishment of the time misunderstood Dirty Harry due to its elements of classical form, ignoring its subversive representations and assuming a conservative spectating position, whereas they praised The French Connection for the technical proficiency, which allowed them to remain distant from the film’s narrative, observing the protagonist, rather than identifying with him.
The narrative of the Hollywood New Wave is one in which an auteur led cinema emerged from the ashes of the Studio System. Within this a new, younger, set of film-makers embraced techniques from outside of Classical Hollywood to infuse existing genres with new life. The French Connection sits happily within this. The director, William Friedkin, began his career in TV in Chicago making documentaries, moving into feature films during the 1960s with some critical, if not box-office, success. The French Connection seemed a radical departure from his two previous films, both adapted from stage plays, but his work in television and his commitment to researching the reality of Police work, by spending time on patrol with Eddie Egan (the inspiration for Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle), created a sense that The French Connection was a film rooted in reality. Indeed its story was loosely adapted from real events, chronicled in Robin Moore’s book of the same name and Friedkin worked closely with his cinematographer Owen Roizman in eschewing traditional lighting and blocking techniques to create a news-report aesthetic (Friedkin 2013, 161). The casting of relative unknowns in the main roles aided the mimetic quality of the film as did the film’s marketing. 20th Century Fox’s Press Book informed that “The French Connection… is a perfect example of the truism that reality is nearly always more dramatic and unpredictable than fiction.” The use of locations across New York (Webb 2014, 78), many of which were in poorer areas previously unseen in mainstream US film, added to this sense of reality. This was also brought to the representation of the main-character Doyle played by Gene Hackman (an actor unknown enough to be subsumed into the character), who is shown to be a racist, a boot fetishist, and an obsessive who ultimately fails to catch the chief criminal behind the film’s drug smuggling operation. If anything the film’s high modality allowed for this representation to be excused as, in the words of Life magazine’s Richard Schickel, it “comes closer to the real thing… than any other movie detective I’ve ever seen” (1971, 31). A theme that emerges when interrogating the critical reaction is that the violence and racism evident in The French Connection is excused, or justified, by its technical freshness, a freshness that connotes a high modality. By taking The French Connection as an accurate depiction of policing, the racism and brutality that Doyle displays can be justified by film-makers and spectators who can retain the critical distance of knowing that this is “how things are”.
When revisiting the opening of The French Connection one is struck by how discordant it is, both in the non-diegetic music that accompanies the titles and in the Marseille prologue which established the documentary style of the film. The prologue details a brutal assassination, a sequence to which the audience are un-aligned as the characters and action of the scene are mostly unconnected to the main plot. The victim, a Detective, is unidentified before his death, as is his killer Nicoli. What is evident, however, is how Friedkin’s use of documentary style camera techniques keeps the spectator remote from the action. The following scene introduces us to Doyle and his partner Russo as they interrogate a black suspect – throughout point-of-view shots are avoided, with the camera taking positions distant from the action or behind windows and doorways. In this way the spectator remains distant, but also conscious of the supposed reality implied by the camera techniques.
These techniques are particularly evident during the car chase in which Doyle pursues Nicoli who has hijacked an elevated train. For many this sequence has become celebrated not only for its technical proficiency but also because some of the filming took place for “real”, unplanned and without permission (Friedkin 2013, 179). This creates a simultaneous closeness and distance; while the film maintains its high modality (although the car chase is fiction) the narrative of its filming adds to the spectating experience. In affect the effort to create a realistic film draws attention to its construction. The overall effect is of a film that appears different to Classical conventions, however I would suggest that the technical elements of the film hide what is, in many ways, a conservative narrative.
