Wednesday, October 7, 2015


I remember seeing DEATH WISH (1974) when it was first released during the summer after I graduated from high school. Charles Bronson was, and still is, one of my favorite actors, and over the course of his film career, I made an effort to see as many of his films as possible. Next to Clint Eastwood, he was my favorite action star of the 1970s. I watched DEATH WISH, one of Bronson's biggest commercial hits and also, one of his most controversial films, again the other day for the first time in over forty years. In fact, I turned off one death wish (UT vs. TCU) to watch another one.

New York City architect Paul Kersey (Bronson), is a peaceful, law abiding citizen. But one day his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) and daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan) are attacked in their apartment by a trio of vicious thugs (one of whom is a very young Jeff Goldblum). Joanna dies, while Carol survives her assault only to gradually withdraw into a comatose, vegetative state.

Kersey is frustrated that the police offer little if any hope of ever finding and prosecuting the men who committed the attack. When Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin) a commercial real estate developer partner, gives Kersey a vintage six-shooter as a gift, Kersey gets the idea to walk the mean streets of mid '70s New York City and start meting out his own justice, vigilante style.

Kersey is shocked and horrified after his first killing but when he gets away with it, he continues on his crusade because, after all, the city is full to bursting with criminal lowlifes who, of course, in Kersey's mind, deserve killing. The irony is that Kersey never does find and kill the actual men responsible for the attack on his family. He targets random thugs and muggers, killing them all quickly and surely.

NYPD takes a dim view of these vigilante killings. Lt. Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) leads the investigation and eventually discovers that Kersey is the killer. However, Ochoa is handcuffed by the police commissioner and district attorney in his attempt to bring Kersey to justice. The fact is that the crime rate in New York has dropped due to Kersey's actions and the powers that be fear that arresting and prosecuting Kersey will make him a martyr. They instruct Ochoa to pressure Kersey into leaving New York. He does and journeys to Chicago (another major American city with an urban crime problem) where it is presumed that Kersey will continue on his crusade of vigilante justice.

DEATH WISH, directed by Michael Winner with a script by Wendell Mayes (based on Brian Garfield's novel), is a classic '70s urban crime film. It has the gritty look and feel of the city in that era and the film did much to reinforce the image of New York City as a crime ridden metropolis. Bronson is solid as always as a peaceful man slowly discovering and channeling his inner rage into learning how to kill with quick dispatch and a modicum of remorse. DEATH WISH isn't an action packed thriller, especially by today's standards. Instead, it's a troubling, thought provoking work that finds us rooting for a cold blooded killer because, after all, he's only killing other criminals.

DEATH WISH spawned five sequels: DEATH WISH II (1982), DEATH WISH 3 (1985), DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN (1987), DEATH WISH V: THE FACE OF DEATH (1994) and DEATH SENTENCE (2007). These films continued to up the ante with Kersey facing even more vile and vicious killers with a variety of higher caliber weapons and bigger and bolder action set pieces.

But none of the subsequent films in the franchise hit the hot button of '70s paranoia and fear as well as the original did. Thumbs up.

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