Death Wish (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Architect becomes a vigilante.

In connection with the Eli Roth/Bruce Willis reboot that is set to be released to theaters this Friday I thought now would be a good time to go back and take a look at the original. The story centers on Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) who works as an architect and lives a comfortable life with his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) and adult daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan). One day while he is at work his New York apartment gets invaded by three thugs (Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Logan, Gregory Rozakis) who kill his wife and rape his daughter. Paul becomes outraged that the police can’t seem to make any headway on the case and decides to take matters into his own hands by becoming a self-styled vigilante shooting random thugs on the street late at night, which in turn has him becoming a cult hero to the many residents of the crime ridden city.

The film is based on the novel of the same name by Brian Garfield. Garfield was inspired to write the story after his car got vandalized. He initially fantasized about tracking down the criminals and killing them before eventually speculating what would happen if someone actually went through with these feelings and decided to take the law into their own hands. The main difference between the novel and film is that in the book the vigilantism becomes more of the problem while in the movie it’s considered the solution.

Many critics at the time gave the film unfavorable reviews as they felt it advocated violence, but I found the movie to have a certain uplifting quality. While the message is certainly simplistic and one-sided it still nicely conveys the idea that ordinary citizens can make a difference and it is up to us, the American public, to foster change and not to simply leave it up to someone else. The film doesn’t completely promote violence as the solution either as there is one scene where an old lady (Helen Martin) scares off her attacker simply by using her hat pin.

The problem that I had with it was why does Bronson constantly get harassed by these thugs in the first place? Whether he is at a restaurant or on the subway the bad guys constantly hone in on him for no apparent reason even when there’s plenty of other people around. In the book it made more sense because the title character would intentionally set traps for the thugs like abandoning his car and putting an ‘out of gas’ sign on it, so the criminals would try to rob the vehicle and then when they did he’d shoot them. Of course this would make the character’s motives more questionable, which the film wanted to avoid, but in the process it becomes less believable.

While this has become Bronson’s signature role it still would’ve worked better had a less brawny actor played the part. In the book the character is a meek accountant and someone like Jack Lemmon, who was originally considered for the role, would’ve been a more authentic fit. Bronson’s image is so entrenched as a ‘tough guy’ that his presence here seems like just another of his action themed vehicles. Chuck should’ve also not known how to use a gun right away either and maybe even been initially clumsy with it as it would’ve made the character arch from peaceful novice to sharp shooting vigilante stronger.

I liked Michael Winner’s directing particularly the way he shot the interiors of the apartments and his grimy portrayal of the urban New York setting that perfectly played-up the city’s crime ridden paranoia at the time. This is also a great chance to see some young performers before they were famous including Christopher Guest as a patrolman. I also found it amusing that Paul Dooley and Vincent Gardenia share a brief scene together as they both went on to play the dad character in Breaking Away. Dooley portrayed him in the movie version while Gardenia played the part in the short live TV-series.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: July 24, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated R

Director: Michael Winner

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

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