The nature of threat in The French Connection is represented as externalised and other. The very unfamiliarity of its technique and representation of New York is distancing to a mainstream audience, its locations unfamiliar and its procedural elements oblique. The film’s antagonist, Charnier, is represented as a binary opposite to Doyle – he is urbane where Doyle is uncouth and boorish; Charnier is bringing drugs into America, suggesting the threat is primarily an externalised one. The French Connection continually pushes the problems of crime away, indeed the nature of Doyle himself is alienating – so much as to make identification with him difficult – something enhanced by the lack of subjective camera techniques. During the car-chase, for example, we only once see Doyle’s point of view; mostly the camera is mounted on the car’s bumper, with reaction shots of Doyle shot from outside the car. This distance creates a safe area in which the spectator, or critic, can appreciate the technical proficiency of the film while not being asked to identify or support some of Doyle’s morally problematic actions. Due to the lack of identification an element of social critique can be assumed, allowing the spectator to see Doyle as a representation, rather than as a person with whom they can align. This is confirmed by the ending which fails to resolve the narrative in a typical way, displaying text to explain that the main narrative has remained unresolved, and that Doyle’s character’s arc is also incomplete.
Dirty Harry, on the other hand, has the look and feel of a Classical Hollywood text that attempts to hide its construction from the audience, by creating a realistic diegesis. It’s creation certainly had a more traditional narrative being a star vehicle directed by Don Siegel who had started in film-making with Warner Brothers in the 1930s (Siegel 1993, 35). A star vehicle, Eastwood’s importance was reflected in the marketing, in which his gun-toting image predominated. No doubt for some critics this was already an issue – the 1967 US release of Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy was financially successful but often criticised for their perceived level of violence, “wooden” performances, cheap production values and their very validity as Westerns (Frayling 1998, 121-123).
Given that Dirty Harry was produced in a seemingly mainstream manner (despite Eastwood’s independence through his own production company Malpaso Productions) it would suggest a traditional subject position. However this ignores several important features – most particularly how it interrogates the spectatorship process and how it draws parallels between its protagonist and antagonist. Most of the reviews are based on an assumption that Callahan is a right wing figure and that the killer, Scorpio, represents the counter-culture. However several times the text queries these assumptions, and presents alternate readings that subvert surface ideas.
The opening of Dirty Harry immediately signals a desire to make the spectator conscious of their manipulation and places the film within a generic tradition by linking back to the Western. The San Francisco Police Memorial board shown as the films’ opening shot starts in 1878, during the frontier period. This ties the film to the Western (something enhanced by Eastwood’s presence) and simultaneously places the film in a mythic tradition, rather than one that reaches for realism. As the image dissolves through a Police Star to a low angle staring up at Scorpio and his rifle several associations are made; one that Scorpio is aiming at the Police (their bodies are metaphorically in the line of fire); or that the violence that Scorpio represents is deeply tied to the Police themselves. The film then cuts to Scorpio’s point of view and a voyeuristic, and indeed scopophilic, gaze is assumed. Initially the film-makers are willing to place their audience in a position that is both comfortable and uncomfortable in which the gaze is aimed towards a traditional image of desire (a young woman in a swim suit) immediately disrupted by the violence that ensues. The next scene introduces Callahan, eyes covered by sunglasses and the emphasis on point-of-view is re-iterated as he climbs to the spot where Scorpio was shooting from. This parallel continues throughout the film in which both Scorpio and Callahan are seen to be spying on the world around them, and indulging their gazes. During one pursuit of a suspect Callahan is taken to be a Peeping-Tom as he spies on “Hot Mary”; later on stake-out he spies on a naked young woman, and her guests, in her apartment commenting to himself “You owe it to yourself to live a little Harry.” That both cop and killer indulge in violent and voyeuristic behaviour is made clear suggesting a closeness between the two, which only diverges through the targets of their gaze.
