During the 1970’s cop dramas were well established cinema mainstays with such hits as The French Connection (1971), Serpico (1973) and The Seven-Ups (1973). The renegade cop concept was explored in Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry (1971) but it was Charles Bronson in Death Wish which exploded vigilantism in the form of citizen rebellion to the forefront.
Laying on an idyllic tropical beach, middle aged couple Paul Kersey (Bronson) and his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) are savouring the last moments of their romantic vacation. We then cut to the stark contrast of them back in overcrowded New York city, sitting in gridlocked traffic amid incessant sirens, under the soot and smog skyline.
With Paul back at work as architect in a large firm, a trio of young punks note the home address after Joanna and their newlywed daughter leave a grocery store leaving behind an order to have their purchases delivered. Posing as the delivery boy, the thugs burst into the apartment and proceed to dole out one of the most brutal and realistic rape and beating scenes ever filmed – even eclipsing that in A Clockwork Orange.
With his wife now dead, his daughter in a catatonic shock tormented by screaming fits when touched, Paul’s life is forever changed. He takes notice of his surroundings, punctuated by violence, fear lurking in every nook and cranny, and now suspicious of every encounter. His newfound anxiety leads him to carry a coin filled sock which soon comes in handy when he is confronted by mugger. With the basic weapon he manages to repel the hood, but more importantly gains a bit of fortitude and courage.
On a business trip to Arizona his associate (Stuart Margolin) treats him to a visit to a wild west frontier amusement park where cowboy gun battles are recreated, reminding him of how old style justice was meted with a gun as much as in a courtroom. Later at a shooting range he demonstrates his crack shot marksmanship to his friend explaining his instruction by his hunter father, but also how an incident in his past has made him renounce the use of guns, going so far as to being classified as conscientious objector during the Korean war. But his associate believes otherwise gives him a surprise parting gift of a revolver just as he embarks on his way back to New York.
Conflicted but also emboldened, Paul visits Central Park late one night, baiting the muggers in the notorious fertile urban jungle. As expected he makes his first kill, and retreats back home where he vomits in shock and revulsion. But the revulsion is temporary and Paul soon adopts regular hunting forays into the night.
Piecing together crime scene evidence the police soon figure out that they have a vigilante on their hands and lieutenant Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) leads the investigation. The news that a vigilante is running around the city makes national headline news with billboards and magazine covers marking the event and energizing the city. But the police and municipal leaders try to downplay the conspicuous guardian worrying about copycats and others taking up arms while noting that muggers themselves have taken notice with a marked decrease in crime. The question remains, is the vigilante a hero or a criminal? And what will they do with him when they do catch him?
A lot of the success of the movie was that it hit on a very real crime problem that was rampant in many large cities at the time, New York being a poster child for murders having tripled its rate in the years between 1960 and the mid 70’s. The fear exemplified by Paul was real and seeing something being done, even if only in a movie, was somehow satisfying. The philosophical questions it raises regarding the morality of vigilantism and self defense remain as relevant today as it was then.
With convincing acting and realistic, savage scenes, Death Wish still holds today as the seminal vigilante film and satisfies from the very beginning up to the memorable, final finger pointing gun and smirk on Bronson’s face. As you watch, keep you eye out for a number of future stars playing minor roles.
With three of the four sequels sitting on my DVD shelves I also watched some of them, none coming close to this film, and each stretching the concept further into mediocrity and which play out more like extended cop show episodes than feature films.
On a parting note I have just learned that Bruce Willis is set to star in a reboot directed by Eli Roth – noted for the Cabin Fever and Hostel series of horror movies -set to be released this year. Not sure what to make of that but it will still be tough to match this original.