Death Wish (film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Michael Winner|
|Produced by||Dino De Laurentiis
|Screenplay by||Wendell Mayes|
|Based on||Death Wish
by Brian Garfield
|Music by||Herbie Hancock|
|Cinematography||Arthur J. Ornitz|
|Editing by||Bernard Gribble|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures
(USA & UK Release)
|Running time||93 minutes|
Death Wish is a 1974 vigilante action film loosely based on the novel Death Wish by Brian Garfield. The film was directed by Michael Winner and stars Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey, a man who becomes a vigilante after his wife is murdered and his daughter is sexually assaulted by muggers.
The film was a commercial success, and generated a movie franchise with four sequels over the next twenty years. The film was disliked by many critics due to it advocating vigilantism and unlimited punishment to criminals. The novel denounced vigilantism, whereas the film embraced the notion. However, it was seen as echoing a growing mood in the United States as crime rose during the 1970s.
Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is an architect living at 33 Riverside Drive in Upper Manhattan with his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) and daughter Carol Toby (Kathleen Tolan) . One day, while Kersey is out Joanna and Carol shop for groceries at a local D'Agostino's market, three bloodthirsty hooligans (one played by Jeff Goldblum in his first movie appearance), causing trouble in the store, see Joanna's address written down after she asks for the groceries to be delivered. Posing as deliverymen, the hoodlums invade the apartment when the door is opened. They become enraged when they discover very little money. In retaliation they rape and beat the two women.
Paul's son-in-law Jack Toby (Steven Keats) calls to tell him only that Joanna and Carol are in the hospital. After waiting impatiently, Paul is told by a doctor that his daughter is alive and that she was sedated and put to bed, but Paul is also informed that his wife has died. Devastated, he is told by police that the likelihood of catching the criminals is small.
The next day, Paul's boss gives him an extended business vacation, and he flies to Tucson, Arizona to meet a client, Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin). Paul witnesses a mock gunfight at Old Tucson, a reconstructed Western frontier town used as a movie set. At a gun club, Ames is impressed when Paul shoots with near bulls-eye accuracy. Paul reveals that he was a conscientious objector during the Korean War who served his country as a combat medic. Paul had been taught to handle firearms at a young age by his father, but after his father was killed in a hunting accident Paul decided to forswear the use of firearms for any purpose. After Paul makes substantial improvements to Ames' plans for a residential development, a thoroughly pleased Ames drives Paul back to the Tucson airport, and presents Paul with a gift, which he places into Paul's checked luggage.
Back in Manhattan, his daughter is catatonic. Paul opens his suitcase and discovers that Ames' gift is a nickel-plated .32 Colt Police Positive revolver. He loads the revolver, places it into his overcoat, and takes a late night stroll. Paul encounters a mugger, an ex-convict named Thomas Leroy Marston, who attempts to rob him at gunpoint with a .38 Smith & Wesson Model 36 revolver. Paul then shoots Martson with his own revolver, killing him.
Shocked that he just killed a human being, Paul runs home and is violently ill. But motivated by his desire for revenge, he continues to ambush criminals. The following night, Paul again deliberately walks through the city at night in order to provoke an attack. He guns down three more men (one of whom is Denzel Washington, who made his screen debut in the film) who are robbing a defenseless old man in a vacant alley. A few nights later, two muggers see Paul on a subway. They attempt to rob him at knife-point but Paul shoots them both with the revolver.
The next scene has Paul then sitting in a sleazy Times Square coffee shop surrounded by prostitutes and assorted street people. He pays his bill to the cashier purposely revealing a wallet full of cash. He leaves followed by two thugs who have taken the bait. Yet again a robbery attempt is made. Paul shoots one but the other manages to stab him in his shoulder. As a wounded Paul stumbles off, the one who stabbed him gets away mortally wounded, dying at a hospital.
