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New York Times film critic Vincent Canby called it a ‘despicable’ and ‘tackily made melodrama’ and likened it to ‘a pornographic movie.’, adding that its message was dangerously simple: ‘KILL. TRY IT. YOU’LL LIKE IT.’1 The film in question was Michael Winner’s controversial vigilante-revenge fantasy Death Wish (1974), the story of a middle class liberal Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) whose family become the victims of a vicious attack which leaves his wife dead and his daughter in a state of catatonia. Repressing any conventional show of mourning, Kersey displaces his grief by hunting down muggers in the park and shooting them in cold blood. Audiences were downright rapturous in their enthusiasm for the film. In a New York Times feature called “What Do They See in Death Wish?”, Judy Klemsrud observed how ‘[t]he moviegoers . . . don’t just sit in their seats calmly munching popcorn. They applaud and cheer wildly whenever Bronson . . . dispatches a mugger with his trusty .32 pistol.’2 Canby echoed this when he described the ‘lunatic cheers that rocked the Loew’s Astor Plaza’ the night he viewed the film, and that ‘[a]t one point a man behind [him] shouted with delight: “That’ll teach the mothers!”’3 Equally interesting are some of the comments moviegoers gave to Klemsrud after a screening of the film: It’s very entertaining and very lively . . . I don’t necessarily agree with the vigilante philosophy, but the movie is so entertaining that I don’t bother with the morality [this from a forty-something selfdescribed poet].4 I think it’s lovely, a very comfortable picture . . . I don’t approve of killing, but at least the people he killed were not good people [a 62 year old secretary]. 5 I think what Bronson did was right—no one else is doing anything [a 30 year old woman who was eight months pregnant].6

1 Vincent Canby, The New York Times, cited in Paul Talbot, Bronson’s Loose! The Making of the Death Wish Films (Nebraska: iUniverse, 2006), pp. 20-21 2 Judy Klemsrud, “What Do They See in ‘Death Wish’?”, The New York Times, 1 September 1974, p.1 3 Vincent Canby, “Death Wish Exploits Fear”, The New York Times, 4 August 1974, p. 4 4 Klemsrud, “They See”, p. 9 5 Klemsrud, “They See”, p. 9 6 Klemsrud, “They See”, p. 9


Not only was the public besotted but a fair number of critics surprisingly embraced the film as well. Bruce Williamson of Playboy called it ‘a blunt, expert thriller,’7 and Judith Crist of New York magazine complemented Bronson for his ‘superb performance’, while simultaneously praising Winner for his ‘fast-paced, exquisitely detailed direction . . ..’8 On the other end of the spectrum were critics who shared Canby’s unequivocally negative opinion of the film, such as Frank Rich who labelled it ‘a work of honest-to-God idiocy’.9 The polarized reactions to the film were a mirror to the divisions felt throughout the country as a whole. These were the divisions caused by two competing ideologies which had been desperately struggling for control with particular ferociousness since the late 1960’s—the liberal Left and the conservative Right. Judging by the public reaction to Death Wish, it would seem by 1974 the Right were winning. On one side there were films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Penn), The Graduate (1967, Nichols), Easy Rider (1969, Hopper), M*A*S*H (1970, Altman) and Little Big Man (1970, Penn)-films that implicitly or explicitly articulated, among other things, the growing discontent with the war in Vietnam and an unfair capitalist society which seemed to privilege corporate wealth over individual freedom. As Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner argue, these types of films rejected the patriarchal and patriotic notions of ‘the individualist male hero, the ideal of the just American war, a righteous vision of U.S. History, and the frontier myth of expanding possibilities for achievement and wealth that are available to all.’10 In other words they served as an open attack to the past ideals on which the image of America had been sustained. Outside of Hollywood, independent films of the time such as Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1971) and Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadass Song (1971), giving voice to the feminist and black radical movements, went even further in their dissent against the white male patriarchy which had become inextricably linked to what Ryan and Kellner term ‘the American 7 Bruce Williamson, Playboy, cited in Talbot, Bronson’s Loose, p. 11 8 Judith Crist, New York, cited in Talbot, Bronson’s Loose, p. 22 9 Frank Rich, New Times, cited in Eric Lichtenfeld, Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle and the American Action Movie (Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 2004), p. 32 10 Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner, Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988), p. 19


