Most people think of DEATH WISH as just another 70’s revenge/exploitation flick, right? Nope. Far from it. Sure, there’s loads of graphic violence, but this gem of a movie contains just as much political commentary as ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, with an added dose of black comedy to boot. The film had its finger firmly placed on the pulse of 1970’s America, with all its fear and paranoia about rampant urban crime, and is among the decade’s best.
Director Michael Winner and star Charles Bronson had made three films together up to that time: the revisionist Western CHATO’S LAND, the actioner THE MECHANIC , and the cops-vs-Mafia drama THE STONE KILLER . All were hits with the drive-in crowd, and helped Bronson go from supporting player to major star. Strangely enough, Bronson wasn’t the first actor considered for the part of Paul Kersey. Jack Lemmon was original choice, and that would’ve been an interesting interpretation, but the role ended up in Charlie’s firm hands, and he made it his own.
Architect Paul and his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) return from an idyllic Hawaiian vacation to grimy, crime infested New York City. They have a good life, but that life is shattered when Joanna and daughter Carol are followed home from the grocery store by three young punks (one of whom is future star Jeff Goldbum, making his film debut), who break into their apartment, brutally raping Carol and killing Joanna. The scene is graphic and uncomfortable to sit through, causing critics of the era to condemn it, but that savagery is necessary to understanding Paul’s motivation.
Tired and frustrated by police efforts and living in daily fear, Paul decides to take matters into his own hands with a sockful of quarters, then is sent by his boss to Tuscon, where he meets Western developer Ames Jainchill. We learn Paul served in Korea as a medic (and conscientious objector). We also learn quiet, peaceful Paul is more than familiar with guns. A trip to a Wild West show gives him ideas, and a going away present from Jainchill gives him the means to carry them out…
Bronson’s Paul Kersey is not just a cardboard vigilante. After his first kill, Paul is sickened by what he’s done, going home and immediately vomiting. As he gains more confidence in believing his actions are justified, he comes to think of himself as a Wild West bounty hunter mowing down bad guys (and there are several allusions to Western films throughout the movie). Bronson walks a fine line here, and gives what I think is his best performance. True, Kersey becomes a murderous Avenging Angel, but ask yourself these questions: What if you were in his shoes? What if it were YOUR wife and daughter?
Two of my favorite 70’s character actors are in DEATH WISH: Steven Keats and Stuart Margolin. Keats made a memorable first impression in the Boston-lensed neo-noir THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE opposite Robert Mitchum, and went on to act in THE GAMBLER, HESTER STREET, BLACK SUNDAY , SILENT RAGE, and the TV miniseries SEVENTH AVENUE and THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG. Here he plays Kersey’s meek son-in-law Jack, whose response to the tragedy is much different than Paul’s, to say the least. Keats was a fine actor who tragically committed suicide in 1994, and doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his work these days.
Margolin is a Familiar Face to fans of TV’s THE ROCKFORD FILES; he played James Garner’s former cellmate Angel, a con artist who frequently got Jim into trouble (winning two Emmys for his efforts). As Jainchill, Margolin plays a brief but essential part as the Westerner who sets Paul’s behavior into motion. He’s best known for his television work, both as an actor and director, but his feature films include KELLY’S HEROES, FUTUREWORLD, DAYS OF HEAVEN, and S.O.B. He’s still acting, recently appearing on the revival of THE X-FILES. Both these men would make interesting Familiar Faces posts (hmmm… ).
Another great character actor, Vincent Gardenia, plays cynical NYC cop Frank Ochoa, assigned to hunt down the vigilante. Ochoa is enmeshed with the political ramifications of capturing the mysterious shooter, whose actions are popular with the public at large, having caused the crime rate to drastically drop in the Big Apple. The Emmy and Tony winning, Oscar nominated (BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY, MOONSTRUCK) Gardenia is well remembered by 70’s audiences for his role as Frank Lozenzo, neighbor of TV’s Archie Bunker on ALL IN THE FAMILY. Plenty of other recognizable performers ply their trade as well: Paul Dooley, Olympia Dukakis, Stephen Elliott, Christopher Guest, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Eric Laneuville, Al Lewis (aka Grandpa Munster!), Sonia Marzano (SESAME STREET’s Maria), and William Redfield.
Wendell Mayes’ script doesn’t judge Kersey one way or the other, letting the audience make their own decisions, and the writer of THE ENEMY BELOW, ANATOMY OF A MURDER, VON RYAN’S EXPRESS, and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE pulls it off with style. DP Arthur Ornitz gives viewers a bleak, uncompromising look at New York’s mean streets, and I absolutely love Herbie Hancock’s jazzy score. Critics of the time loathed and reviled DEATH WISH, but theater owners packed ’em in, as the film really resonated with audiences, and still does today. DEATH WISH spawned a slew of vigilante movies that became a sub-genre in themselves, but none truly caught the zeitgeist of the times like this one. It also spawned four sequels, which are enjoyable but not nearly on a par with the original. It also spawned a 2018 remake starring Bruce Willis and directed by Eli Roth, but like I always say, ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby! No matter which side of the coin you’re on, you’ve got to admit DEATH WISH is an important film that ranks with the best of the decade, not to mention damn entertaining!