With Eli Roth’s remake being released in theaters at the end of November during a time of social unrest in terms of politics, civil rights, and police violence, I figured it was the right to reflect on the original Death Wish franchise starring Charles Bronson. It’s funny how a film from 1974 is still as relevant today as it was back then, but the original Death Wish still manages to tackle certain issues the current generation is still struggling with. Back when the original Charles Bronson classic was released, the days of black-and-white heroism and happy endings were long gone. Instead, we had anti-heroes who expressed grey morality, not following the tradition societal rules, hoping stepping outside the box would breed positive change through not-so-positive actions. Clint Eastwood’s turn as Harry Callahan in 1971’s Dirty Harry set a trend for a movie hero who took the law into his own hands when law enforcement wouldn’t get their hands filthy to clean up crime. Bronson’s Paul Kersey follows the trend of a man who feels justified about his “above the law” stance to clean up the streets of New York City after tragedy strikes his family. The fact that many people today believe that owning guns to protect themselves and eliminate any sort of threat that the police refuse to get involved with shows that not much has really changed since the 1970’s when it comes to individual thoughts on justice.
Based on a novel by Brian Garfield, Death Wish is about architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) whose life turns upside down after returning to New York City from a wonderful trip with his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) to Hawaii. When Paul is at work, Joanna and daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan) are followed by three thugs (including a young Jeff Goldblum) after a trip to the supermarket. These hoods force their way into their apartment, brutalizing Joanna and raping Carol to get back at the upper class. When Paul learns of the incident, he’s devastated to find out that Joanna died from the attack and Carol is now in a catatonic state due to trauma – the point that she can’t function emotionally and has to be placed in an institution. Paul wonders what the police will do about what happened to his family, upset that the police have nothing on the thugs and can’t follow any leads to serve justice. And as his world crumbles, his paranoia gives him tunnel vision of all the crime around him in the city.
During a work-related vacation in Arizona, he meets developer Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin) – who convinces Paul that guns are the way to maintain a civil society. After Ames gives him a revolver as a gift, Paul returns to New York luring muggers and fatally shooting them. As the killing spree grows, the news of a mysterious vigilante decreasing muggings in the city pleases the public. However, the police are worried with Lt. Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) in charge of hunting down Paul and stopping him from taking the law into his own hands – even though if he and some of his fellow officers aren’t totally displeased by Paul’s actions.
An exploitation film at heart, Death Wish struck a chord with audiences upon its release. The 1970’s were a frightening time for many in the middle and upper classes of society, due to the upswing in crime in major cities in the United States. The police couldn’t seem to get a handle on it, and politicians were dealing with putting out scandalous fires of internal espionage and unnecessary wars to be too concerned. Death Wish is not subtle about its message. Within the first five minutes, a supporting character quotes urban crime statistics to Paul the moment he returns from utopian Hawaii, complaining about how dangerous New York City has become. Almost every other scene in Death Wish depicts crime – from Paul watching thugs vandalize a car right outside his window, to muggers attacking him in the streets or on subway trains – making New York City feel like a dystopian area that seems almost unbelievable to exist. This is even made for evident when Paul travels to Arizona, which looks like paradise compared to the gritty NYC. No one is afraid there. Everyone is having fun watching western shows (which Paul feels inspired by since shoot outs create justice) and driving through miles of desert. This freedom, as Paul’s developer Ames claims, is due to owning guns and protecting themselves from anything bad. There’s also a claim that overcrowding leads to more crime, which Arizona doesn’t have to deal with. Death Wish lays it thick with its message, but it also makes you wonder if the message isn’t all that far from the truth.
In some ways, you’d think Death Wish was a propaganda film created by the NRA to justify the right to bear arms and defend yourself from muggings and random violence. Paul, who was in the military during the Korean War – but as a medic, is pretty much anti-violence. But after what happens to his family and witnessing crime with his own eyes, his stance begins to change to reflect the world around him. Ames takes Paul to a gun range in Arizona, surprised how well Paul handles shooting targets with ease. And once Paul finds out Ames presented him with a pistol, he begins to take his frustration on the lawlessness of his environment by luring muggers and murdering them. It startles him at first, but the thrill of murder and taking the law into his own hands revitalizes him to the point it becomes an addiction. And when he pops up all over the news as the mysterious vigilante, it almost makes him feel good and justified for creating discussion about his actions. Even law enforcement officials are torn between following the law or applauding Paul’s actions. Death Wish seems to suggest that to fight crime, individuals must stand up to it and prey on those who are creating trouble. And watching this in 2017, it kind of shines a light on how things haven’t really changed much. It’s sad, to be perfectly honest.
