Among the most controversial movies released by a major studio in the ’70s, Death Wish turned vigilantism into a hot topic around America’s water coolers and a perennial theme for action movies. Whereas the Clint Eastwood vehicle Dirty Harry (1971) manifested late-’60s frustration with the expansion of accused criminals’ rights, Death Wish works on an even more visceral level: It dramatizes the anguish felt by crime victims. Although novelist Brian Garfield, upon whose novel the film is based, reportedly disliked the movie because of the way it seemingly condoned vigilantism, the picture has a measure of nuance—while star Charles Bronson, producer Dino De Laurentiis, and director Michael Winner focus on no-nonsense action, the underlying premise is so provocative that thematic heft unavoidably permeates the bang-bang thrills.
Bronson plays New York City architect Paul Kersey, whose wife (Hope Lange) and daughter (Kathleen Tolan) are attacked by criminals. The thugs beat Joanna, causing injuries that lead to her death, and rape Carol, sending her into a catatonic state. Shattered, Paul takes a working holiday to Tuscon, where he befriends a gun-enthusiast client (Stuart Margolin), who gives Paul a revolver as a gift. Returning to New York and learning that his family’s assailants will probably never be caught, Paul becomes so preoccupied with street crime that he starts packing heat and looking for trouble. Before long, he’s wiping out every lowlife who crosses his path, thus becoming a folk hero to crime-fatigued New Yorkers. Once the plot gets cooking, the movie depicts the dicey relationship between Manhattan’s mysterious new avenger and the police, notably Detective Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia); while city officials condemn the vigilante’s lawlessness, they relish the downtick in street crime attributed to fear of the gunman.
While Death Wish is unquestionably lurid and sensationalistic, the harshest criticism of the movie—that it glamorizes vigilantism—is not entirely justified. The first time Paul kills a crook, he rushes home and vomits. Furthermore, the crisp screenplay by Wendell Mayes tightens the noose around Paul from the moment he begins his crusade. On a deeper level, the vengeance mission alienates Paul from society, even though he gets a perverse new spring in his step once he takes matters into his own hands.
That said, the depiction of criminals as interchangeable ciphers makes it impossible to take the movie completely seriously. In this movie’s vision of New York, the streets are crawling with subhuman monsters, mostly African-American, and only a gun-toting cowboy can make the city safe. Even more troubling is the implication that every petty criminal deserves to die. But that’s what’s interesting about Death Wish, above and beyond the fact that it’s an exciting thriller—the movie tackles big themes, albeit clumsily. (Added novelty stems from the presence of future stars Christopher Guest and Jeff Goldblum in small roles, plus the kinetic funk/jazz score created by Herbie Hancock.)
Death Wish was a major hit with lasting repercussions, vaulting Bronson to the A-list and triggering endless copycat movies. No official sequel appeared until 1982, but Death Wish II is putrid and the subsequent three pictures in the series are even worse, so everything worthwhile about Death Wish resides in the first movie.
Death Wish: GROOVY