Sunday, 5 February 2012

Death Wish (1974)

Everyone already knows the concept of Death Wish. Sort of. It's a Dirty Harry film with one big difference, the lead character isn't a policeman. In fact, he's an architect. But he's played by the legendary Charles Bronson so believing that he can hold and shoot a gun is very easy.

Bronson plays Paul Kersey, a man driven to dark thoughts of revenge after his world is torn apart by a trio of vicious thugs. Kersey begins to consider the state of society and what can be done when the law doesn't seem to be doing enough. Ironically, considering that Bronson has the main role, he starts to see how much better the world could be if things were still done "the cowboy way". And so he becomes a vigilante. And a damn fine one.

Directed by Michael Winner, and written by Wendell Mayes (adapting the novel by Brian Garfield), it's surprising how thought-provoking and effective Death Wish remains to this day. The issue at the core of the movie is one that pops up in almost every pub conversation you could listen in on ever. People want to feel safe, they want criminals to be too afraid to commit crimes, and they often verbally admit to the temptation of vigilante justice. Some have even, sadly, followed up their words with misguided actions.

The whole thing is lifted way above average by a sterling central performance from Charles Bronson (an actor I once stupidly failed to see the superstar status in . . . . . . I have since given myself a severe talking to). As Paul Kersey, Bronson's performance enhances the material no end and his transformation from happy architect to brooding vigilante, who still keeps his day job in the world of architecture, is shown in a fairly believable series of steps.

The rest of the cast consist of little more than people giving opinions on the mystery vigilante or scumbags waiting to be shot. Vincent Gardenia is the other standout, the cop who ends up in a very peculiar situation. And it's certainly worth watching the movie if you're a Jeff Goldblum fan, just to see his very first screen role even if it only adds up to a few minutes of screentime.

The film certainly makes a case for some of the "justice" administered onscreen but I have to say that it also, admirably, also shows Kersey as a damaged man, someone dealing with pain in a very bad way and who then finds himself in a spiral of almost addictive behaviour. If you've never seen Death Wish and only heard of it as some sensationalistic, violent, pro-gun advert then do yourself a favour and watch it for yourself before dismissing it as some others have done.



  1. DEATH WISH is a real classic, and it is a lot more subtle and thoughtful than its reputation suggests. After his first encounter with a mugger, he becomes physically ill. As the film continues, he begins to embrace his role as "the Vigilante," and to pour self-righteous energy into it as the spirit spreads. But as we get toward the end, it seems to be taking a toll on his sanity. He starts taking incredible risks to continue his killing spree, and the classic last shot of the picture suggests a fellow who has totally succumbed to his darker impulses. He isn't Paul Kersey anymore; he's The Vigilante.

    I like the look of the movie. it's shot in that very naturalistic documentary style common to '70s crime pictures. The city is a crime-ridden hell-hole, strewn with garbage, covered with graffiti, and with danger lurking around every corner. Bronson, common with actors who rose to prominence in this era, doesn't look like a movie-star--he just looks like a regular joe, and is perfect in the part.

  2. Yes, I absolutely agree. I myself put off watching the movie for so long because of the "reputation" it had and the media shorthand it became. And I could honestly kick myself for those times when I used to ask "why the hell does Charles Bronson have so many fans anyway?"
    He was a hell of a guy, Once Upon A Time In The West is the film that won me over (though I'd always really liked The Mechanic).