Charles Bronson Film Festival: Death Wish

I don’t know what I did, but the completed post for “Death Wish” disappeared this morning. I was trying to copy it over to the other site and BOOM it was gone. So now I have to do the best i can to recreate my original comments on this iconic Charles Bronson Film.

Charles Bronson had starred in some of the biggest action movies of the 1960s, including the “Magnificent Seven”, “the Great Escape” and “The Dirty Dozen”. He was an international box office star at the turn of the decade, but he had not reached those heights in the United States. His name may appear above the title, but he was not necessarily a draw…until this movie happened. His fourth film with Director Michael Winner, turned out to be the biggest hit of both their careers. While a blessing in some ways, it was also the start of a path that would narrow Bronson’s options as an actor down the road. There were four sequels to this project, all of them ultimately made money but none of them had the impact of the original “Death Wish”.

The movie was successful not simply because it was an effective exploitation film. It tapped into zeitgeist of the 1970s, crime in the big city. NYC was the poster child for violent criminals gone wild. Just a few years before, Clint Eastwood and company were accused of facism and advocating vigilantism because of similar themes. While “Dirty Harry” is a classic of the era, when it comes to touching off controversy, it was nothing compared to this movie. Here is the last line of the New York Times Review from 1974 (Vincent Canby) “it’s a despicable movie, one that raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers.”  The Variety said “Poisonous incitement to do-it-yourself law enforcement is the vulgar exploitation hook on which Death Wish is awkwardly hung.” It returned seven times it’s budget in the U.S. alone however. Clearly the public saw something here that stirred them. The answer was pretty straightforward, Charles Bronson was dealing out the justice that was so frequently denied to victims of crime in those days. They identified with Paul Kersey, a peaceful man who had actually been a conscientious objector in his war service, who had the most horrifying thing happen to his family and the cops were unable to do anything about it.

In an attempt to recover some sense of sanity, Kersey takes a contract over from his architecture firm for a development in Arizona. The developer wants a design that is maybe less space effective but that preserves the sense of space a family might like to have. Stuart Margolin had appeared with Bronson in an earlier Micheal Winner Film, “The Stone Killer”, there he was an mercenary working as a gangland assassin, but in this film he is an avuncular traditionalist who gives Kersey an opportunity to feel empowered.

In Arizona they do some target shooting, but when he gets back to NY, Kersey discovers that the gift his new friend has sent back with him is a gun.The story however does not immediately turn Bronson into a stone cold killer. First he gets a taste of simple justice by defending himself with nothing more than a sock with a couple of rolls of quarters in it. When he fends off a mugger successfully, he gleefully swings his weapon around his apartment with enthusiasm. It is this first rush of control that pushes him toward carrying his new six shooter around at night. Kersey is not hunting the hoods who attacked his family, he is fighting back for all of us and it created an uproar in the film story as well as the real world.

The consequence of swift justice, in spite of it’s illegal nature, is that muggers begin to second guess themselves. This has always been one of the arguments gun rights advocates have made, if everyone is disarmed, we are all potential victims, if anyone could be armed the criminal is more likely to be the victim.  In one of the few moments of humor in the film, a grandmother type tells a TV news crew how she was inspired by the vigilante and used a hatpin to fight off her attackers. It will amuse us but it frightens the police who see random acts of violence as likely to result in the name of just such vigilance.

One of the things that makes the story feel necessary to the audience is the fact that an average person is unlikely to get justice, after all the investigation of the crimes against Kersey’s wife and daughter is going nowhere. The police though, turn a dogged detective loose on the vigilante, and the procedural in looking for that criminal seems very effective. Vincent Gardenia, in the same year that he was nominated for supporting actor in “Band the Drum Slowly”, tackles the part of a cop who is given conflicting orders. He must find the vigilante but should do nothing that would harm the downward trend of violence that the vigilante has left in his wake.

Ochoa tumbles onto Kersey and plays a cat and mouse game with him as Kersy continues to rid the city of as much vermin as he can find. The violence quotient in the film is high and Bronson’s character goes out of his way several times to find criminals that he can eliminate. In a scene on a New York Subway, that anticipates Bernie Goetz by 10 years, Kersey rides alone in a subway car, baiting three thugs to attack him but he turns the tables on them dramatically.

This is one of those lines the film asks us to consider, if we deliberately make ourselves a target, are we justified in our actions. Of course the film’s answer to this is a resounding “YES!” The audience knows who the bad guys are. The likelihood is that, today,  the film would also be targeted as racist because the actors cast as thugs are primarily from the usual ethic groups that get blamed for crime. In the 70s though, audience were less concerned about being culturally sensitive and were instead freaking out that the violent crime rate had tripled. They needed a character they could identify with to help them feel empowered if only for an hour and a half.This movie fit the bill and Bronson’s performance helps us make that identification. He reacts to his own violence the first time the way many of us would, by puking. Kersey is an early sufferer of PTSD and his way of coping is to act, even if it is not against the specific criminals responsible for his trauma.

Director Winner moves the action effectively and stages the final conflict between Kersy and the last set of thugs as if an old west shootout were in the offing. Some might get the feeling from the look of the movie that this was a cheap exploitation film, but if you compare the lighting, sets and atmosphere, you could easily confuse it  with one of Sidney Lumet’s urban thrillers of the era. NYC is gritty and dangerous, there are places where you would not want to be on your own, and the movie conveys this very well. The dialogue exchange between Ocha and Kersey recalls an ultimatum given by a sheriff in the old west, another deliberate choice that works well and provides a little humor.

Jeff Goldbloom and Christopher Guest both have small roles in the film, very early in their careers. Charles Bronson would have his biggest success in America with this film and almost all of his obituaries probably started with a reference to this icon of 1970s cinema.  Intellectually, there are valid reasons to question the ethics the film sets forth, but most people living in fear of just walking out the front door did not want an intellectual debate on law and order. They wanted to feel safer. For the run time of this film, Charles Bronson made them feel that way.

4 thoughts on “Charles Bronson Film Festival: Death Wish

  1. Certainly a film of its time that grabbed the audience and their fears and channeled it into box office gold. But, I’d have to agree that this started Bronson down a path that limited the roles he got, or had success in. There are some marvelous ones almost all but forgotten because they weren’t ‘Death Wish’.

  2. Sure I’m a Bronson fan and have been for years collecting all the original one sheets and lobbies as well as whatever else seemed to turn up …… but I really wish I could turn the clock back and have experienced this in a movie theater circa 1974. From what one reads it had to be one heck of a viewing experience with the right crowd.

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