Death Wish is directed by Michael Winner, and is based on the novel by Brian Garfield. The film stars Charles Bronson, Vincent Gardenia, and Hope Lange. It was released theatrically in 1974.
Paul Kersey is a middle-aged architect living in New York City. He has been married for years, and has a daughter who is also married. Following he and his wife’s return to NYC following a vacation to Hawaii, his life is forever changed by a devastating event. His wife and daughter are raped and beaten by muggers, with his wife dying from her injuries, and his daughter traumatized to a near catatonic state. His world turned upside down by the tragedy and amongst the reports of increasing crime rates, he finally decides to step up and do something about it. Receiving a gun as a gift following architectural work in Tucson, he sets out on the streets, doing his part to begin eliminating the unfavorable criminal element that has been growing in the city. Elsewhere, police throughout the city begin a search for “The Vigilante,” wanting to put a stop to the recklessness of the man who has begun to influence the public. Will Paul find his wife and daughter’s assailants, or will his one-man crusade have tragic consequences for himself?
When Death Wish was released in 1974, it polarized audiences with its graphic depictions of violence. Brian Garfield, who wrote the novel on which the movie was based, denounced the film, claiming it advocated vigilantism, while stating his novel was meant to show the downfall of a man based on the decisions he made in pursuing such a life. Reactions were mixed across the board, though it is worth noting that esteemed critic Roger Ebert gave the movie a mostly positive review, while not agreeing with what he believed the movie’s message was. Whatever your beliefs, and whatever your opinion of the film, it is a timeless release, and whether you walk away enjoying it or not, you will definitely remember what you see. Four sequels followed, though none of them had the impact on the world that the original did. With a remake of the film coming out later this year, this cinephile thought it was high time to revisit the 1974 classic.
So, you’ve heard about the movie’s impact, but how good is it? In the 1970s, films regarding men stepping up and doing something about criminals, often acting outside the law to do so, were not exactly a rare thing. Even Charles Bronson himself had appeared in some movies following this formula. Ultimately, Death Wish is a satisfying film because it is not afraid to show both the ugly, violent side of a man’s step into vigilantism, as well as the side that captivates the public, often resulting in “copycat” defenses by everyday people against would-be thugs.
The casting of the film is one of its greatest strengths. Charles Bronson was in his 50s when he played this part; despite having appeared in ensemble cast films for years, this was his first true “solo hit” film where he was a major movie’s big-name star. His age actually makes the part seem more believable; we truly believe this is a working-class family man who has been married and raising a daughter for years, so when we experience the tragedy, it is all the more devastating. He actually has a job and we see him working; the job isn’t just relegated to backstory. Bronson is great in every single scene of the film in which he appears, whether grieving for his fallen wife, arguing with his son-in-law over his daughter’s care following the assault, or smiling at a television set he is watching in a bar with friends, hearing about his actions on the streets influencing people to stand up for themselves.
Paul Kersey’s evolution over the course of the film is equally believable. When he punches a thug in the mouth who threatens him, he has to run home, shaky and in shock, having a drink to calm his nerves. When he shoots a man for the first time, he has to vomit at the horrid sights and realizations. When he gets too comfortable in his vigilantism, his carelessness results in him getting injured. The late Bronson gives the movie much-needed realism, and the viewer cannot help but be filled with joy watching him blow away unsympathetic muggers that the legal system has failed.
The second-billed actor in the film is veteran actor Vincent Gardenia, who appears as Inspector Frank Ochoa, the man tasked with finding “The Vigilante” and stopping the mysterious man acting outside the law, believing enforcing the law to be strictly police business. But even if he is able to prosecute, will he be hailed as a hero, or hated for making a martyr out of this figure that has so captivated and influenced the local public? Gardenia gives a memorable performance here, and makes for something of an interesting foil to Bronson’s character. It is worth noting that a major change from Garfield’s novel was giving the Ochoa character a larger role; one of many reasons the film version surpasses the book.
The tertiary cast has some future stars, including a brief scene near the end of the movie with Christopher Guest (later Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap) as a young police offer, and a then-unknown Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park, Independence Day) in his first feature film role as one of the thugs that assault Paul’s wife and daughter.
The overall execution of the film is surprisingly well done, not shying away from the gritty violence and ugliness of the city, yet also showing the reactions of people who think “The Vigilante” is doing a better job enforcing the law than the police! In one scene, we see characters watching television, and seeing reports of an old woman who has been robbed, standing up for herself and warding off would-be robbers with her hat pin. We also see a group of men at a construction site witness a mugging, taking the appropriate action (perhaps too much of it) to put a stop to the crime. Author Brian Garfield claimed that the film “glorified vigilantism,” but I do not believe this to be true. Paul Kersey eventually pays the price for his actions, even if the consequences are not quite what the viewer is expecting.
There are a few minor flaws that keep the movie just shy of greatness. The Herbie Hancock score, while musically impressive, does tend to date the film. The other big issue here is with the pacing; the build-up to Paul Kersey ultimately deciding to pursue the path of vigilantism takes too long. We do not see him shoot a man for the first time until the movie’s 90-minute run time is nearly half over. I am impressed by the fact that they actually take the time to build up the Kersey character, but first-time viewers may be put off by the “slow burn” technique, which admittedly does not work completely. It is not a perfect film, and feels dated in some regards, though the good qualities far outweigh the shortcomings.
Death Wish was released on Blu-ray Disc for the first time in 2014. While said disc is devoid of bonus features apart from the original theatrical trailer, the video quality on the transfer is surprisingly solid, particularly in the well-lit outdoor scenes. A few scenes are a bit dark and suffer from some heavy grain spiking, but overall the film looks surprisingly good given its nature.
Death Wish is a gritty classic which spawned four sequels, though none of them could rival the impact and the controversial tone of the original. It is certainly the film in the series most grounded and rooted in reality, with a great performance from Charles Bronson that does not shy away from violence, and both the positive and negative aspects of one man’s journey into vigilantism. Though it can be a difficult viewing in many ways, it is a movie everyone should see once. Just be warned that it is not for the squeamish.
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