**** Out of 5
Tagline- Vigilante, City Style. Judge, Jury and Executioner
Release Date- July 24th, 1978
Running Time- 93-Minutes
Screenplay- Wendell Mayes (Brian Garfield- Novel)
Director- Michael Winner
Starring- Charles Bronson, Vincent Gardenia, Steven Keats, Kathleen Tolan and Hope Lange
Released in 1974 Death Wish is the holy grail of the vigilante film and by far the most influential. When Death Wish was released NYC was crime ridden and of course the bigger the city the more crime, but NYC of the 70s wasn’t exactly the safest place and I’m not surprised Death Wish became a big hit. This film also made Charles Bronson into a lead actor as at this stage in the 54-year old actors career he was usually cast in a supporting role or co-lead. Some people fail to realize Bronson was highly successful at this time with such films as the Great Escape, the Magnificent Seven and Once Upon a Time in the West. Death Wish is again the film that made him a lead actor and not the film that made him a star like some reviews claim.
Death Wish still holds up as a powerful film and still makes an impact and for a modern audience the only problem is Death Wish has been knocked off so many times even Death Wish II is nothing more than a rehash for the most part (though still a very fun film). So while the film still has a strong impact some of it might be lost due to how many times its been knocked off. And again NYC in the 70s is quite different though sadly there are still places where simply walking down the street can be dangerous. With so much crime in the world I’m sure many people have gotten fed up and may have thought about taking the law into their own hands. Sometimes the justice system fails us for various reasons and after a senseless act of violence towards his family, Paul Kersey now sees the world in a different way and I think many people feel like that, but vigilante justice isn’t the answer as it will just lead to more violence and soon enough it would go from wanting to do the right thing to people killing each other over the silliest of things (which already happens). Also just because you’re accused of a crime doesn’t make you guilty. How many times have we heard about people convicted on murder or rape charges and decades later were set free because of wrongful conviction? If we took the law into our own hands things would spiral out of control, but with that said I think at some point many of us have pondered the thought. What if a terrible crime was committed against so one you cared about? I’m sure the thought of vigilante justice would cross your mind. In many ways I think that’s what I love most about vigilante films is the what if.
Paul Kersey (Bronson) is living a normal life, but that changes after his wife and daughter are brutally attacked, which ends up with Kersey’s wife dying. With no leads the cops can’t do much and slowly a change comes over Kersey as he stalks the streets gunning down muggers while the police not only search for the vigilante, but downplay the drop in crime.
Death Wish was based off a novel by Brian Garfield first published in 1972 and the screenplay was adapted by Wendell Mayes. The novel was very good, but could also be a little sluggish in spots, but overall I found it a very good read. The screenplay by Mayes takes the basic premise, but doesn’t rehash it nor does it really stray either if that makes any sense. Wendell Mayes writes a solid script with strong characters and for the most part Death Wish is well plotted. The novel does delve more into Kersey’s psyche (in the book his name is Paul Benjamin) and the film can only go so far with that, but Mayes does a good job in turning Paul from your average guy to someone broken inside.
Director Michael Winner crafts a well made film with mostly strong pacing and while the action scenes are simple they’re effective though. Brian Garfield took issue with the film as he felt Winner glorified vigilante justice, which I sort of understand. When Kersey first kills someone he runs home, falls to his knees than gets up and goes into the bathroom and gets sick, but as the film goes on it gets easier and easier, but I also felt it went the same way in the novel. If anything the sequels are the ones that glorified it a lot more. The book Bronson’s Loose: The Making of the Death Wish Films has some really funny comments made by Winner about Brian Garfield. Michael Winner does a good job at showing NY for what it was in the 70s (though I felt William Lustig a native New Yorker did a better job at that with his 1983 film Vigilante). Unlike the sequels and knockoff films, Death Wish isn’t action packed and again when there is action it’s quite simple and effective, but outside of a couple of scenes, Winner crafts a well paced and powerful and gritty film and in many ways you can even see this as a borderline exploitation film though being made by a major studio in Paramount is what mainly keeps this from being seen as an exploitation film. The attack scene on Kersey’s wife and daughter is generally unsettling, but not quite as graphic as its reputation. Even in the era Death Wish was made I’ve seen films featuring scenes like this that were more unsettling, but with that said outside of some campy dialogue by the thugs the attack on Kersey’s family still packs a punch.
Death Wish features a couple of actors in bit roles that would later find major success; Jeff Goldblum plays one of the thugs that attacks Kersey’s family and Christopher Guest has a small role as a Patrolman, but the film also features Denzel Washington and his face is only seen very briefly and all these years of seeing the movie so many times I never realized Denzel was in this for the longest time and I just happened one day to notice him. For those who missed it he appears in about the 47-min mark appearing with 2 other men attacking another in an ally and than gets shot by Kersey.
Overall Death Wish is a terrific and powerful film perhaps again only brought down to a modern audience from all the knockoffs. But for me Death Wish remains a truly great film and would be followed by 4 sequels. The original was by far the best of the series, but I will admit I find the 2nd and 3rd films to be a bit more fun even if not as good as a whole. Death Wish is the holy grail of the vigilante film and easily ranks as one of my favorite Charles Bronson films.
Death Wish was released on blu-ray February 4th, 2014 by way of Warner Brothers after Paramount licensed the rights. The blu-ray release is for the 40th Anniversary Edition however the only feature is simply a trailer. The HD transfer is surprisingly excellent. Despite the popularity of the film and Charles Bronson I’m not sure how in demand the film is and more often than not films like Death Wish often get average HD quality and are usually the standard upgrade from DVD to blu-ray. But Warner does an excellent job and this makes for a very nice upgrade. While it may not exactly be demo worthy Death Wish looks terrific in HD and the audio track is also very strong. Despite the lack of extras the audio and video make it a worthy release.