imaginary’.11 However for every Easy Rider there appeared its conservative counterpart. Successful films like Hello Dolly (1969, Kelly) or True Grit (1969, Hathaway), nostalgic genre pieces which ignored the contemporary conflicts of the day and were essentially conservative and escapist forms of entertainment, satisfied the public’s need for reassurance. It is instructive to remember that the highest grossing film of 1969 was not Easy Rider but in fact Walt Disney’s fantastical comedy, The Love Bug (Stevenson).12 This public desire for reassurance also explains why a soapy, old fashioned, tear jerker romance like Love Story (Hiller) was the top box office film of 1971.13 The films of the political left had ably mirrored the lack of faith in the country’s institutions and social structures then felt by large swaths of the public. The institutions ‘that previously had been fairly immune to significant popular criticism lost the confidence of the American people.’14 However, this new understanding concerning the realities of the capitalist, patriarchal society that was the United States of America didn’t lead to ‘the emergence of a coherent and comprehensive alternative.’15, and so consequently the ones who had most cherished these now seemingly bankrupt ideals, the white middle class, were left in a state of ‘crisis’.16 Suddenly there was nothing left to believe in. One way the Nixon administration combated this ennui was through the ‘reassertion of exaggerated versions of conservative ideals.’17 In 1971, with the release of Dirty Harry (Siegel) and Straw Dogs (Peckinpah), Hollywood films began to reflect this increasingly virulent conservative attack on counterculture values. During the re-election campaign of 1972, the Nixon administration continued to rally conservative sentiments against the Left, characterizing Democratic opponent, George McGovern, as a dangerous radical who was in favor of amnesty for draft dodgers, 11 Ryan and Kellner, Politica, p. 19 12 Linda Ruth Williams and Michael Hammond, eds., Contemporary American Cinema (London: Open University Press, McGraw Hill, 2006), p. 108 13 Williams and Hammond, Contemporary, p. 213 14 Ryan and Kellner, Politica, p. 49 15 Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 50 16 Ryan and Kellner, Politica, p. 49 17 Ryan and Kellner, Politica, p. 38


abortions for women, and a litany of other assaults on the American way of life. Nixon had effected a counterrevolution to combat the counter-culture. Come election day, McGovern was annihilated with Nixon receiving almost 18 million more popular votes—the widest margin ever for a U.S. presidential election.18 Nixon’s ‘silent majority’ had spoken. Ryan and Kellner state that ‘[t]he social problem film genre has traditionally been a battleground between conservatives and liberals regarding such social issues as crime, political corruption, drugs and youth gangs.’19Films aligning themselves with the Left, such as Serpico (1973, Lumet) pointed to the corruption of the law institutions themselves as a contributing factor to the nationwide rise of violent crime.20 In another Lumet film, Dog Day Afternoon (1975), with its sympathetic and humanistic portrayal of two would be bank robbers, the social causes of crime were held up for examination. In liberal leaning social problem films of the time, crime did not exist in a vacuum, separate from society. It was the direct product of the surrounding social conditions. Not true for the conservative films which tended to portray crime as something which was merely the result of an evil human nature and as a problem best solved by violence.21 In these films the source of crime is externalized, placed outside personal responsibility. It is the ‘Other’, in all its various manifestations from counterculture kids to poor minorities, who are responsible. Where liberal and conservative films of the seventies seemed to agree was in their mutual acknowledgement that the system no longer worked. It was where they placed the blame that differed. Liberal social problem films asked audiences to point the finger at themselves, whereas conservative minded films located the problem outside of the audience and then went a step further by proposing that any remedy to these social ills would not come from governments and their inefficient social policies (since they had been disastrously infected with 18 Anon, ‘United States presidential election, 1972’, Wikipedia, Accessed, 27th March 2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_election,_1972 19 Ryan and Kellner, Politica, p. 87 20 See The Disaster Center (http://disastercenter.com/crime/) for a state by state breakdown of crime statistics dating back to the beginning of the 60’s. When I accessed the Uniform Crime Statistics for New York State (http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/nycrime.htm) I discovered that the number of reported murders in 1973 was 2,040. In 1967 the number was 996. Accessed, 26th March 2010. 21 Ryan and Kellner, Politica, p. 87


