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Death Wish (1974)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

DEATH WISH (1974)

Starring: Charles Bronson, Hope Lange, Vincent Gardenia, Steven Keats, William Redfield

Written By: Wendell Mayes, Brian Garfield (novel) Directed By: Michael Winner

The Short Version

Behold the definitive vigilante movie.

Charles Bronson delivers one of the standout performances of his career.

Though it centers on violence, Death Wish is really more of a social and character study.

Tight direction keeps it gripping throughout.

Death Wish is an all time classic, and on the “cinema canon” list.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

SHARP CHEDDAR.

It makes you think.


Pairs Well With...

STRAIGHT BOURBON.

Feel the sting; then remember why you poured the glass in the first place.

“Draw.”

 

He rode as one of The Magnificent Seven.  He was the “tunnel king” of The Great Escape, and part of The Dirty Dozen.  But of all of the iconic roles ever played by Charles Bronson, the one that the collective audience has chosen to remember him most for is that of architect Paul Kersey in Death Wish.

I suspect that the primary reason for this comes down to one simple thing: in the character of Paul Kersey – particularly as he appears in this first of five eventual Death Wish pictures – Charles Bronson comes as close as he or any action movie tough guy will ever come to truly being us.  Not a cop, not a kung fu master, not a muscle man, not a former Navy Seal; just a regular, middle aged guy with an office job who gets pushed too far and snaps.

For those who somehow missed it or need a refresher, the film begins with Paul Kersey and his wife, Joanna (Hope Lange, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge), returning to the hustle of New York City after a beautiful two week vacation in Hawaii.  Paul goes back to his job as an architect, and Joanna heads out with her daughter, Carol (Kathleen Tolan, The Rosary Murders), for a day of shopping, including one last stop at the grocery store.  There, the two ladies are noticed by a trio of thugs who decide follow them home and do a little robbery.  When the thugs learn that the women have only seven dollars in cash between them, they resort to assault and rape instead.  Joanna is killed, and Carol is traumatized into a catatonic state.  The cops have no real leads.

Paul is devastated.  Grief turns to anger, and anger turns into a need to do something to make the world right again.

In another story, perhaps he’d use his billion dollar fortune to make himself a bat suit, create a bunch of nifty gadgets, and spend the foreseeable future hunting down bad guys so that the Gotham City justice system could put them away.

In this story, however, there is no billion dollar fortune, there is no bat cave, and there is no faith in the justice system of New York City – the real Gotham.  In this story, Paul Kersey is just a regular guy who recently became the owner of a gun, and who decides to take justice into his own hands by killing every low life mugger he can find.

There but for a twist or two of circumstance and very recently acquired civilization go we.  No, the vast majority of us in this century will never turn vigilante – civilization as we know it would collapse if we did – but none the less, Paul Kersey is us.

One of the things that makes Death Wish work so well is the amount of effort taken to show just how Kersey goes from being the “us” that is an average person’s everyday existence – indeed, a very liberal average person – to the potential “us” that is the unrestrained vigilante who has stepped away from conventional social norms.  It is not the “instant snap” that occurs in so many other films and comic book origin stories; instead, it is a sensible, natural, utterly plausible progression that director Michael Winner takes great pains present in a fashion that never feels slow or wasteful.  There’s real grief.  The idea for Kersey to take the law into his own hands has multiple seeds of inspiration that arrive a step at a time, and after he finally does cross the line, his first reaction is to be sick the moment he gets home.  And then… I’ll leave that for you to discover.  But I will say that this is indeed a progression without an endpoint; even as the end credits are about to roll, Paul Kersey is still evolving as a human being… just like us. 

Surprise, surprise – you’ve just walked into a character study.

And it’s not just a study of our hero/antihero vigilante; it’s a study of the residents and the authorities of the City in which he operates.  In the case of the residents, the unknown vigilante – Kersey is, after all, careful enough to avoid being caught at any of his first few crime scenes – almost instantly takes on the mantle of “hero,” and never falls from it.  More interesting, though, is the study of the police response.  At first, it’s what one would expect: treating the vigilante as just another murderer.  Then the officer in charge (Vincent Gardenia, Little Shop of Horrors) gets to work developing a profile (long before such things were cool; remember, this is 1974, so there’s very little in the way of forensics, either), starts to narrow things down… and gets called into a meeting just when he starts getting warm.  It seems that the City’s mugging rates have been dropping like a stone ever since the vigilante started his run.  If he were to be caught… well…

Interesting thought process there, don’t you think?

With that said, there’s a flip side to this study of personal and social psychology.  The unspoken material is interesting and rings remarkably true, but the spoken material starts to slap things on with a trowel after a while, bringing Death Wish a bit close to (but never quite over) the edge of preaching on several occasions.  And that Kersey’s vigilante actions would make the covers of many newspapers and magazines makes sense, but all of them?  Even Bernie Goetz (New York’s real “Subway Vigilante” from the following decade) made room for other headlines every once in a while.  Then there’s the City itself, which, as portrayed, has a ridiculously unlikely crime rate, especially within walking distance of Kersey’s home, which is not in a particularly “bad” neighborhood.  In the world of Death Wish, Kersey can go out on any night he chooses and be absolutely guaranteed to be jumped by muggers.  If that were accurate for anyone – which, since he’s Everyman, it’s supposed to be – the City simply couldn’t function.  Exaggerated laboratory?  Just a little.

But… it’s easy to ignore the lab, just as it is easy to look past the not-quite-overdone sociological discussions.  The story’s too good, the characters are too strong, and the performances – especially that of Charles Bronson – are just too outstanding, and without question, director Michael Winner runs a very tight ship here.  He is also careful not to glorify the crime that sets Kersey off in the first place.  Yes, it’s disturbing – but it is just that: disturbing.  Enough horror is shown to get the point across and make it sting, but there’s no glory there.  We’re supposed to be appalled, because we are meant to be Kersey as much as Kersey is meant to be us.  Mission accomplished.

Speaking of crime and criminals in Death Wish…  Two future Hollywood headliners make their debuts in this film playing less-than-glamorous roles.  The creep who leads the trio that attacks Kersey’s family – credited as “Freak #1” – is none other than Jeff Goldblum (The Grand Budapest Hotel), and taking up the right wing position in a group of alleyway thugs as “Mugger #1” is Denzel Washington (Safe House).  And just to conform to the whole “in threes” thing, you’ll see a young cop near the end of the movie who has a very important chat with the lead investigator.  That young cop is Christopher Guest (This Is Spinal Tap) in his third onscreen role.  And hey, do you find yourself unconsciously grooving to the soundtrack?  If you do, I’m not surprised; those notes are courtesy of none other than Mr. Herbie Hancock.

Death Wish turned a lot of heads when it first came out in 1974, and while it was hardly the first vigilante film (as many suggest it to be), it is the definitive picture for that particular genre, even forty years down the line.  It’s a distinction earned through quality: quality of story (even though the novelist upon whose work the movie was based didn’t approve), quality of direction, and especially quality of performance from Charles Bronson.  His portrayal of Paul Kersey as the Everyman who’s had enough resonates just as easily today as it did four decades ago, and whether or not one agrees with what he comes to believe or what he does, there’s no denying the power behind that quiet voice.  The movie may not be perfect, but in it, Bronson is.

Bottom line, Death Wish will never be “the feel good movie of the year,” but it is an outstanding action drama and character study that still retains all of the power it had on the day it was first released, and which remains the single most definitive vigilante movie ever made.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, April, 2014


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