NYPD Lt. Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) investigates the vigilante killings. His department narrows a list to men who have had a family member recently killed by muggers and who are war veterans. The public, meanwhile, is happy that somebody is doing something about crime. Ochoa soon suspects Paul. He is about to make an arrest when the District Attorney (Fred J. Scollay) intervenes and tells Ochoa to "let him loose" in another city instead. Ochoa doesn't like the idea, but relents.
Paul shoots two more muggers before being wounded by a third mugger with a M1911A1 pistol at a warehouse. His gun is discovered by a young patrolman (Christopher Guest) who hands it to Ochoa, who tells him to forget that he ever saw it and additionally tells the press that the wounded Paul is just another mugging victim. Hospitalized, Paul is ordered by Ochoa to leave New York, permanently. Paul replies, "By sundown?".
Paul arrives in Chicago Union Station by train. Being greeted by a company representative, he notices a group of hoodlums harassing a young woman. He excuses himself and helps the woman. The hoodlums make obscene gestures, but Paul points his right hand like a gun and smiles, suggesting that his vigilantism will continue.
- Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey
- Hope Lange as Joanna Kersey
- Vincent Gardenia as NYPD Lt. Frank Ochoa
- William Redfield as Sam Kreutzer
- Steven Keats as Jack Toby
- Stuart Margolin as Ames Jainchill
- Stephen Elliott as Police Commissioner
- Kathleen Tolan as Carol Toby
- Jack Wallace as Hank
- Christopher Guest as Jackson Reilly
- Jeff Goldblum as Street Punk #1
- Olympia Dukakis as Cop at Precinct
- Paul Dooley (uncredited) as Cop at Hospital
- Eric Laneuville (uncredited) as Subway Mugger
- Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (uncredited) as Mugger in Park
- Sonia Manzano (uncredited) as Grocery Clerk
- Tom Hayden (uncredited) as E.R. Doctor.
- Denzel Washington (uncredited) as Alley Mugger #1.
Character actor Robert Miano had a minor role as a mugger in the film. Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, who would later co-star on the highly successful TV show Welcome Back, Kotter, had an uncredited role as one of the Central Park muggers near the end of the film. Denzel Washington made his screen debut as an uncredited alley mugger. Actress Helen Martin, who had a minor role, subsequently appeared in the television sitcoms Good Times and 227. Sonia Manzano, 'Maria' from Sesame Street has an uncredited role as a supermarket checkout clerk. Christopher Guest makes one of his earliest film appearances as a young police officer who finds Kersey's gun.
The film was based on the 1972 novel by Brian Garfield, who was inspired to use the theme of vigilantism following incidents of his personal life. In one incident the purse of his wife was stolen, In another, his own car was vandalized. His initial thought in each case was that he could kill "the son of a bitch" responsible. He later considered that these were primitive thoughts, contemplated in an unguarded moment. He then considered the idea of writing a novel about a man who entered this way of thinking in a moment of rage and then never emerged from it.  The original novel received favorable reviews but was not a best seller. Garfield sold screen rights to both Death Wish and Relentless to the only film producers who approached him on the subject, Hal Landers and Bobby Roberts. He was offered the chance to write a screenplay adapting one of the two novels, and chose Relentless. He simply considered it the easier of the two to turn into a film.
Wendell Mayes was then hired to write the screenplay for Death Wish. He managed to preserve the basic structure of the novel and much of the philosophical dialogue. It was his idea to turn police detective Frank Ochoa into a major character of the film.  His early drafts for the screenplay had different endings than the final one. In one, he followed an idea from Garfield. The vigilante confronts the three thugs who attacked his family and ends up dead at their hands. Ochoa discovers the dead man's weapon and considers following in his footsteps.  In another, the vigilante is wounded and rushed to a hospital. His fate left ambiguous. Meanwhile, Ochoa has found the weapon and struggles with the decision to use. His decision left unclear. 
Originally Sidney Lumet was to have directed Jack Lemmon as Paul and Henry Fonda as Lt Ochoa.  Lumet bowed out of the film project to direct Serpico (1973), requiring a search for another director. Several were considered. United Artists eventually chose Michael Winner, due to his recent track record of gritty, violent action film. The examples of his work considered included The Mechanic (1972), Scorpio (1973), and The Stone Killer (1973). 