The critics’ identification of Scorpio as a hippy skews the film towards one in which a figure of the establishment, Callahan, kills a figure of the counter-culture. However this ignores several details. Although Scorpio has long hair his clothing only comes to match counter-culture clichés in the final third of the film – previously he has dressed conservatively. He also shows proficiency with a sniper rifle and a submachine gun, indicative of military training (as are his highly shined military boots). This suggests to us that Scorpio, rather than a hippy, is actually a returning Vietnam veteran, a suggestion backed by director Siegel (Siegel 1993, 370). Scorpio is a mix of signifiers: Siegel cast Andy Robinson because he had the “face of a choir-boy” (Don Siegel quoted in The Dirty Harry DVD Collection (2009)) and would subvert ideas about what killers looked like. I would go further and suggest the Scorpio exists as a composite of several notorious killers from the 1970s, most obviously the San Francisco-based Zodiac killer who sent letters taunting the police, but also campus shooter Charles Whitman and Charles Manson. Also contradicting the idea that Scorpio is a counter culture figure is his desire to kill black people, young people and homosexuals – cornerstones of the civil rights movement. As Pierre Greenfield suggests,
Scorpio is the true redneck. “My next victim will be a Catholic priest or a nigger,” is the last sentence of his ransom demand. His kidnap victim is the very Catholic sounding Anne-Marie Deakin. She is fourteen” (Greenfield 1976, 36)
Parallel with this is the representation of Callahan himself and although he does demonstrate some racist behaviour, this is counterpointed in several way. We may argue that Callahan’s gaze is resolutely heteronormative (as opposed to Scorpio’s) however, the assumption that he is simply a right wing figure is undermined. He himself has long hair, and is chided about it by his superior. During the telephone chase he is propositioned by a gay-man, who identifies as Alice. Although this moment is not a particularly forward thinking representation of homosexuality, it is important as Alice sees Callahan as a reasonable target for his advances – in effect that Callahan’s heterosexuality is not obvious to everyone. Callahan’s use of violence and love of high powered guns is parodied later in the same scene as Scorpio remarks on the Magnum .44, “My, that’s a big one” which draws comparison with Scorpio’s own use of high powered weaponry and acknowledges the absurdity of the Magnum and the phallic obsession that lies behind the choice of such a weapon, and the genre itself. Callahan’s relationship to race is also discussed within the film. Many critiques seized on the race of the bank robbers that Callahan shoots after his lunch is interrupted, but they also miss the relationship that Callahan has to the black doctor in the next scene (they grew up together in a mixed race neighbourhood) or the fact that the film shows the reaction of the mother of the murdered black boy (who lived in the same neighbourhood Callahan grew up in (Street 2016, 75)). These elements do not necessarily excuse or justify racist behaviours, but they do suggest that the depiction is more complex than first discussed. Another key element is Eastwood’s position within the diegesis. During 1971 two other Eastwood films were released, Play Misty for Me and The Beguiled, the former directed by Eastwood himself, the latter by Siegel. Each film examines the Eastwood persona, both working to undermine the dominant male character that most critics took Eastwood to represent. During the bank heist Callahan strides in front of a cinema showing Play Misty, acknowledging the constructed nature of his image, as do the film’s self-reflective moments when the meanings behind Callahan’s nickname are addressed.