While Death Wish is obviously a classic in cinema, there are detractors who feel that it doesn’t live up to its rape-revenge motif. Paul’s wife gets murdered and Paul’s daughter gets raped (even painted with red paint on her butt as a target – obviously inspired by 1971’s A Clockwork Orange) by three thugs, whom Paul never gets revenge on due to lack of evidence and identity. Instead, Paul uses his grief to get rid of other criminals to prevent the same thing happening to others that happened to him. So technically, Paul never gets revenge on those who wronged his family, making Death Wish an oddity in the rape-revenge sub-genre. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the message still plays out as it should. It also allows Paul to carry out the character arc the story puts him in, going from peaceful grieving husband to violent vigilante. But the fact that the culprits are never caught or dealt with is disappointing in a narrative way, even if it does happen from time to time in the real world. However, the film still works, even if it isn’t one hundred percent satisfying.
The other characters deal with the events in their own way as well. Paul’s daughter Carol is completely traumatized by the rape and death of her mother, dealing with catatonia and the inability to handle human contact. Paul nor Carol’s husband Jack can’t help her, sending her to an institution so they can deal with it. Speaking of Jack, he pretty much follows the status quo. He grieves the loss of his family, he struggles dealing with his catatonic wife, and doesn’t understand why Paul is so calm about everything all of a sudden. He feels doing nothing and letting things happen is the civilized way, even though this conformity is just making the world around him worse. And Lt. Ochoa is on the hunt for Paul, wanting him to stop taking the law into his own hands – while understand why Paul is doing it and quietly admiring him and respecting him for his actions. It’s good to see a variety of reactions towards the whole vigilante situation, as it broadens the depth of the message being told.
The direction by Michael Winner, who has directed Bronson in the fantastic 1972 film The Mechanic, as well as directing the cult horror film The Sentinel from 1977, sort of presents Death Wish as a gritty city version of your typical western. Instead of cowboys, Winner presents Bronson as a gunslinger hero who shoots evil people who threaten the status quo. It’s not the most stylish film and looks like your typical exploitation film of the 1970s at times. But there’s a certain level of sleaziness that crafts the film’s atmosphere, using the scenes of muggers threatening Paul and others as a way to build tension and anxiety as the film runs. New York City is shot in such a dirty, scuzzy way that it differentiates itself from those beautiful, colorful scenes of Hawaii or Arizona. There’s a dark cloud over Death Wish through majority of the film, with Bronson being the story’s only hope of a silver lining. For that, I think Winner does a good job visually bringing the story and its message to life.
The acting works for Death Wish. Charles Bronson is probably best known for his role as Paul Kersey, even though his acting won’t catch the attention of those handing out awards. It’s fascinating to watch Bronson in this film. Whether finding out his wife has been murdered and daughter raped, or showing euphoria for murdering muggers, his facial expression never really changes. Bronson is pretty much stoic throughout the film, making you wonder whether he wants Paul to display any sort of emotion at all. But for some reason, it’s perfect. You’re always wondering what’s on the man’s mind, waiting for the moment until he finally snaps – which never happens. It’s a wonderful performance of an actor not doing much at all, but saying a whole lot for 90 minutes. Vincent Gardenia is also great as Lt. Ochoa, the man chasing after Paul to stop him. He plays your typical gruff cop who secretly respects what Paul’s doing, but know it goes against his job, Gardenia also adds in ticks, like sneezing and coughing, that give Ochoa personality. Stuart Margolin is great as Ames, the man who makes Paul reconsider his stance on justice. He brings some humor to the film, acting as the catalyst to Paul’s vigilantism in his short role. And it’s funny to see Jeff Goldblum in his first film role as “Freak #1”, one of the thugs who murders Paul’s wife and watches Paul’s daughter get raped. And Christopher Guest as a young police officer towards the end of the film is also neat to see as well. A really solid cast in Death Wish.
And I can’t end this look on Death Wish without mentioning Herbie Hancock’s jazzy score, which adds a funky mood to a bleak film. It’s great stuff.
Death Wish still resonates today as much as it did back in 1974. It’s message of using violence to stop violence is something many in our current society are still struggling with, whether some of us quietly agree with the idea of “an eye for an eye” or downright oppose it and want peace instead. Death Wish doesn’t really work as a direct rape-revenge film since he never really gets vengeance on those who harmed him and his family. But as a commentary of 1970s urban anxiety and the need to make change happen in a lawlessness world through any means necessary, it works extremely well. Charles Bronson typecast himself as the stoically gruff vigilante character with Death Wish, but that’s a credit to Bronson being so well cast for the role of Paul Kersey. Exploitative at times, gritty, violent, and even thought-provoking, Death Wish maintains a film that audiences should watch all these years later.