This week’s pick is Death Wish (1974) which stars Charles Bronson as a vigilante who cleans up the seedy streets of New York in this classic tale of revenge. The film was based on the novel written by Brian Garfield and boasts a great score from famed musician Herbie Hancock.
Bronson stars as Paul Kersey an architect whose family is brutally attacked by vicious hoodlums. His wife is murdered and his daughter is raped and left for dead in their own apartment. Without any leads and the inability of his daughter to make a positive ID due to her catatonic state, the police are powerless to do anything. Paul is devastated and begins to adopt a new sense of self-preservation.
The film takes a while to build up momentum but when it does, it really gets going. Trying to put the incident behind him and get on with his life and his work, Paul is sent to Arizona by his boss to oversee a new land development deal. Paul arrives in Tucson, Arizona and is met by Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin) who shows Paul the land where he wants to develop property. After witnessing a mock gunfight at an old movie set in Tucson, Ames takes Paul to a gun club where Ames is impressed with Paul’s deadeye shooting.
Ames asks Paul how he’s such a crack shot for a city slicker and Paul tells the story of how he was brought up around guns but after a hunting accident that killed his father, he vowed to never touch a gun ever again. Due to recent events, however, it looks as if Paul is about to break that vow.
Impressed with the ideas and modifications Paul has made to Ames’ development, Ames sends Paul back to New York with a “going-away present” tucked away in his suitcase. Paul arrives back in New York and unpacks his suitcase and finds a wooden case and within the case is a nickel-plated .32 Colt Police Positive revolver. Paul puts the pistol in his pocket and leaves the apartment for a midnight stroll.
Walking along the Hudson River trail, Paul is held up at gunpoint by a miscreant. Paul turns to hand him his wallet and shoots the mugger point blank in the stomach. The mugger falls to the ground screaming in pain. Paul flees back to his apartment where he becomes physically ill at the act of killing.
A few nights later Paul is riding on the subway where two muggers at knifepoint attack him. Paul shoots both men and makes a clean get away before he’s noticed. As the vigilante killings begin to mount, the media takes notice and there is overwhelming public support. The District Attorney calls on the officer in charge of the case Lt.
Frank Ochoa, a dynamite performance from veteran character actor Vincent Gardenia. The DA tells Ochoa to let the vigilante go free in another city due to his increasing popularity and that the public is also fighting back against crime. Ochoa is against the idea but soon comes to the realization that that is the best solution to diffuse the situation.
Ochoa soon discovers that Kersey is the vigilante shooter and has him placed under police surveillance. Paul sneaks out of his apartment thru the service entrance to indulge in more of his nocturnal activities where he once again is mugged. He kills one mugger and is wounded by the other whom he chases to an abandoned construction site. Kersey is taken to the hospital where he is placed under custody. Ochoa promises to throw Kersey’s pistol into the river if Kersey promises to relocate to another city and never return to New York. Kersey agrees and relocates to Chicago where he plans to continue his vigilantism.
Death Wish was a hit with audiences but many critics gave the film negative reviews due to the subject matter of the film. The film was released at a time in the United States when crime was beginning to rise at an alarming rate. Bronson defended the film saying that it was a commentary on the rising crime issues in the country at the time. New York served as the perfect backdrop of a city that was plagued with overwhelming crime.
Sidney Lumet was originally slated to direct Jack Lemmon of all people to play Paul Kersey. The film was passed around to several different studios until Paramount Pictures picked it up, and famed Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis hired favorite Michael Winner to direct. The film went on to earn over twenty million dollars at the box office and earned even more praise overseas.
Death Wish is also notable for several actors who made their big screen debut. A young Jeff Goldblum was one of the attackers who rapes Paul’s daughter in the beginning of the film. Writer/director Christopher Guest makes a cameo at the end of the film as patrolman Jackson Reilly, and an un-credited Denzel Washington appears as an alley mugger.
Death Wish spawned four more less successful sequels but gained a huge fan base in the U.S. and abroad. Death Wish opened up a new genre of vigilante films that helped to inspire such films as The Exterminator (1980) and Vigilante (1982), both considered to be twice as brutal as Death Wish. The film was released twice, in 2001 and again in 2006. The film is currently out of print and there is no word of a Blu-Ray release in the near future. The film is still available via Netflix DVD.