Death Wish was possibly the most controversial crime movie of the 1970s, even more so than Dirty Harry. Death Wish made Charles Bronson a major star and it spawned no less than four sequels.
Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) works for a large development corporation based in New York. He is described by a friend as “a bleeding heart liberal” and he does not dispute the accuracy of the tag. His beliefs are about to collide with reality as his wife and daughter are attacked by street thugs who force their way into the Kersey apartment. His wife Joanna (Hope Lange) is killed, his daughter Carol is brutally raped. Carol never recovers psychologically from the attack.
It soon becomes obvious that there’s little chance of the criminals being brought to justice.
Kersey’s company decides it would be a good idea if he got out of New York for a while so he is sent to Tucson to check out a development there that they’re thinking about financing. Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin) is a slightly eccentric real estate developer. He and Kersey strike up a surprising friendship while working out the details of the proposed development. Jainchill is a gun enthusiast and he invites Kersey to the local gun club. Kersey makes the admission that he was a conscientious objector during the Korean War, reinforcing his bleeding heart liberal credentials. He then surprises his new buddy by proving to be a crack shot with a pistol. When it’s time to return to New York Ames presents Kersey with a parting gift - a pearl-handled .32 calibre revolver.
Since Kersey is now understandably a little nervous about walking the streets of New York he takes the revolver with him. And when he is confronted with an armed mugger he uses the gun.
As Kersey starts thinning out the mugger population the police and city officials are in something of a quandary. They don’t want a vigilante wandering the streets, but they don’t want to arrest the vigilante - they know he is becoming a popular hero and if arrested would become a martyr and that’s the last thing they want.
While the police have been entirely unsuccessful in catching the murderers of Paul Kersey’s wife they have had somewhat greater success in hunting down the vigilante. They’re fairly sure they know who their man is, but what is less certain is what they’re going to do about it.
When judging this movie it is important to put it into its historical context. In 1974 crime in the US really did seem to be out of control and ordinary people really did have serious doubts as to the ability and willingness of the police and the courts to protect them from violent crime. This situation had arisen over a fairly short period of time, not much more than a decade, and it seemed to be accelerating. New York in 1974 was a much more violent place than it is today.
The western comparison can be taken a stage further. All of Paul Kersey’s killings are in fact committed in self defence. His victims are always armed and they always initiate the violence. He is as scrupulous in this regard as the hero of any classic Hollywood western. Although it is never actually mentioned it can be assumed that that is part of the reason the police don’t want to arrest him - they would have great difficulty in securing a conviction against him. It’s true that he deliberately puts himself in situations where he is likely to encounter muggers but he cannot be accused of setting the muggers up. In each case he is (apparently) quietly minding his own business when he is confronted by attackers brandishing weapons with obvious criminal intent.
Predictably critics mostly hated this movie and the public mostly loved it. It was a major box office hit, thus further enraging critics. After this release of this film it is difficult to find a critic saying a single positive word about director Michael Winner. In fact Winner was very good at directing violent action movies such as the excellent The Mechanic (also with Bronson as star). It is perfectly legitimate to dislike violent action movies but it has to be admitted that Winner did them very well. And he does a fine job with Death Wish. This is a movie in which the violence for the most part feels more graphic than it actually is, due to Winner’s very effective directing.
As for Bronson, this movie certainly stereotyped him but it brought him genuine US stardom after a very long wait (he already had an enthusiastic following in Europe). Bronson says very little in this movie. That of course is part of the Bronson persona but it works well in this film. If Paul Kersey was a man who could articulate his feelings he quite likely would not have become a vigilante. Although it’s worth pointing out that being good at articulating your feelings doesn’t help very much when you’re confronted by a knife-wielding hoodlum, a situation in which Paul Kersey might well argue that a loaded gun is rather more useful.
Death Wish is a troubling and confronting movie but at the time it was made violent crime was a troubling and confronting reality. It was one of a number of movies made about that time, movies like Dirty Harry and A Clockwork Orange, that tackled the issue in an uncomfortably direct manner. Death Wish might at times be exploitative but the same can be said about A Clockwork Orange.
Does this movie really portray Paul Kersey as a hero, or is he a victim? Would he have been better off putting his personal tragedy behind him and moving on with life? Or is Kersey correct in believing that this would have amounted to running away? How would we have felt about the heroes of westerns like High Noon and Shane if the heroes had chosen flight rather than confronting evil?
Death Wish is a product of its era in more ways than one. It’s not the sort of movie that could get made today. A remake is supposedly in the works but I think one can be forgiven for doubting whether it will be able to address the relevant issues as uncompromisingly as Michel Winner’s 1974 movie.
Death Wish is not exactly pleasant viewing but it’s one of those movies that you have to be able to say that you’ve seen.