Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Film Appreciation - 40 Years of a Vigilante Vendetta

Cody Hamman has Film Appreciation for Death Wish as it celebrates its 40th anniversary.

The idea for Death Wish was born out author Brian Garfield's anger and frustration when the rampant crime in New York City struck home on two separate occasions for himself and his wife. They were robbed, their property was vandalized, and for a brief moment, Garfield had the thought that he'd like to kill those responsible. That urge passed, but the thought stuck with him, and he began to write a story about a man who gives in to the murderous impulse he feels after his wife and daughter are brutally attacked.

Garfield's novel Death Wish was published in 1972 and the film rights were bought by a pair of producers soon after. The novel was adapted into a screenplay first by Oscar-nominated writer Wendell Mayes, with his script later receiving an uncredited polish by Gerald Wilson. The project drew very little interest from studios, who felt it was too violent, the subject matter too politically incorrect. It was rejected and shelved, but eventually saved by producer Dino De Laurentiis, who got it funded and set up at Paramount.

Director Sidney Lumet was at one point attached to bring Death Wish to life, but when he moved on to make Serpico instead, Michael Winner signed on. Several actors were considered for the part of the lead vigilante character, but there were disagreements over what sort of actor was appropriate, and there were some who, like the studios, turned the role down due to disgust with the story and the violence. Those who were considered or received offers included Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Lee Marvin, Dustin Hoffman, and Henry Fonda. Ultimately, the role ended up going to an actor who Winner had just worked with three times in the last couple years on Chato's Land (1972), The Mechanic (1972), and The Stone Killer (1973): Charles Bronson.

Unlike some others who had gotten the offer before him, Bronson had no problem with the subject matter. In fact, when Winner first brought it up to him, Bronson famously said he'd like to shoot muggers himself.

Garfield's lead character had originally been an overweight CPA named Paul Benjamin, but for the fit and tough-looking Bronson, he was changed into an architect named Paul Kersey. What remains is that the character is a pacifist, referred to as a "bleeding heart liberal" by some, a man with empathy for the under-privileged and who took his belief in non-violence as far as being a conscientious objector when he served in the Korean War.

Kersey's outlook on life is turned upside down when his wife and twenty-something daughter are brutally attacked by a trio of punks who follow them back to the Kersey apartment after getting their address off a delivery slip at the grocery store. Very over-the-top in their behavior, so drugged out of their minds that they barely function as human beings, the punks (one of whom is played by Jeff Goldblum in his film debut) arrive at the apartment with the intention of robbing the women, but when they don't get enough money from them for their liking, they take it out on them by beating them up and assaulting Kersey's daughter sexually. His wife is beaten so badly that she dies soon after arriving at the hospital. His daughter is so traumatized that she's left catatonic.

Mentally and emotionally shattered by this experience and loss, upset at how little hope there seems to be that the police will find the people responsible, suddenly feeling overwhelmed by the amount of crime in the city, Kersey arms himself with a sock filled with twenty dollars worth of quarters while he goes around town. This weighty sock comes in handy when a man tries to mug him one night. After beating the man down, Kersey is disturbed and shaky, but also exhilarated. Striking back clearly felt good to him.

A business trip to Arizona gets Kersey more in tune with the gun culture and cowboy mentality, and when he returns to New York he takes a stroll around the city after dark... this time not armed with quarters, but with a nickel plated revolver gifted to him by his Arizonian client. His walk results in another attempted mugging, this one ending with the mugger being shot by Kersey. Shooting a man, understandably, has an even stronger effect on Kersey than the beating with quarters did, he even vomits when he gets back home. But he's not done. Not even close.

Kersey is soon a full-fledged vigilante, stalking the streets with his revolver, presenting himself as an easy target to criminals and then gunning down anyone who takes the bait. He never does come in contact with Goldblum's group, a choice out of the ordinary for a story of this sort. Typically, the entire point of a revenge movie is the tracking down and elimination of the specific person or people who were directly responsible for the act that got things started. But Kersey doesn't know who attacked his wife and daughter, he wouldn't even know them if he saw them. He can't get revenge on them, so he's getting revenge on crime in general, burying his pain in violence. One of the criminals he kills along the way is played by another big time actor making his film debut, Denzel Washington.

As Kersey starts racking up quite a bodycount, he catches the attention of the police force, with Detective Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) being assigned to lead a special team with the sole purpose of tracking down this vigilante. There's not much the police can do about what happened to the Kersey women, but they certainly put great effort into catching Paul.

Director Winner and cinematographer Arthur J. Ornitz present the film in a very straightforward, matter-of-fact, real world manner, perfectly capturing the grit and grime of  1970s New York City. Laid over their images is a score composed by jazz musician Herbie Hancock that is alternately tense, unnerving, and jazzy.

Death Wish first hit theatres in July of 1974, and while  critics reacted to the film in the same way many others did before them, finding the story to be repugnant, dangerous, violence-applauding trash, the idea of a man waging a personal war against crime struck a chord with moviegoers, who turned the movie into a hit.

Charles Bronson already had twenty-five years of credits to his name before this, but playing Paul Kersey is what finally made him a bankable star in the U.S. marketplace. Death Wish bolstered Bronson's career, so he remained faithful to the franchise, returning to star in four sequels that were made over the next twenty years.

The sequels are all entertaining in their own right and have their fans, but forty years on the original remains a hard-hitting, often troubling crime drama that deals with issues that are still relevant in today's world. It's a well made, well written film with great performances, and as time has gone on it has gained more respect as a cinematic achievement. It still holds up, and if you're considering taking in a 40th anniversary viewing of it this year, I highly recommend that you do.


  1. Nice write up. From cast to cinematography to score, this film is a classic in it's genre.