The film was rejected by other studios because of its controversial subject matter, and the perceived difficulty of casting someone in the vigilante role. Winner attempted to recruit Bronson, but there were two problems for the actor. First, his agent Paul Kohner considered that the film carried a dangerous message. Second, at this point the screenplay followed the original novel in describing the vigilante as a meek accountant. Hardly a suitable role for Bronson. 
The film project was dropped by United Artists after budget constraints forced producers Hal Landers and Bobby Roberts to liquidate their rights.The original producers were replaced by Italian film mogul Dino De Laurentiis De Laurentiis convinced Charles Bluhdorn to bring the project to Paramount Pictures. Paramount purchased the distribution rights of the film in the United States market, while Columbia Pictures licensed the distribution rights for international markets. De Laurentiis raised the 3-million-dollar budget of the film by pre-selling the distribution rights. 
With funding secured, screenwriter Gerald Wilson was hired to revise the script. His first task was changing the identity of the vigilante to make the role more suitable for Bronson. "Paul Benjamin" was renamed to "Paul Kersey". His job was changed from accountant to architect. His background changed from a World War II veteran to a Korean War veteran. The reason for him not seeing combat duty changed from serving as an army accountant to being a conscientious objector.  Several vignettes from Mayes' script were deemed unnecessary and were therefore deleted. 
Winner himself asked for several revisions in the script. Both the novel and the original script had no scenes were the vigilante actually interacted with his wife. Winner decided to include a prologue depicting a happy relationship, so the prologue of the film depicts the couple vacationing in Hawaii.  The early draft of the script had the vigilante being inspired by seeing a fight scene in the Western film High Noon. Winner decided on a more elaborate scene, involving a fight scene in a recreation of the Wild West, taking place in Tucson, Arizona. The final script had the vigilante making the occasional reference to Westerns. While confronting an armed mugger, he asks him to draw. When Ochoa asks him to leave town, he asks if he has until sundown to do so. The killing in the subway station was supposed to remain off-screen in Mayes' script, but Winner himself decided to turn this into an actual, brutal scene. 
A minor argument occurred when it came to a shooting location for the film. Bronson asked for a California-based location to be able to visit his family in Bel Air, Los Angeles. Winner instead insisted on choosing New York City and De Laurentiis agreed. Ultimately, Bronson backed down.  Death Wish was shot on location in New York City, during the Winter of 1973-1974.  Death Wish was first released to American audiences in July 1974. The world premiere took place on July 24 in the Loews Theater of New York City. 
Multiple Grammy award winning Jazz musician Herbie Hancock produced and composed the original score for the soundtrack to the original Death Wish movie. This would be his third film score, behind the 1966 movie Blow-Up and 1973's The Spook Who Sat By The Door. Michael Winner said, "[Dino] De Laurentiis said 'Get a cheap English band.' Because the English bands were very successful. But I had a girlfriend who was in Sesame Street, a Puerto Rican actress (Sonia Manzano), who played a checkout girl at the supermarket [in Death Wish], and she was a great jazz fan. She said, 'Well, you should have Herbie Hancock. He's got this record out called Head Hunters.' She gave me Head Hunters, which was staggering. And I said, 'Dino, never mind a cheap English band, we'll have Herbie Hancock.' Which we did."
Death Wish received mixed to extremely negative reviews upon its release, due to its support of vigilantism, but it had an impact on U.S. audiences and began widespread debate over how to deal with rampant crime. The film's graphic violence, particularly the brutal rape scene of Kersey's daughter as well as the explicit portrayal of Bronson's premeditated slayings, was considered exploitative, but realistic in the context of an urban U.S. atmosphere of rising crime rates.