liberalism), but from individuals who would have the guts and temerity to buck the system and stand up for what was right. No film would crystallize in the minds of audiences this conservative position more clearly, more rousingly, more reassuringly, and perhaps more ‘comfortably’ than Death Wish. The film begins in Hawaii, an Eden paradise tailored to suit the needs of white middle class Americans. The natives here are benign and subdued, functioning merely as background color for the white tourists. Conservative philosophy privileges nature over civilization because it has always been a philosophy which prizes individual freedom over collective responsibility.22 In Nature man is only beholden to himself. His civic responsibilities are marginal. In the film Hawaii is seen to represent man’s ultimate taming of nature but without the consequences of too much civilization spoiling the freedom afforded by the natural world. In Westerns, a genre which Death Wish self consciously makes reference to throughout, the conflict between civilization and wilderness is often portrayed. In Hawaii and later in the sequences in Arizona the audience is presented with the ideal balance between the two. However the threat of civilization encroaching too far on our desires (specifically male desires) is made clear in the opening exchange of dialogue between Paul and his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) as they lounge on a sandy and, apart from them, empty beach.

Joanna: (after receiving a suggestive kiss from Paul) Do you want to go back to the hotel? Paul: What’s the matter with right here? Joanna: We’re too civilized. Paul: (sighing wistfully) I remember when we weren’t.

When Paul and Joanna return to New York City we are thrown into the complete antithesis to the serenity we have just seen. Whereas Hawaii was all free flowing ocean waves and wide open and sparsely populated spaces, New York is all gridlocked traffic and fragmented and constricted spaces where movement and vision are obstructed and obfuscated at every turn. The title card shot seems to say it all—the words Death Wish are gradually imposed over the New York skyline, with the city itself 22 Ryan and Kellner, Politica, p. 91


shrouded in darkness while a blood orange sun casts a hellish glaze over the sky. Welcome to civilization, a place more dangerous than any wild west wilderness ever was. Just how dangerous is made immediately clear in the scene where Paul returns to his job at an architectural firm and his colleague Kreutzer gives him the latest statistics on the exceptionally high murder rate in the city. It is here that Paul is established as a ‘bleeding heart liberal’ who sympathizes with the underprivileged. Representing the opposite side of the argument Kreutzer goes on to propose that all of the underprivileged (and here there seems to be no distinction between those of the underclass who commit crimes and those who do not,) should be locked up ‘in concentration camps.’ A chilling thought that is treated in the film as a punch line. Kersey himself never vocalizes such a hateful statement; however, the fact that he executes a fair number of underprivileged people later in the film would suggest he eventually comes to accept such a philosophy whole-heartedly. Death Wish is more than just an open critique of liberal values in the way that a film like Dirty Harry was. The story of Death Wish is one of conversion, of a transfiguration from liberal to conservative, from weakness to strength. 23 What precipitates this conversion is the brutal attack committed on Paul’s wife and daughter. The attack itself is staged and photographed—employing a distorting wide angle lens in a brightly lit interior, which focuses unflinchingly on the violence, giving the audience nowhere else to look, refusing any respite—in a way to make the scene as repugnant and unpleasant as possible, a necessary strategy in order for the audience to wholly endorse Paul’s later metamorphosis from sensitive liberal to avenging angel of death. The attackers, or ‘Freaks’ as they are credited at the end of the film, are depicted as senselessly evil. They seem capable of every kind of depravity. Not only do they rob, murder and rape, but one of the Freaks, in case we needed another reason to hate them, finds the time to spray paint a red swastika on a white wall in the Kersey home, signifying their identification with nazism. It is interesting to note that two of the three attackers in the original novel by Brian 23 Lichtenfeld, Action, p. 31


