Paramount Pictures/Columbia Pictures
Directed by Michael Winner
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis and Bobby Roberts
Screenplay by Wendell Mayes
Based on the novel “Death Wish” by Brian Garfield
Considering how ridiculous and downright cartoonish the later movies in the series were, I can easily see how a recommendation of DEATH WISH would bring snickers and outright guffaws from modern day movie fans. Hey, I can’t sit through “Death Wish 3” without collapsing into fits of laughter while “Death Wish 4: The Crackdown” and “Death Wish V: The Face of Death” are simply embarrassing. By the time Charles Bronson made those last two movies he was plainly way too old to be trying to play the action hero.
But the first DEATH WISH still holds up for me as a powerful piece of filmmaking. Maybe because I remember how the issues of urban crime, white flight, racism and vigilantism were raised, debated and discussed in magazines, newspapers and TV talk shows thanks to DEATH WISH. The movie was actually extremely controversial when it was released. Urban crime was a growing plague in American cities back in the 1970’s and there was a very real fear that the vigilantism advocated by DEATH WISH would be embraced and possibly even acted out by the audiences that packed the theaters showing the movie.
Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is a successful architect living and working in New York with his wife Joanna (Hope Lange.) They return home after a wonderful Hawaiian vacation and resume their lives. It’s a life that is forever destroyed when three hoodlums break inside Kersey’s home. In a truly brutal and graphic scene, the three hoodlums trash the apartment, one of them (Jeff Goldblum) beating Joanna with a blackjack in bloodthirsty glee and then all three savagely raping Kersey’s married daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan) and leaving without anybody seeing them. Paul is called to the hospital and meets his son-in-law Jack (Steven Keats) there. Carol’s mind has been shattered by the horror of what happened to her and Joanna is dead. The police are professionally sympathetic but without Carol able to look at mug shots or tell them exactly what happened there is little to no chance of them catching the criminals.
To help him deal with the shock, Paul’s boss sends him to Arizona on a working vacation to help design a residential development for a wealthy businessman, Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin.) Jainchill takes Paul to a gun club to unwind and is amazed that Paul is an excellent marksman. Paul reveals he was taught how to shoot as a boy by his dad. But when the elder Kersey was killed in a hunting accident Paul swore never to touch a gun again. But recent events in his life as well as discussions he has with Jainchill about liberalism, urban anxiety and where do law-abiding citizens take it upon themselves to defend themselves if the police can’t prey upon Paul’s mind. Upon the completion of the job, Jainchill gives Paul a present: a .38 Smith & Wesson.
Back in New York City, Paul begins a nightly ritual of taking aimless walks in dangerous neighborhoods and riding in empty subway cars, deliberately setting himself up as a target for muggers who he guns downs. New York City is soon set afire by the series of killings done by “The Vigilante.”
NYPD Detective Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) is assigned to the case. But it soon become apparent to him that the Powers That Be don’t really want Paul Kersey brought to justice. The number of violent crimes such robberies, rapes and muggings at night are dropping dramatically. And New Yorkers, as they are wont to do have made a hero out of The Vigilante. The last thing the District Attorney wants is a martyr for the press. But Paul is taking more and more risks and it’s only a matter of time before he’s either caught by the cops or catches a bullet.
DEATH WISH is a movie soaked in urban chaos. There’s a scene where Paul asks his son-in-law, “What do you call people who are faced with a condition of fear and do nothing about it except run and hide?” And that was a very real fear in the 1970’s when it seemed as if anarchy ruled the cities and all of our civilized institutions were breaking down. During the Arizona scenes it’s as if Paul is visiting NRA Heaven which makes his return to the concrete jungle of New York even more psychologically unsetting and helps plunge him into his nightly shooting sprees.
This is undoubtedly the best known movie and role Charles Bronson played. It certainly was the most successful and profitable of his movies. There are other movies I think Bronson has done better acting: “Once Upon A Time In The West” “The Dirty Dozen” ”The Mechanic” ”Master of The World” ”Mr. Majestyk” “Breakheart Pass” “The White Buffalo” and I could easily name half a dozen more. But you mention Charles Bronson’s name and the first movie that comes to people’s mind is DEATH WISH.
The violence in this movie is handled in a manner that I find appalling even by today’s standards. Maybe because it’s presented in an almost documentary-like, matter-of-fact manner. The movie was charged with being racist as the criminals who attack the two women were white but most of the thugs Paul kills are black, which adds another level to the horror we’re seeing on screen. And I think that’s why DEATH WISH still carries a wallop even today. Charles Bronson isn’t playing an invincible, wisecracking superman. He’s an ordinary man who deals with his overwhelming grief and rage in the only way that makes sense to him. He’s committed to his plan and he goes through with it even though it takes a toll on him. He starts drinking more. He throws up after killing a mugger. He rages at his ineffectual son-in-law because he’s got to take out his anger on somebody and the killing still isn’t enough.
But even after all that, we’re left with that final chilling, scary scene where Paul Kersey, having relocated to Chicago comes to the aid of a woman being harassing by a gang of punks. Paul points his hand like a gun at the punks and gives them the scariest smile I’ve ever seen Bronson give on screen. It’s then that we realize that there’s a lot more to Charles Bronson’s performance and a lot more to DEATH WISH.