The choice to film at familiar landmarks of San Francisco is key, and contrasts starkly to The French Connection. Siegel chose “monumental architectural landmarks from City Hall to Kezar Stadium, preferring wide open space (in expansive 2.35:1 Panavision)” (Webb 2014, 140), highlighting the very public nature of American violence. Dirty Harry refuses to suggest that crime and violence are not part and parcel of the urban experience, contrasted to Friedkin’s own shock at finding he could film so much of The French Connection close to his home (Friedkin 2013, 147). Dirty Harry also allows the civic structures to exist next to crime, with them often being used as the back-drop, or juxtaposed through comparison – San Francisco is a city in which strip clubs and playgrounds co-exist. Two separate scenes play out against religious imagery; one a large neon sign that declared “Jesus Saves”, the other the giant cross atop Mount Davidson – both are part of the film’s subversion of traditional American spaces – that offer neither shelter nor safety. As Joe Street discusses in detail, the choice of San Francisco is a culturally significant one as it acts as a nexus of several, contradictory, elements of American life. San Francisco was closely associated with the counter-culture of the 1960s but earlier than this, during the 1800s, it was home to “the largest vigilante movement in American history” (Street 2016, 57). During the 1960s the city was noted for its left-leaning administration, however then Mayor Alioto was “quite prepared to allow the SFPD tactical squad to use violent tactics to quell disturbances during the 1968-69 student strike” (Street 2016, 61). It is within these contradictions that Dirty Harry is set, starkly demonstrated as the film moves between public and private space suggesting a similarity between both that is absent in The French Connection in which the criminal activity is confined to the back streets of New York. In this Dirty Harry points to the contradictions of an urban environment that seeks to be inclusive but also safe. During the scenes in Kezar Stadium the camera moves away, via helicopter, from Callahan torturing Scorpio. The arena is a place of sanctioned violence during American Football games, but is transformed to a place where the violence is tantalisingly hidden and ambiguous. Here the spectator is asked whether they want to see this and whether the actions are justified, especially as we discover that his actions fail to save Scorpio’s victim, and initiate his release from custody. The closing moments see Callahan throw his badge away, a late change to the film (Siegel 1993, 375). Several commentators suggested a similarity to the ending of High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) but failed to detail one key difference. In High Noon Will Kane leaves with his wife and the promise of a new life. Harry Callahan, a widower, leaves behind everything he knows with his badge, making the ending a bleak commentary on the possibility of solutions to America’s law and order problems.
In conclusion, this paper has explored how the contemporary critical reaction to The French Connection and Dirty Harry differed and has also posited that this is due to the differing formal aspects of the films, and that the reactions privileged form over content. Further, that the radical appearance of The French Connection, which simultaneously created a high modality and drew attention to its form, suggested to the critics that the film itself was representing something radical. In opposition the conservative formal elements of Dirty Harry and its clear genre roots masked the subversive and reflective elements in the text, which came to say something much more problematic – that the violent crime in America is rooted within itself, rather than coming from an external threat. By applying elements of intertext and acknowledging the complex relationship the spectator has to a film such as Dirty Harry, that employs Classical style knowingly, we can see how multiple readings and critiques become possible beyond those of the contemporary critics.
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 As opposed to 1.85:1 for The French Connection.
A discussion about Brian Yuzna’s Society
Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) has often been considered a difficult and controversial text. Central to this is the depiction of gender, specifically concerning the role of Amy (played by Susan George) and the double rape that she undergoes, and the suggestion that the film is a parable of male dominance wherein the central character, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), ascends to being a ‘real’ man via a violent siege against marauding Cornish locals. The tag-line, featured on several posters for the film, suggested this very reading;
The knock at the door meant the birth of a man and the death of seven others
Given the predominant view of the film as a story of male birth, or re-birth, a consideration of the psycho-sexual imagery seems relevant particularly considering the proliferation of such imagery throughout the film. Images of emasculation, castration and phallic power are consistently invoked and develop the theme of birth referred to in the advertising. Creed (1993) offers a suitable model for considering these images and I will refer to her work, and Julia Kriteva’s concept of abjection, to explore the meanings of the psycho-sexual imagery of Straw Dogs. I propose that Straw Dogs gives us a drama of identity crisis tied to anxieties about castration and phallic power which culminates in David Sumner’s rejection of home and decision to enter into the symbolic order having previously retreated from it. In addition to Creed I will also refer to the writings of American psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson in investigating the identity crisis which runs through the film. Before entering into the analysis proper it is worth outlining the validity of mapping Creed’s analysis onto Straw Dogs. Creed was writing about women in horror, whereas this film is more concerned with men. I am not claiming the character of Amy as an instance of the monstrous feminine, rather that the concepts that Creed deals with are applicable outside of films which deal centrally with the female monster. There is also some debate about the genre classification of Straw Dogs itself, whether it fits into the horror genre. Many of its contemporary reviewers typed it simply as a relocated western, though this surely has as much to do with the presence of Peckinpah as the film’s autuer as it does for any specific textual evidence. I would suggest that the film is a hybrid of several generic elements, including those of horror and bears comparison with another contemporary British set horror The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973); both concern the intrusion of an outsider into a closed community, and both make extensive use of sexual imagery. Whereas The Wicker Man deals with a conflict between Catholic and Pagan morality Straw Dogs is concerned with a breakdown in identity that precipitates a re-birth of the protagonist. In its use of a corrupt, parodic, family, the Heddens, Straw Dogs also invokes other horror films from the 1970s such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Last House on the Left. Given the generic and thematic content of the film Creed seems a pertinent source for an analytical framework.
