Death Wish [DVD]
Screenplay : Wendell Mayes (based on the novel by Brian Garfield)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1974
Stars : Charles Bronson (Paul Kersey), Hope Lange (Joanna Kersey), Vincent Gardenia (Frank Ochoa), Steven Keats (Jack Toby), William Redfield (Sam Kreutzer), Stuart Margolin (Ames Jainchill), Stephen Elliott (Police Commissioner), Kathleen Tolan (Carol Toby), Jack Wallace (Hank)
There is something undeniably appealing about Michael Winner's Death Wish. Even those who disagree with its knee-jerk vigilante ideology have a hard time denying its impact because the film digs deep and works on an almost subconscious level where ideals about fairness and justice devolve into a simple desire to see the wicked punished. Of course, who is deserving of that punishment is exactly the kind of nuance and complication that Death Wish bulldozes right over. In this film, the evil characters are unmistakably evil, and someone must put a stop to them.
In this case, it is a man named Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson). A structural engineer with a good job in New York, a loving wife, and a happily married daughter, Paul is identified early in the film as a "bleeding-heart liberal." His exact political views are never made entirely clear. All we know is that he has sympathy for the down-trodden and he served in the Korean War in the medial corps because he was a conscientious objector.
Paul's "liberal" outlook on life changes when his wife (Joanna Kersey) and daughter (Kathleen Tolan) are attacked by a group of hoodlums in his apartment. The men pose as delivery boys, then burst into the apartment. At first they are simply looking for money, but when they find a lack of cash, they intentions turn more sinister, as they batter and physically humiliate Paul's loved ones, beating his wife to death and raping his daughter and sending her into a catatonic state.
Paul's life is ripped apart by this event. To escape the oppressive urban environment, he takes a business trip to Tucson, Arizona. There, he witnesses a mock gunfight at Old Tucson, a reconstructed Western frontier town often used as a movie set (Rio Bravo was shot there), and is reintroduced to firearms by his Arizona business associate at a fancy gun club. After that, Paul decides to take matters into his own hands by prowling the mean streets of New York at night, inviting criminals to see him as a victim ripe for mugging. Of course, each time they try, whether it be in an alley, on a train, or in a park, Paul pulls his gun and puts the criminal down. Immediate vigilante justice: swift and final.
Screenwriter Wendell Mayes (Anatomy of a Murder) adapted Brian Garfield's 1972 novel, and in the process changed the narrative's ultimate trajectory. In Garfield's novel, vigilantism is seen in a negative light, while the film version of Death Wish is unmistakable in its romanticizing of Paul's taking the law into his own hands. Paul is portrayed as a decent man who tried to be sympathetic, but was literally forced into his role as avenging angel. The fact that those who meet his particular brand of justice are unquestionably evil--soulless criminals who seem to relish the fear they cause in their victims--only adds to the attractiveness of Paul's mission. This is further compounded by the fact that the police develop a grudging admiration for the media-dubbed "Vigilante," and the mayor can't help but notice that Paul's activities cause muggings to drop by almost 50%.
That Death Wish is essentially a simple-minded vigilante fantasy is obvious. There is literally no room for an intellectual or philosophical defense of its ideological stance. Yet, what makes the film interesting is that its stance is really, in effect, no different from that taken by just about every Western you can name. Is there really much of a difference between Charles Bronson meting out justice on the streets of New York and Gary Cooper, John Wayne, or Clint Eastwood doing the same thing in mining towns and frontier outposts of the Old West?
Granted, one can argue that times have changed, that the violence of the Old West was particular to that time and place and should not be replicated in a contemporary setting. And, while that is all well and true, it does not, in any way, deflate the mythological undercurrents of "righteous justice" that transcend the slow, bureaucratic processes of the state and give Westerns and vigilante movies like Death Wish their undeniable kick. Most of the heroes of the Old West were sheriffs, but it was rare that any of them operated completely within the realm of proscribed law. The central message of all these narratives seems to be that desperate times call for desperate measures, and it is always a lone outsider who ends up getting the job done.
Ideology aside, Death Wish is nothing if not a specific product of its time. The late 1960s was a time in which street crime was reaching near epidemic proportions, and Hollywood responded with reactionary, quasi-fascist films like Death Wish, Dirty Harry (1971), and The French Connection (1971). Characters like Paul Kersey fill a deep-seated fantasy that most people are wise enough not to try to fulfill themselves. He is the epitome of cathartic excess on the big screen, a means by which viewers could, for two hours at least, revel in the enjoyment of seeing unequivocal badness punished with righteous intensity. It seemed almost inevitable that such a character would emerge after the late-1960s fascination with elevating folk criminals, from Bonnie and Clyde (1967) to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), to mythic status.
In terms of form and style, Death Wish does have a few clumsy moments. The early scenes in which Paul is labeled a liberal are clunky and obvious; wouldn't it have been more interesting for him to explain some of his political views than to have a co-worked say, "Oh, Paul, you really are a bleeding-heart liberal!"? Also, the attack scene on his wife and daughter would have been more effective if we had known them more intimately as characters. Unfortunately, they are simply narrative tools that are used to send Paul into vigilante mode.
Much of the film, though, is thoroughly effective. Director Michael Winner stages each of Paul's confrontations like a showdown between fed-up decency and complete depravity. The entire last half of the film is filled with little except Paul shooting criminals as they try to rob him. Yet, each confrontation is staged with such primal effectiveness that it still gets your blood pumping, even if you mind is screaming at the primitive silliness of it all.
|Death Wish DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Supplements||Original theatrical trailer|
|Presented in a new anamorphic transfer, the 1.85:1 widescreen image on this DVD is about as good as one could expect for a mid-1970s film, short of full restoration. The scenes that take place in daylight look very good, with solid color saturation, good contrast, and a relatively high level of detail (I'm thinking particularly about the opening scene on the Hawaiian beach and all the outdoor scenes in Arizona). The scenes at night (which comprise most of the film) are a little bit more problematic, as film grain becomes quite evident and the black levels often appear either too murky, thus cutting into the detail, or they get gray toward the edges. None of this is overly distracting, though, especially because it tends to add to the film's gritty, urban feel.|
|The soundtrack, which is presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural, sounds quite good. The soundtrack is clean and clear with almost no aural artifacts, and Herbie Hancock's score, which ranges from traditional orchestral arrangements to funky, jazzy riffs (some of which, in my opinion, sound terribly misplaced), is always sounds clear and vibrant. Some of the sound effects comes off as a bit tinny, though, especially some of the gunshots, which are decidedly lacking in punch. Dialogue throughout is always clear and understandable.|
|The only included supplement is an original theatrical trailer presented in anamorphic widescreen.|