Many critics were displeased with the film, considering it an "immoral threat to society" and an encouragement of antisocial behavior. Vincent Canby of the New York Times was one of the most outspoken writers, condemning Death Wish in two extensive articles. Brian Garfield was also unhappy with the final product, calling the film 'incendiary', and even stated that the following sequels are all pointless and rancid, since they all advocate vigilantism, unlike his two novels, which are the exact opposite. The result of this film, led him to write a follow-up titled Death Sentence, which was published a year after the film's release. In later years, the film would be liked for its disturbing, serious view of one man's violent war on crime. Charles Bronson defended the film: he felt it was intended to be a commentary on violence and was meant to attack violence, not romanticize it. And even many critics began to like the original film more than the sequels, which were more exploitative and contrived.
- AFI's 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains:
- Paul Kersey – Nominated Hero
- AFI's 100 Years... 100 Thrills - Nominated
Impact and influence
Death Wish was a watershed for Charles Bronson, who was better known in Europe and Asia at the time mostly due to his role in The Great Escape. Bronson became an American film icon who experienced great popularity over the next twenty years.
In the series' later years, the Death Wish franchise became a subject of parody for its high level of violence and the advancing age of Bronson (an episode of The Simpsons named "A Star Is Burns" showed a fictional advertisement for Death Wish 9, consisting of a bed-ridden Bronson saying "I wish I was dead"). However, the Death Wish franchise remained lucrative and drew support from fans of exploitation cinema. The series continues to have widespread following on home video and is occasionally broadcast on various television stations within the US and in Europe.
In an episode of American Dad, "The One That Got Away", Roger dresses up similar to the leading protagonist when he plans revenge on an alternate personality of himself. He tells an alternate character that Death Wish was a movie, when his reference via outfit is misconstrued.
Bronson is mentioned in the 1997 Notorious B.I.G classic "Kick in the Door". In the song, Biggie proclaims: "Sold more powder than Johnson and Johnson/Tote steel like Bronson, vigilante/You wanna get on son, you need to ask me."
In the Spiderman Comic "Death of Jean DeWolff" (1990), Bronson makes a small appearance holding a newspaper that says vigilante.
A clip of Jeff Goldblum yelling 'Goddamn Rich Cunt!' is often played on The Opie and Anthony Show.
Home video releases
The film was first released on VHS and LaserDisc in 1980. It was later released on DVD in 2001 and 2006. Currently, the VHS, laserdisc and DVDs are out of print. The 40th Anniversary Edition was released on February 4, 2014 on Blu-ray.
- Talbot, Paul (2006), "Death Wish: Vigilante, City Style - Judge, Jury, and Executioner", Bronson's Loose!: The Making of the Death Wish Films, iUniverse, ISBN 978-0595379828
- "Death Wish, Box Office Information". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved January 29, 2012.
- "Death Wish, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved January 29, 2012.
- "Death Wish Movie Reviews". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved April 26, 2011.
- Frum, David (2000). How We Got Here: The '70s. New York, New York: Basic Books. p. 13. ISBN 0-465-04195-7.
- Talbot (2006), p. 1-31
- Nikki Tranter. "Historian: Interview with Brian Garfield".
- Nikki Tranter. "Historian: Interview with Brian Garfield".
- Nikki Tranter. "Historian: Interview with Brian Garfield".
- "Death Wish". Chicago Sun Times. Retrieved 2010-12-03.
- "Death Wish". Variety. 1973-12-31. Retrieved 2010-01-05.
- Canby, Vincent (1974-08-04). "Screen: 'Death Wish' Exploits Fear Irresponsibly; 'Death Wish' Exploits Our Fear". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-11-06.
- Canby, Vincent (1974-07-25). "Screen: 'Death Wish' Hunts Muggers:The Cast Story of Gunman Takes Dim View of City". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-11-06.
- Severo, Richard (2003-09-01). "Charles Bronson, 81, Movie Tough Guy, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-01-05.
- Death Wish at Rotten Tomatoes
- Gilchrist, Todd. "'The Grey' Director Joe Carnahan to Remake 'Death Wish'". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved October 5, 2012. Published online January 31, 2012.
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