For his fourth film under the direction of Michael Winner, Charles Bronson, scored his most famous role, one that would have a lasting impact on many of his subsequent characterizations. That of the modern day vigilante. It’s also this film that would cement his growing popularity in North America after finally breaking through to stardom overseas in the late 60’s and early 70’s following years of movies and television work from 1951 onward.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the movie adapted from the Brian Garfield novel of the same name, Death Wish, is the story of a man who turns to the streets with a gun in hand following the brutal murder of his wife and rape of his daughter leaving her in a permanent state of shock. His target? Muggers. Plain and simple. As notorious as this film may be due to the violence and questions surrounding just what it has to say to the viewer, I believe it’s a far better movie than it’s ever really given credit for. Too often it’s referred to as another typical Bronson revenge flick. Easy to say when we look back from the vantage point of four sequels aimed at the exploitation market and most of the Cannon films Bronson put out during the 1980’s. Gives one pause to wonder what we’d think of the film if Jack Lemmon had gone ahead with Sidney Lumet and filmed their version of the story. Yes I said Jack Lemmon!
“We’re too civilized.”
Upon returning from a Hawaiian vacation with his wife Hope Lange, Bronson, finds himself back in the Big Apple where he’s employed as an architect. The streets of New York are a stark contrast to the time spent on the beach. Sunny and bright versus dreary and cold. The soundtrack from Herbie Hancock moves from the sounds of the islands to a grinding score as the film’s title appears over the skyline of the city. Within minutes of the film’s opening, Miss Lange’s elongated cameo will come to an end in the film’s most disturbing scene. She and her daughter played by Kathleen Tolan are the victims of a home invasion at the hands of three warped thugs. Lange is beaten to death and Tolan is brutally assaulted.
Unlike most revenge flicks to come this doesn’t launch Bronson into the streets shooting everything in sight as was the case in what has now become somewhat of a cult classic, Death Wish 3. What it does do is open Bronson’s eyes to the violence around him that he’s not come face to face with in the past. While his daughter is losing her sanity and his son-in-law played by Steven Keats is wallowing in pity, Bronson, moves on with his life finding an outlet through his work where he has William Redfield as a pal. It’s an assignment to Tucson, Arizona that will change his attitude on how to fight back and revert to the ways of the old west.
It’s here he meets Stuart Margolin who delivers a wonderful performance as a land developer and all around modern day cowboy. Following a day’s work he’ll take Bronson to a gun club in one of the film’s best scenes. And don’t tell me Bronson couldn’t act – he’s sensational here as he relates the story of his father and why he’s never picked up a gun in years resulting in his conscientious objector status during the Korean Conflict.
“Muggers out here? They just plain get their asses blown off.”
Stern words from Margolin and one that plants a seed in the mind of our mourning widower as he heads back to New York. Checking the mail he finds the photos he took of Hope Lange on the beach and in his luggage a gift from Margolin. A .32 pistol ready to fire. And our vigilante is born.
Again this isn’t an all out action flick. The first killing leaves Bronson vomiting in the bathroom but he’ll soon find himself and gain in confidence as he becomes an avenger in the night rescuing the misfortunate and astutely setting himself up as a would be victim on subways by flashing money in all the right/wrong places.
He’ll also take pleasure in his rise to fame despite no one knowing his true identity. In the public’s eye he’s The Vigilante and he’s basking in the glory. This opens the door to another fine turn by Vincent Gardenia as the Inspector assigned to find him but at the same time NOT bring him to justice. After all muggings have dropped from 950 a week to 470 and the mayor and commissioner need to keep it that way.
“We don’t want him.”
Once Gardenia believes he has his man it’s a matter of scaring him off. After the final shoot out we’re left with a great line from our mustached icon when he’s told to get out of town …. “By sundown?” This will lead to that unforgettable image of Bronson at the fade out promising a sign of things to come for those breaking the law in the Chicago area even if it did take 8 years for the first sequel to appear which was filmed in L.A.
If we want to compare this film to the 4 sequels that followed in the 1980’s and 90’s, the one thing that has always stood out for me and did so again on this most recent rewatch is that the original is less an action film than it is a character study offering Bronson a very good role at this point in his career. I’d also add Bronson’s face is effectively lit and captured in close up at various points throughout the film’s 93 minute running time. Parts 2 through 5 may be entertaining depending on your personal tastes but are in no way to be taken seriously when compared to the first film in the series. They’re over the top shoot’em ups that by the time they were made fed directly into the Bronson image. The stone faced gun toting avenger who attractive women should never enter into a relationship with.
Michael Winner would direct parts 2 and 3 while frequent Bronson collaborator J. Lee Thompson stepped in for part 4 leaving Allan Goldstein to helm the filmed in Toronto series finale, Death Wish V. But Hollywood does love a reboot so along comes Bruce Willis in the modern day remake.
Not being of movie going age in 1974 I can only say I’d love to have been there to see the reactions of big city movie goers who according to the history books stood and applauded when Bronson would dispatch the street vermin who preyed upon the innocent and yes that is Jeff Goldblum in his film debut murdering and assaulting Bronson’s family. He’d return in a very similar role attempting to kill Bronson himself in the highly entertaining 1976 film, St. Ives.
There’s a great story of Death Wish relayed in Michael Winner’s autobiography about his and Bronson’s decision to make the film ….. After finishing The Stone Killer (1973), Charles Bronson and I wanted to make another film together, and were discussing further projects. “What do we do next?” asked Bronson. “The best script I’ve got is ‘Death Wish’. It’s about a man whose wife and daughter are mugged and he goes out and shoots muggers,” I said. “I’d like to do that,” Bronson said. “The film?” I asked. Bronson replied, “No . . . shoot muggers.”
For the trivia buffs, keep your eyes peeled on the posters in the gun club that Margolin and Bronson visit. That Lawman poster on the wall in the backdrop is a solid 1971 Burt Lancaster western directed by none other than Michael Winner. By chance? Not likely. The patrolman near the end of the film? Yes indeed that’s Christopher Guest who starred in and directed all those great mockumentaries including one of my favorites, Best In Show.
As one might expect you will indeed find an original Death Wish one sheet here in the vault at Mike’s Take but in this case I’ve got a couple extras set aside for Number 1 and 2 sons, Ethan and Kirk.