Lenz on Cinema is a continuing series of articles examining the history of cinema through the filmography of actress Kay Lenz.
In the early 1960’s, British genre filmmaker J. Lee Thompson made two films with Gregory Peck: The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Cape Fear (1962). The Guns of Navarone was a World War II adventure, while Cape Fear told the story of a family trying to survive a rapist’s brutal revenge plot against the family patriarch. Thompson received an Oscar nomination for Navarone, but lost to Robert Wise for West Side Story. Both of these films would come to define a large portion of Thompson’s career, as he directed both tense thrillers and large action adventure films for the rest of his career.
Starting with St. Ives (1976), Thompson became a favorite director of action star Charles Bronson, who worked with him on nine films, including the director’s last film, Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (1989). With a strong visual style, Thompson often elevated some of the more absurd material given to him.
American actress Kay Lenz would star in two of Thompson’s later action films: The Passage (1979) and Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987). Lenz plays a victim of the violence that the horrible antagonist will commit in both films. Both films focus on stories about a family.
(Warning: Spoilers ahead).
In The Passage, Thompson reteams with the other star of Navarone: Anthony Quinn. The film explores a Basque sheep herder (Quinn) trying to get Professor (James Mason) and his American family out of German occupied territory over the Pyrenees. It stars Malcolm McDowell as the scenery chewing Nazi bad guy trying to capture the family. Lenz stars as the American daughter, who McDowell has his eye on.
While the film utilizes a mountainous setting and World War II like Navarone, it features a villain closer to Max Cady in Cape Fear. In that film, a big narrative question comes in whether or not Cady will rape the protagonist’s daughter. In this film, it exists not as a question, but as an illustration of McDowell’s true cruelty. Passage includes a rape scene between Lenz and McDowell in which McDowell wears a jock strap with a swastika on it. McDowell plays the role as a sadist who uses his position of power to torture and kill anybody who tries to help Mason’s family (the ads called it his most vicious role since A Clockwork Orange (1971)). What makes his role all the scarier is that other Nazi officials are powerless to stop him.
The posters for the film makes it seem more action packed than it actually is. Quinn and McDowell have the lion share of the action scenes. Quinn also tends to solve problems more based on his quick reflexes and wits than with a gun (including practically defeating the villain via avalanche nearly twenty years before a similar scene happens in Mulan (1998)).
The film’s advertising also makes a point about its star power by featuring the names of Quinn, McDowell and Mason quite prominently. The film also features horror icon Christopher Lee in a role that many people could play. One suspects Lee got cast in the part due to his star power. Lenz’s name gets featured in a little box on the poster, which suggests her more as a rising star to look for.
Death Wish 4: The Crackdown
The Death Wish franchise relies on a simple premise: architect Paul Kersey must always seek revenge for a murdered loved one, whether it be a wife, girlfriend, daughter, or friend in a city. Over the course of the original Bronson series, Bronson moved back and forth from New York to LA five times (Death Wish 4 is the second time he moved to LA). As the series went on, the films became urban westerns where Bronson plays the lone gunman who strolls into town, takes care of a gang, and strolls out again.
Based on the novel by Brian Garfield, the original Death Wish was originally going to be directed by Sidney Lumet, who wanted to cast Jack Lemmon as the everyman lead. This version lined up more with Garfield’s original intentions (an average accountant becoming a vigilante). This disappointment lead Garfield to write Hopscotch, which became a film with Walter Matthau in 1980. After Lumet bowed out, United Artists chose British director Michael Winner. Winner cast frequent collaborator Bronson in the lead and changed his job from accountant to architect to fit his persona better.
In Thompson’s Death Wish 4, The New York architect becomes the boyfriend of Newspaper writer Karen Sheldon (Lenz), mother of Erica (Dana Barron of National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)). When Erica inevitably winds up dead after a drug overdose, Paul must go back to his old ways in killing a very colorful group of drug dealers. Lenz also sets out on her own to see if she can discover who killed her daughter. A reclusive Tabloid publisher (John P. Ryan) whose daughter also died of an overdose hires Kersey to start a gang war that will kill two gangs of the drug dealers. So far, the plot resembles Yojimbo (1961) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964), but Kersey does not consider that the publisher might not be who he says he is.
Every choice in Death Wish 4 plays like a more absurd version of the original, even though the story has more in common with Death Wish 3 (1985). Many reviews at the time called the film cartoonish, but Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times probably explained this movie the best when he said, “By now Bronson’s Paul Kersey is an architect in the same way that Clark Kent is a reporter: His Vigilante has become as much an above-the-law mythological figure as Superman.” Every gun is a little bigger than the last until Kersey blows away the main bad guy with a rocket launcher. Every aesthetic choice and plot point becomes a little more contrived. The first Death Wish begins with rape and murder. By the fourth sequel, Erica dies of a drug overdose from drug dealers who peddle to teenagers (Lenz remarks on how they are all children). The drug dealers hang out in colorful arcades, roller skating rinks, and video stores. Kersey hides bombs in wine bottles and the bad guys smuggle the drug shipments in fish. All of these choices make the film a little more fun than the two previous sequels directed by Winner.
Like James Bond, Death Wish 4 ends with the villains murdering Karen, as Kersey works better as a lone wolf than a happy family man. The women of Death Wish tend to be more replaceable than the love interests in James Bond, even though they were all played by formidable actresses like Lenz and Academy award nominee Hope Lange in the original.
Both of these films revolve around families and what characters will do for them.
