Pop Rewind: ‘Death Wish’

Vigilante film reveals flaws, firepower with new view

by Christian Toto | Updated 20 Jul 2015 at 7:45 AM

The 1974 film “Death Wish” features indifferent acting, overt talking points masquerading as dialogue and a leading man seemingly at the tail end of his career.

3705_thumbSo how did “Death Wish” cause such a sensation upon its release, and why does it still represent the granddaddy of vigilante films?

Today’s moviegoers don’t flinch when Liam Neeson or Denzel Washington take out the trash without a badge. In 1974, when crime rate statistics invaded local newspapers, movie vigilantes weren’t the norm. So the sight of a middle-aged Everyman dispatching thugs, even if he looked as strapping as Charles Bronson, proved a sensation.

Not everyone clamored for the vigilante thriller. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby led the outrage, dubbing it a “despicable movie, one that raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers.”

Society survived, of course, even though “Death Wish” spawned four sequels. The original is still the one that counts, despite its innumerable flaws.

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Architect Paul Kersey (Bronson) took a liberal approach to modern life before a trio of thugs killed his wife (Hope Lange) and raped his daughter. Suddenly, Paul’s views wilt as he realizes the consequences of pacifism.

Vincent Canby dubbed “Death Wish” a “despicable movie…. [which] offers bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers.”

A vigilante hero — and a media sensation — is born. Every newspaper and magazine is suddenly obsessed with vigilantism. Can a New York City cop who laughs at the rules (crusty character actor Vincent Gardenia) put an end to Paul’s shooting spree?

“Death Wish” was inspired by the novel of the same name by Brian Garfield. The author imagined a more critical look at vigilante justice. Bronson’s movie all but celebrates Paul’s attempts to be judge, jury, and executioner. Crime rates plummet after Paul embraces his vigilante side. That sparks the film’s complicated subplot — how both police and local government react to the new anti-hero in town.

The violence that sets Paul into motion is brutal by both 1974 and 2015 standards. Shot in a style reminiscent of “A Clockwork Orange,” the attack on Paul’s family is unrelenting and raw. It’s pure ‘70s filmmaking, and aided by Herbie Hancock’s ripe score it leaves a scar.

Only Bronson isn’t ready to reveal those wounds. The actor isn’t known for his dramatic work, but here he’s almost comatose. Paul rarely shows emotion, and even a tightly wound character would reveal shades of torment the actor can’t muster.

The actor isn’t known for his dramatic work, but here he’s almost comatose.

Meanwhile, Gardenia’s cop unlawfully breaks into Paul’s home, suggesting the boundaries between right and wrong are so blurred it takes a vigilante to set things right.

The cultural markers come early and often in “Death Wish.”

“You’re such a bleeding-heart liberal, Paul,” his boss tells him early in the film as they bat around the latest crime figures. We hear Kersey talking about the high cost of living … minutes later he’s a widower. Social chaos was academic to him … before. Later, the screenplay lays out the problem in capital letters — the dead and dying are just statistics. Regular folk are helpless. Not Paul.

Future “Death Wish” films cranked up the vengeance meter, but the original flashes a maturity that suits the material. Even when his revenge meter turns on the violence isn’t glamorized or shown in any less detail. When Paul kills a mugger we see the man’s body twitch in a garish manner. Later, Paul runs to his bathroom where he promptly throws up in the toilet. Those moments are as powerful as any other element in the film.

It’s not hard to imagine “Death Wish” becoming a social media sensation today, with viewers picking sides like a political debate. That the movie still packs an emotional wallop despite its laundry list of flaws, speaks to something integral in its cinematic DNA that’s impossible to deny.

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