Few movies in the 1970s caused a stir quite like “Death Wish”. Upon its release, the 1974 neo-noir action-thriller was heavily criticized for its alleged support and glorification of vigilantism. Many critics shellacked the film, calling it “immoral”, “exploitative”, and “despicable”. But the film resonated with audiences and sparked an intense debate over how to deal with the rising crime rates of the time. As years went by, some opinions of “Death Wish” softened, and it would become a cult classic.
Based on a 1972 novel by Brian Garfield, “Death Wish” took a hard look at a side of New York City that was quickly becoming a reality for many residents. Garfield’s story was adapted by screenwriter Wendell Mayes (“The Poseidon Adventure”) who didn’t go as deep into the reasons behind the spiking violent crime. Instead his story focused more on its horrific effects, specifically on one man who only finds solace in doling out retribution on inner city criminals.
Sidney Lumet was originally set to direct but had to drop out to shoot “Serpico”, opening the door for Michael Winner. Jack Lemmon, Henry Fonda, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, and even Elvis Presley were considered for the part of Paul Kersey, but it eventually went to Charles Bronson. Known more for his tough-guy roles, Bronson originally felt he was miscast. But Winner convinced the actor to sign on, and he turned out to be a good fit.
Unlike the many half-baked sequels that would follow, the first “Death Wish” was more than just a genre movie. It may be tempting to dismiss it as an exploitation film, but Winner and Mayes had more on their minds. Without question it’s provocative and taps into the urban paranoia of the day. But there’s more to it than just an insular promotion of vigilantism. Again, unlike the sequels, you’re not to meant to feel comfortable with what your seeing.
Bronson’s Paul Kersey begins in a much different place than where he ends. He’s a successful architect at a big land development firm. He’s an unashamed bleeding heart liberal. He was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. He’s happily married to his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) and they have a recently married twenty-something daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan). Again, he’s not the prototypical Charles Bronson character.
Winner starts the film with a stark yet effective contrast. The opening scene sees Paul and Joanna in Hawaii enjoying a quiet romantic afternoon on a beautiful sun-soaked beach. Almost immediately we switch to them arriving back home to a dark and grimy New York City, the gritty cinematography from Arthur J. Ornitz emphasizing the dramatic differences in the locations. It’s a tone-setting transition that Winner will come back to more than once.
But then Paul’s life is changed forever. One afternoon Joanna and Carol are followed home from the grocery store by three hoodlums (on a fun side note, a 21-year-old Jeff Goldblum is credited as Freak #1. It was his big screen debut). The thugs bust into the Kersey’s apartment, beat Joanna and violently rape Carol. Paul is notified by his son-in-law Jack (Steven Keats) and rushes to the hospital only to find Joanna has died from her injuries. And Carol’s trauma has left her in a catatonic state.
After his wife’s funeral, Paul tries to resume his daily routine, but he struggles to cope with his loss. The police’s inability to make an arrest only makes things worse. So Paul takes his despair to the streets, roaming unsafe neighborhoods at night, and putting himself in dangerous situations (hence the film’s title). But when he’s attacked by a mugger, Paul shoots him dead with a gun given to him by a client. He promptly runs home in a panic.
But there’s a satisfying sense of revenge that leads Paul to go out again and again and again. And as the bodies mount, the police start making connections. Meanwhile, word of a vigilante spreads through newspapers, magazines, and billboards. Through it all several compelling themes are explored, from the traumatic effects of violent crime to society’s insatiable appetite for violence.
As the story intensifies, Winner challenges us by presenting a moral quandary that has no clean, clear-cut answer. Bronson gives a solid portrayal of a man who doesn’t enjoy killing, but who has lost his faith in justice. So he has taken it on as his duty while unwittingly losing his humanity in the process. It’s both fascinating and uncomfortable, as a story like this should be. Not everything clicks, especially in the final act. But it’s still a well-made thriller that’s worth more than a mere surface level reading.
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Winner was such a weirdo in his lateryears, I forgot he made some good movies now and again.
He sure was. But he had a good run with Bronson (more on that run coming soon). 🙂
Excellent review, Keith. It satisfied a need at the time. I see it was made in 1974. I just looked up when the Bernard Goetz incidents happened — 10 years later. Laughing at the thought of Elvis pulling the role off. The others seem like misfits also. Bronson is perfect! I heard that (probably from you) about Goldblum playing “Freak #1” and have to laugh at that also. Goldblum has had some interesting roles over the years. Not sure if I ever saw any of the Death Wish sequels but can’t imagine them ever equaling the original.
Thanks so much. I mean Elvis??? LOL. That cracked me up. You’re right, Bronson was perfect. As for the sequels, I didn’t mind DW2. But I checked out pretty quick after it.
You’re very welcome, Keith.
One of the key films of the early seventies. Along with Dirty Harry, it represented a huge pushback against the changes in the criminal justice system that had led to a huge rise in crime. Whether it reflected the conservative swing in attitudes about crime, or fed those attitudes is a subject for discussion. But not here. This movie lets you feel the dirt under your nails after a night out in NYC in the 70s. Glamourous it was not.
Very true. Nothing glamorous about it. Interestingly there were a lot of people who didn’t know how to take it. It’s stood the test of time.
Ah yes, this film is so much fun and I love Charles Bronson in this. The Death Wish films are the rare violent movies my mother likes all because the bad guys get killed in the most gruesome way.
I love the scene in the third film where a bunch of guys tried to steal Bronson’s car and he came in and was like “what’s the problem?” “What’s it to you?” “It’s my car”. “Oh yeah, you gonna do something about it?” Bronson pulls out the guns and kill the fucking thieves.
It’s a shame we couldn’t do that anymore because we don’t have stricter gun control laws.
I really enjoyed revisiting it. I’m going back through several Bronson films so more to come!
My mother always liked Charles Bronson as he was one of the few guys that she loved to watch kill people. And she usually doesn’t like violent films except for the James Bond movies.
My wife isn’t a big fan of Bronson, but I think she’s warming up, especially as I’ve been revisiting his movies lately.