With The Passage, all character development of the family revolves around what family members will do for one another. The sickly mother (Patricia Neal) sacrifices herself to save her family. Lenz also constantly tells the hardnosed Quinn to stop picking on her mother as she struggles to make it up hills. Christopher Lee’s son sells out James Mason’s family to save his father from being burned alive by McDowell, only to find that his decision does not change the outcome. McDowell’s character has a monologue about how he has become a disappointment to his military family because of his affiliations with the Nazi party. Almost every scene in the film revolves around the concept of family in some way or another.
Death Wish 4 begins with Bronson adjusting to his new surrogate family. When his new daughter dies, he is brought to the house of the main villain, who claims to be a widower and father of a daughter who died from a drug overdose. Bronson does not realize his true identity until he returns to his house. However, the plot exists more for the basis of action scenes. While not as prevalent, family plays an important role in Death Wish 4.
In both films, Lenz plays a character based around decency and integrity. Early on in The Passage, Quinn remarks early on in the film how her strength will help her survive after she tells him to stop picking on her mother. She is also somebody who constantly standing up for her mother and father. However, she plays a part of the family unit in the film and her big scene in the film is the rape scene. Oftentimes, she appears in the background of the scene. Even though she gets kidnapped and killed at the end of Death Wish 4, Lenz has a character who does more. She plays a Newspaper reporter searching for justice in her daughter’s death. Although the character follows the plot closely, Lenz becomes the star of the movie for one or two scenes. However, the plot tends to shove her aside in favor of Bronson’s quest for justice. She has less screen time in the film, but tends to make more of an impact. In both films, Thompson seems to see her based on her integrity.
Part of this difference in character comes in who the film focuses on. Although we see Anthony Quinn first, The Passage seems to focus more on Malcolm McDowell as a man who enjoys cruelty. It takes time going through each scene where McDowell tortures, rapes, or kills somebody. It even has an ending in which McDowell imagines himself shooting each family member in the face after surviving an avalanche and finding Quinn’s cabin. All of these sequences make McDowell more of a protagonist than With the Death Wish movie, the focus falls more solely on Bronson. It opens with a dream Bronson that focuses on his guilt and fears about himself. However, any self-reflection does not last long as this is a Death Wish movie. After Erica’s death, Bronson switches back to his usual routine in the Death Wish movies. Since it does not have to adhere to a villain or the quick paced adventure storytelling, Lenz is given more of a relationship with her daughter as the film wants to build up Bronson’s life. The focus of the films decides how Lenz’s character gets shaped.
Some of these films work better than they might otherwise because Thompson has a style that emphasizes suspense and the suggestion of violence more than violence. Throughout both films, Thompson proves his adeptness at creating action and suspense, with the torture scenes of The Passage to the parking garage opening of Death Wish 4 presenting great examples of this. The opening sequence features a woman walking to her car in an abandoned parking garage. Thompson will often hint at violence more than actually showing it. The Passage features McDowell torturing a Resistance Fighter (Michael Lonsdale) by cutting his fingers. However, the audience rarely sees the knife, but can sense what is happening. This trait becomes more obvious in Death Wish 4 because it contrasts to the much more graphic Winner’s style. These films build suspense by suggesting what the audience does not see.
Thompson had quite a productive career as a genre filmmaker. In his career, he made forty-six theatrical films, but Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear would come to define his career story wise. With both of her films with him, Lenz played a specific role in his vision as a filmmaker by playing a member of a family. While her roles are not that large, she makes an impact in both films.
- Both the director and Writer of Death Wish 4 had worked in previous franchises. Thompson had worked on Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), while screenwriter Gail Morgan Hickman had co-written the first few drafts of what would become the Dirty Harry film The Enforcer (1976).
- Each Death Wish film (except the fifth one) features a future famous actor amongst its group of thugs. The original has Jeff Goldblum, the second has Laurence Fishburne, the third has Alex Winter, and the fourth features Danny Trejo.
- Malcolm McDowell would later play the father of Lenz’s ex-husband, David Cassidy, in the TV movie The David Cassidy Story (2000). Sibel Ergener would play the role of Lenz.
Eder, Bruce. Hopscotch. Criterion Collection, August 20, 2002. Retrieved from https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/215-hopscotch
Harrington, Richard. Death Wish 4: The Crackdown. Washington Post, November 14, 1987. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/movies/videos/deathwishivthecrackdownrharrington_a0aa74.htm
James, Caryn. Death Wish 4. New York Times, November 7, 1987. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1987/11/07/movies/death-wish-4.html
McGilligan, Patrick. Clint: The Life and Legend. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Print.
Thomas, Kevin. Movie Review: ‘Death Wish’ Enters Comic Book Phase. Los Angeles Times, November 9, 1987. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/1987-11-09/entertainment/ca-14453_1_death-comic-book
Tranter, Nikki. Historian: Interview with Brian Garfield. Popmatters, March 4, 2008. Retrieved from https://www.popmatters.chttps://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/movies/videos/deathwishivthecrackdownrharrington_a0aa74.htmom/historian-interview-with-brian-garfield-2496171202.html
Turner, Adrian. J. Lee Thompson. The Guardian, September 3, 2002. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/news/2002/sep/04/guardianobituaries.filmnews1
Death Wish 4: The Crackdown. Variety, December 31, 1986. Retrieved from https://variety.com/1986/film/reviews/death-wish-4-the-crackdown-1200427284/