Castration & Emasculation
Castration and emasculation imagery runs through Straw Dogs from the earliest images of the film. It is immediately present in the gift given by Amy to David in the first moments, a large man-trap. As Creed points out “man-trap” is a phrase euphemistically used to refer to the vagina. The trap itself, with such jagged edges, invariably invokes the concept of the vagina-dentata. This image lurks throughout the film, opened up it takes a prominent place in the living room of the farm-house waiting to be closed in the siege where David makes use of it, enclosing it around an invader’s head (a clear image of castration). Beyond the image itself, the issue of ownership of the trap prompts questions about the relationship between David and Amy. It is given to David as a gift, one which he places in the home. We must for a moment consider what this means for the dynamic of their relationship. We may consider this an acquiescence on Amy’s part to David, offering him ownership of her genitalia. However the fact that it remains so threatening signifies her potential to castrate, one which remains until it is co-opted by David in the defence of the house. This immediately complicates the gender identity of David himself. The film consistently refers to David as a figure of impotence. Physically he is smaller than the local villagers. He is unable to drive an English car correctly (he cannot master the gear lever, another potentially phallic symbol). His sexual relationship with Amy is one of childishness and humour. Outside of the bedroom their relationship itself is one of tension. David is destructive, willful, and deeply narcissistic. When the local Vicar and his wife visit, David plays bagpipe music at full-volume (something he will repeat during the siege) and proceeds to alienate his guests, forcing them to leave. The reason for David to be in Cornwall is, ostensibly, to complete a mathematical work, however the dialogue suggests that he is running away, although it is not specific from what (an idea re-iterated in the film’s trailers). David’s behaviour is consistent with someone stuck in a preadult stage of development, a stage of weak identity. As Erikson outlines;
That many of our patients break down at an age which is properly considered more preadult than postadolescent is explained by the fact that often only an attempt to engage in intimate fellowship and competition or in sexual intimacy fully reveals the latent weakness of identity (1980, 134).
David’s manipulation of Amy, attempting to get her to engage with chess and other intellectual pursuits is also consistent with Erikson’s analysis of identity crisis;
For where an assured sense of identity is missing, even friendships and affairs become desperate attempts at delineating the fuzzy outlines of identity by mutual narcissistic mirroring (1980, 134).
A sudden collapse of all capacity mutuality threatens, and a desperate wish ensues to start all over again, with a (quasideliberate) regression to a stage of basic bewilderment and rage such as only the very small child knows (1980, 135).
