DEATH WISH (1974) – The Dungeon Review!

I dig Charles Bronson. I love his delivery and the cadence in his speech that just begs to be badly imitated. There is a Simpson’s episode where the family end up in “Bronson” instead of “Branson” and everyone in the town, women and children included, look and sound like Charles Bronson. Quentin Tarantino references Charles Bronson digging tunnels in The Great Escape while explaining the meaning behind “Like A Virgin” in Reservoir Dogs. I don’t know if becoming a casual pop culture reference necessarily means you’ve achieved fame, but Bronson was certainly a household name when I was growing up. Mr. Bronson was in some of the best films to come out of the 60’s including the aforementioned The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen and one of the best films ever made, Once Upon A Time In The West. Bronson continued to be a busy man in the 70’s and one of his most successful entries from the decade was Death Wish. So successful, in fact, it birthed four sequels that carried on through the 80’s and 90’s.

The film opens with Paul and Joanna Kersey vacationing in Hawaii. It is only a brief scene but it is clearly established that the couple are happy, relaxed and in love. A very effective setup for the violence about to follow. After a long cab ride home in traffic it is back to the daily grind. Joanna and daughter Carol pick up groceries, which they decide to have delivered. A trio of troublemakers sneaks a peek at the address in the delivery box and decides to pay the ladies a visit. They show up at the door stating grocery delivery and barge their way in. When they learn the women only have a few dollars in their purses they viciously beat Joanna and manhandle and strip Carol forcing her to give one of them a blowjob and humiliate her further by spray-painting her bare ass. Joanna later dies in the hospital and Carol is so severely traumatized by the incident she is institutionalized. Paul tries his best to come to terms with the incident but the police give him no hope of ever finding the culprits. He is sent out of town to meet a client who gives him a gun as a departing gift. Once back in the city, Paul cannot escape the emptiness of his apartment and begins trolling the city at night. Initially, he cannot bring himself to use the cold steel and instead puts rolls of quarters into a sock and beats his first victim. He comes home shaking but inevitably satisfied. Paul eventually graduates to the gun, venturing out alone at night giving New York’s seedy underbelly a taste of his vigilante justice. The media soon picks up on this one-man crusade and the local population, already cynical of New York’s Police department begins hailing the unknown vigilante as a hero.

I had forgotten how nasty the attack on Joanna and Carol was. If there were ever a valid reason for vigilante justice this would certainly qualify. A truly ugly and unjustifiable crime for nothing more than a few dollars. But wouldn’t it have been more satisfying to go after the men who violated his daughter and killed his wife? They never even go there. Instead, Paul is content with killing random criminals who cross his path during his late-evening excursions. In the end, I just did not feel sated by this. Paul’s journey is nonetheless interesting as we watch him transform from a bleeding-heart liberal to violent vigilante. There is a short scene before Joanna and Carol are attacked where Paul has a conversation with a co-worker about the violence in New York. He updates Paul with an exaggerated figure of the murders that occurred while he and his wife were in Hawaii. It is Paul’s co-worker who refers to him as a “bleeding heart liberal” and when Paul admits his heart does indeed bleed for the underprivileged his buddy suggests the underprivileged should be put in concentration camps. What the hell is the deal with that? Kersey, your co-worker is a dick! Vigilante justice is a pretty common theme in 70’s flicks. Pam Grier has a line in Foxy Brown where she states Vigilante justice is as American as apple pie. Growing up in a safe Canadian suburb, the streets of New York in the 1970’s seem almost surreal to me. Death Wish is unapologetic about its violence and does its best to justify it. The more criminals Paul Kersey kills, the more the public reacts and the more satisfied the character appears. Paul Kersey manages to single-handedly reduce the crime rate in a matter of weeks, which is making the New York Police department look pretty incompetent. New Yorkers empowered by the vigilante are making the news with their own stories of justice. The police need to get this guy off the street but there are politics involved. The public will empathize with Paul’s story and the wave of dissatisfaction already brewing will come crashing down around them. I actually had empathy for Kersey but I found the arc in his character was stretched to the breaking point. In the end, I felt kinda unfulfilled that Kersey never really gets retribution for the horrible crime against his wife and daughter.

Death Wish has a nice steady pace and only clocks in around the 90ish minute mark. Charles Bronson, as always gives a memorable performance as Paul Kersey. They show a brief close up of Paul’s shaking face after he is told his wife has died and it is truly heart breaking. While I had some trouble buying the characters transformation it was still an interesting and watchable experience thanks to Bronson. After a rewatch of the original it actually irritates me a little that they even did a sequel, never mind four. I wonder why director Michael Winner made part 2 so many years after the original (Death Wish 2 came out in 1982). My guess is he wanted audiences to forget the little details. Granted, the ending does leave room for a sequel. We see Kersey land in Chicago, ready to start a new life only to see a woman have her packages knocked out of her hand by a group of ruffians. Kersey catches the eye of the group, smiles slyly and makes a gun motion with his fingers. Personally I could have lived without this ending. It just makes light of what is otherwise a serious film. There is a significant body count in the original but the drama is as relevant as the action. In the sequels Paul Kersey is nothing more than an automaton delivering violence.

Who could fault Paul Kersey for wanting retribution? Even though I could empathize with Kersey I had issue with his transformation throughout the film and wished his vengeance had left me more sated. Regardless, I enjoyed Death Wish. The film leans heavier towards crime drama than action but that isn’t a bad thing. Death Wish does have its share of compelling moments. Death Wish is a decent film with an appropriate gritty feel that is not without its strengths and Charles Bronson’s performance is worth the rental. Recommended.

Dungeon Rating: 3.5/5

Directed By: Michael Winner

Starring: Charles Bronson, Hope Lange, Vincent Gardenia, Steven Keats, William Redfield, Stuart Margolin, Stephen Elliott, Kathleen Tolan, Jack Wallace

6 Responses to “DEATH WISH (1974) – The Dungeon Review!”

  1. Holy crap, he *doesn’t* go after the guys that assaulted his wife?! My impression of this film has been fatally flawed for decades. Weird.

    • My own thoughts on this film had become pretty muddied, which is actually why I gave it a rewatch (well that and the whole 70’s theme thing I’ve got going on).

  2. Effin’ Goldblum

    • I had completely forgotten Goldblum had a small role in the film. Effin Goldblum indeed! Christopher Guest has a brief role as a cop also.

  3. totnespete Says:

    It would be too easy and clear-cut if Kersey had shot the actual bad guys who killed his wife, it would leave no dispute over rights and wrongs of his actions, better to have unrelated bad guys, leaving the question, is he justified?

    • Something Winner dispensed with in the Deathwish sequels & his other risible revenge fantasies ( Dirty Weekend, Parting Shots )…ambiguity, moral or otherwise, is not something you normally associate with Michael Winner’s egregious style of film making.

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