Garfield were black and by changing them to white, Winner was probably attempting ‘to blunt the edge of this reactionary entertainment for more politically sensitive viewers.’24 However, black or not their Otherness is in no way blunted. For one thing, all three are young, tapping into the audience’s anxiety over the rebellious youth culture. On top of that, one is a skinhead wearing para-military style boots, and the other two seem to have been cast primarily based on their perceived ‘ethnic’ look. The fact that the one who decorates the room with swastikas isn’t the skinhead but the boyish looking Freak who speaks with a cartoonish Italian-American accent merely further illustrates the senselessness of their violence. There is no rhyme or reason to what they are doing. There is no root cause. There is nothing for us to blame ourselves over. The evil is external and only someone who is willing to step over from our world into that external one will be capable of saving us. Clearly, the film tells us, the system and their representatives (policemen, doctors etc …) can do nothing to save us. By again using a wide angle lens when photographing the institutional spaces of the hospital where Paul’s wife and daughter are being treated and the police precinct where Paul searches for justice, Winner and cinematographer Arthur J. Ornitz warp and distort our way of seeing them. As Lichtenfeld writes:

The most distorted spaces [in the film] are the institutional ones, appendages of the system (emphasis in the original) . . . The hospital waiting area is enormous and antiseptic. Spying an injured man, Paul articulates what the visual implies, that the system is distanced from the citizenry: ‘Somebody oughta come,’ Paul says. ‘There’s a man over there; he’s bleeding and nobody comes.’ 25

24 Lichtenfeld, Action, p. 32 25 Lichtenfeld, Action, p. 33


Fig. 1. From Death Wish. Distanced from the people: the antiseptic and uncaring spaces of the system.

This distance is also evinced through the performances of the actors playing the doctors and policemen, all of whom turn out to be no help either in saving Paul’s wife or catching the men responsible for her death. The officer who rode with the victims in the ambulance, Joe Charles (Robert Kya-Hill), behaves in a polite yet maddeningly withdrawn manner when Kersey pleads for information. Adding insult to injury, Charles continually mispronounces Kersey’s name further illustrating his total detachment from Paul’s suffering. The officer in charge of the case is even more blunt in his open acknowledgement that the police can do very little to help.

Paul: Any chance of catching these men? Lt. Briggs: (unconvincingly) There’s a chance, sure. Paul: Just a chance? Lt. Briggs: I’d be less than honest if I gave you more hope, Mr. Kersey. In the city, that’s the way it is.


As mentioned before, the murder rate in New York City in 1973 had doubled from the figures of only five years previous. ‘During the 70's, crime and grime were considered inevitable aspects of city life; the word ''ungovernable'' was used a lot in connection with New York. As the crime rate rose and the city's streets were compared to Calcutta's, public officials absolved themselves of responsibility.’26 Against this social backdrop, the film posits the city, corrupt and ineffective, as the heart of the problem. For Paul to combat this problem, and for him to complete his transformation, he must leave the city one more time in order to learn the sort of lessons which can only be taught in the world of nature. Paul is sent on a business trip to another Eden paradise, this time the Sunbelt state of Arizona. Once there Paul meets Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin) a character who serves as little more than a mouthpiece for the conservative ideology the film endorses. ‘Muggers operating out here,’ Jainchill tells Paul, ‘they just plain get their asses blown off.’ Everything about Jainchill, from his love of guns to his desire to create spacious suburban housing complexes which conform to the land, represents a conservative desire to place man as the protector of the home. ‘I don’t build a thing that’s going to be a slum in twenty years, and I won’t doze those hills,’ Jainchill tells Paul after unveiling his plans for a new property development. Jainchill is condemning the cost saving economics of the urban planner who would happily pile buildings as close together as possible in order to meet the needs of more, presumably poorer, people, and then goes on to veil his privileging of individual privacy as nothing more than a love of nature. This sentimentalization of the private sphere is for Ryan and Kellner a key tenet of conservative thinking.