David’s identity is weak because it is not fully formed, revealed by his inability to form proper relationships (sexual or not). He has not yet taken his place within the symbolic order, rather he has run away from it and taken refuge in the farm-house or as I suggest, the womb that it represents. Given this, Amy takes on the appearance of a mother rather than a partner (Amy is, significantly, the only maternal figure in the film). The threat of castration is consistent with castration anxiety felt by the child. During the final siege it is Amy, not David, who will wield a phallic shot-gun in defence of the home, saving David’s life. Here Amy transfers from being a castrating mother to a phallic woman, embodying twin emasculating threats. Further images of emasculation surround David and other male characters in the film. A key moment occurs during the duck hunt (arranged so that Venner can approach Amy). Here David must be leant a gun, he lacks one of his one. When he does eventually kill a duck he holds it in his hands and its limp neck reflects his impotent and emasculated nature. Despite the lack of mothers, the film has a surfeit of fathers, however they are often shown to be symbolically emasculated themselves. The Major, who acts as the village’s law-man and patriarch, possess a limp. Tom Hedden is a drunk. Niles’ father is incapable of controlling his own son. Perhaps the most significant father figure in the film is an absent one; Amy’s. Much is made of the fact that the farm house is from Amy’s family, or more especially her father. When asked by David which of the chairs in the house was her fathers, she replies, “Every chair is my Daddy’s chair”. It places into crisis the ownership of the house and the presence of this father is a further emasculating force for David.
Re-Birth into the Symbolic Order
The symbolization of the womb as house/room/cellar or any other enclosed space is central to the horror film (Creed 1998, 55).
Straw Dogs acts as an exploration of the meaning of the womb, as both a secure and insecure place. It is linked to the concept of unheimlich, where something is familiar and uncanny at the same time, and its ability to “disturb identity and order” (Creed 1998, 54). As Creed identifies, Freud cites the womb phantasy as an occurrence of the unheimlich, a nexus of the familiar and unfamiliar. The womb is a place we both remember but can never know;
He (Freud) allocates a central place to the subject’s former ‘home’, the womb. The uncanny is that place which is ‘known of old, and long familiar’, the place from which the individual has become alienated through repression (Creed 1998, 54).
There is further potential for the home to be seen as the womb particularly in its passageways and entrances. The siege, when David’s crisis is brought to a head, plays on this imagery particularly. Earlier in the film, when Amy is raped and in other scenes, the thresholds to the house are seen as fluid. The rat-catcher’s ability to enter the house and kill the cat is an active demonstration of this. Also the penetration of the house by various gazes, be it the workmen or Janice and Bobby Hedden, shows it to be consistently invaded. What should we make of this? The rape of Amy and the sense of invasion suggests an elision between Amy and the house – they are both penetrated in various ways, some invited, some not. David’s sudden defence of it seems curious then, as he has so markedly failed to do so before. However it is the existence of Niles in the house that redraws the relationships and pushes David further along his identity crisis path. From here he takes the role of the castrating woman from Amy (freeing her to become the phallic woman later in the scene). He defends the home/womb and the childlike Niles within via a series of dentata like acts. The defence is focussed on the doorways and windows of the house. Knives and glass are used. Boiling oil, an invocation of abject fluid, is thrown out. Feet, hands and heads of the invaders are attacked, stabbed and engulfed. The blood, wounds, and death throughout the siege clearly invokes the abject. The nature of the home/womb as the site of this blood suggests fears of the abject mother; David has unnaturally returned to the comfort and safety of the womb space, he has subsequently attempted to assume the mantle of the castrating mother. The revealing of Amy as the phallic woman pushes David out – finally he is capable of being reborn. His closing exchange with Niles about not knowing the way home represents his final break with maternal authority and his entry into the symbolic order as a fully formed individual. Witness the final images of David, face covered in blood, an image of rebirth. Straw Dogs is a drama of the symbolic order. David’s rejection of his place in the order, and the identity crisis it precipitates, prompts the confusion and chaos that surrounds him. It can only be resolved by the violent ejection from the womb space he has attempted to return to in an attempt to reclaim safety from the world and the burdens placed upon him. The collection of emasculating imagery, emasculated characters and symbolic events that occur are the back drop which forces David to confront his own position and accept his true identity outside of the womb, apart from the mother and at the head of the symbolic order.
Creed, Barbera (1993) The Monstrous Feminine. Abingdon: Routledge
Erikson, Erik H. (1980) Identity and the Life Cycle. New York: WW Norton