DEATH WISH decisively affixed Charles Bronson’s image to a particular character and generated a good deal of controversial buzz in 1974, drawing fire from critics over its presentation while filling theater seats with longtime fans of the actor, ready to see him dispense urban vengeance. Relentlessly dark, the raw revenge theme worked to effect, later squandered by four needless and terrible sequels. *
Manhattan architect ‘Paul Kersey’ (Bronson, 53) and wife ‘Joanna’ (Hope Lange, 40) return from a blissful Hawaiian vacation only to be visited by a nightmare: while Paul is at work, a trio of thugs invade the Kersey apartment and savagely assault Joanna and their adult daughter. Joanna dies, the daughter is left comatose. The police provide nothing more than ‘we’re sorry, good luck’. The once-passive Kersey buys a pistol, and one night kills a threatening mugger. Emboldened, he begins to hunt down others, the city offering a full menu of creeps. The vigilante becomes a hero to the cowed public while the police hope to neutralize the extra-legal ‘lawman’ before others emulate him. In the meantime, street crime drops like an anvil. Made of lead.
Veteran screenwriter Wendell Mayes’ script torqued Brian Garfield’s novel in a different direction than the author intended, and director Michael Winner—who’d led Charles the Grim on stepstone bloodletters Chato’s Land, The Mechanic and The Stone Killer—made sure the tone was one of unrelieved bleakness. That commenced with the startlingly vicious assault on wife & daughter that propels Kersey’s journey into the twilight: the sequence is hard to watch, let alone forget. The slavering fiends are played by Jeff Goldblum (21, fierce debut), Gregory Rozakis (an eon away from his gentle refugee in America America) and Christopher Logan. Though they get away scot-free from that depredation, ten other slimes aren’t so lucky when Paul/Charlie starts packing for game to poach. The crude set-up couldn’t be simpler, geared for base kill-thrill responses when Kersey exacts a turpitude toll from thugs who prowl alleys, subways and parks. The supporting cops and law-abiding civilians are colorless ciphers played by low-octane actors (Vincent Gardenia, Stuart Margolin, Steven Keats, William Redfield), leaving Bronson to dominate: he delivers his end with signature determination. A moody score from Herbie Hancock adds a constant undercoat of threat. The final scene gets a grin, but it just serves to cheapen the ostensibly serious narrative. This show made New York City look as inviting as the surface of Mercury, though the sickening crime stats of the era didn’t help. Made for $3,700,000, it ranked 23rd at the box office in 1974, grossing $26,700,000.
With Stephen Elliott, Kathleen Tolan (the destroyed daughter), Jack Wallace, Christopher Guest, Hank Garrett, Olympia Dukakis, Edward Grover, Saul Rubinek, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Billy Curtis, Paul Dooley. 93 minutes.
* Eight years and twelve mixed-quality movies later, Bronson, now 61, surrendered his hard won rep by cashing in with the repulsive Death Wish II, and the downslope slide began. The eight feature films (three of them Kersey killfests) and seven TV flicks that followed were a dire lot to contemplate for fans who’d championed him from classics like The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen.
The four vile sequels not enough, Death Wish was remade in 2018 by crudmeister Eli Roth, with Kersey played by Bruce Willis, by then in his own career shute.