The sentimentalized domestic sphere of the film is associated with the concept or site 26 John Tierney, “The Big City; Let’s Revisit But Not Relive The Sorry 70’s”, The New York Times, 20 April 2002


of nature, which is represented primarily by the Sunbelt. Like the private sphere, it represents a place outside civility or urban civilization, a site associated with the male subject conceived as a private entity, the bearer of rights of property and propriety whose boundaries must be protected with violence. The exaltation of the male individual in conservative thought is always linked to nature for this reason. Nature is unconstrained. The privileging of male rights in nature is a . . . conservative concept in that it eschews social responsibility altogether.27

The film invests a lot of screen time in showing Paul at work in Arizona, surveying the land and designing a complex which will meet the financial demands of his superiors back in New York but still adhere to Jainchill’s creed of respect for the land. On first viewing all this can seem like curious story padding. What on earth does the success of this housing development have to do with Paul becoming a vigilante, one might ask? Looking again the viewer will see how the design of a development that suits Jainchill’s conservative philosophy is not incidental to Paul’s conversion but a crucial step along the way. Now that Paul understands the importance of the home, he must now be taught the importance of protecting it with a gun. This is when the film firmly establishes its relationship with the Western. Lichtenfeld describes Paul’s initiation into the world of the old West: [Jainchill] ‘takes [Paul] to Old Tuscon’s “famous movie location and studio”, a fake Western town where occasionally, Western movies are filmed and stunt shows are performed. Winner suggests that Paul is more engaged than the other spectators by presenting Paul in a series of low angles that exaggerates his stature as he watches . . . and in close-ups that emphasize his wincing at punches as they connect.28

After the Marshall in the reenactment handily shoots all of the bank robbers, a voice over the PA system reminds the onlookers that there were ‘honest men with dreams’ in the West ‘who would fight to protect’ civilization. However, judging by life in New York City, civilization itself is part of the 27 Ryan and Kellner, Politica, p. 91 28 Lichtenfeld, Action, p. 29


problem, as it has sprawled out of control. And the very civilizing institutions which are supposed to bring law and order are bankrupt. By letting our institutions become too bureaucratic, too civilized in a manner of speaking, we have allowed civilization to turn back into a wilderness, not a wilderness of empty, untamed spaces, but an urban wilderness of crowded tenements and dark alleys where anything can happen. Though the film never makes the same kind of explicit argument found in Dirty Harry— that liberal policies, such as suspects being afforded their Miranda rights, are partially to blame for the rise in crime, Death Wish does portray its politicians and higher ups in the police department as ineffectual hand wringers who only seem interested in doing what appears right as opposed to what is truly right. It is interesting that only Detective Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia), a policeman who has no time for legal niceties such as obtaining a warrant before secretly searching through Paul’s apartment, is the one who finally identifies Paul as the vigilante. Playing by civilized rules, the film suggests, does not offer much reward. Hence the film presents an interesting contradiction. Paul will become the protector of civilization but to do so he must first revert to a more bestial, outlaw persona. This is a common theme in the Western. For example, both Shane (Stevens, 1953) and The Searchers (Ford, 1956), two of the most famous films of the genre, are variations on this theme of the lawless outsider who acts as the saviour of society but for various reasons can never be a part of that society himself. Paul Kersey will imbibe this Western ethic and become just such an outlaw. Paul's final stage of reeducation occurs when Jainchill takes him to a gun club. Here the last wall of Paul’s liberal defense is knocked down. After Jainchill expounds the standard conservative philosophy which says there is nothing inherently wrong with guns, that they are just tools, Paul admits to having been a conscientious objector during the Korean War. Jainchill laughs and says, ‘Christ! What a guest to bring to a gun club!’ But Bronson’s performance here indicates to us that Paul is far from uneasy about being there. Paul walks almost reverentially around the environs of the club, his face a mask of awed curiosity, as if he were a pilgrim visiting a holy shrine. When he takes the gun Jainchill offers him, he holds it with ease, with assurance, the way (to use Jainchill’s metaphor) a carpenter


handles his hammer. Winner frames Bronson in a low angle close up suggesting Paul’s new found authority now that the gun is in his hand. With a professional aplomb more suited to a soldier than an architect, Paul takes careful aim and fires the pistol—with the bullet hitting the dead center of the target. ‘Well,’ Jainchill remarks somewhat incredulously after this display of marksmanship, ‘you (sic) a peculiar conscientious objector.’ It turns out Paul was raised with ‘all kinds of guns’ but swore to stay away from them after his father was killed in a hunting accident. This piece of backstory serves two purposes. Firstly, giving Paul a history with guns makes his eventual transition to skilled executioner much more plausible. More importantly though, it suggests that by living all those years as a pacifist liberal, Paul was denying his true self. The same feminizing civility which has made the police force impotent to stop crime was Paul’s sickness as well. By reuniting with the gun, Paul has reunited with his true masculine purpose in life, and while it may be too late to save his family, it is not too late to save the world, or at least certain middle-to-upper class sections of New York City. Fig. 2 . From Death Wish. A peculiar conscientious objector. Charles Bronson (left) as Paul Kersey and Stuart Margolin as

Ames Jainchill.

The rest of the film charts Paul’s return to the city and his campaign to shoot as many muggers and lowlifes as he possibly can. As a result of his actions, the crime rate significantly drops


and a relieved public voice unambiguous support for this unknown killer whom the papers simply dub ‘The Vigilante’. The adulation Paul receives in the fictive world of the film was mirrored closely by the movie going public’s reaction. In Paul Talbot’s book on the making of all five Death Wish films, producer Bobby Roberts recounts how the audience responded at one of the first preview screenings of Death Wish: ‘There was an amazing reaction. They got up and cheered at the first shooting. That’s when we knew we had a hit. It was a movie that said a lot at the time. It spoke for the audience.’29 If that is true, what were audiences saying? ‘Get the mothers’, a man frequently repeated during a screening that Judy Klemsrud attended.30 Get the mothers! What was the source of this anger? A multitude of chasms had ripped open the American landscape during the mid 60’s and into the 70’s. Vietnam protests, the uncovering of the Watergate scandal, the liberation movements which fought for equal rights for women, gays and blacks—all shook the foundations upon which the white patriarchal society had been founded. As Robin Wood writes, ‘The possibility suddenly opened up that the whole world might have to be recreated.’31But that did not happen. Nixon’s ‘silent majority’ still held sway and more and more films in Hollywood acted as their rallying call. Eventually it seems what the majority (silent or not) of Americans really wanted was reassurance. They wanted the reassurance that men like Harry Callahan and Paul Kersey existed and would defend our basic human rights. They wanted the reassurance that a man like Rocky Balboa could bring himself up from absolutely nothing to become the heavyweight champion of the world. They wanted to know that even if women like Jill Clayburgh from An Unmarried Woman (Mazursky, 1978) wound up leaving their husbands in search of independence, they would still find charming men like Alan Bates to become subservient to. They enjoyed being told that no matter how a large of a threat a family faced (even in the form of a 25ft seemingly psychotic great white shark) there would be fathers like chief Martin Brody who would defeat those threats and keep the family, the community at large, safe. And eventually, with the 29 Talbot, Bronson’s Loose, p. 18 30 Klemsrud, “They See”, p. 1 31 Wood, Hollywood, p. 50


mammoth popularity of purely escapist films like Star Wars (Lucas, 1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg 1981), it would seem audiences most liked to be told nothing at all. Movies were now primarily just for fun. Why Death Wish then? Out of all the ideologically conservative films mentioned in this paper, why focus on Death Wish? What is interesting to me about this film particularly is its total lack of ambiguity and how it foretells the overall lack of nuance Hollywood films will increasing demonstrate throughout the rest of the 70’s and into the 80’s. Death Wish’s immediate thematic predecessors, films like Harry or The French Connection (Friedkin, 1971) or Joe (Avildsen, 1970), certainly voice conservative ideas (which most liberal thinkers equate with simplistic thinking), but they all manage a degree of complexity when dealing with these issues that Death Wish totally eschews. 32 The film broke box office records, theaters had eager patrons lined up for blocks to get in to see the movie, and once inside they clapped and cheered leaving any personal ethics or moral questions about what they were watching at the door. Released in July of 1974, was it not Death Wish that truly marked the beginning of the era of the dumb summer blockbuster? In fact when compared with many of the films of the 80’s films it inspired (Sudden Impact, Maniac Cop, Above the Law, not to mention Death Wish’s own plethora of sequels) could not a case be made for Death Wish as the first true film of the 80’s?

32 Peter Lev, American films of the 70’s: conflicting visions (University of Texas Press, 2000), pp. 37-8


Essay on Death Wish