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Review: Death Wish (1974)

Death Wish (1974)

Directed by: Michael Winner

Premise: Based on the novel by Brian Garfield. After his wife and daughter are attacked by muggers, mild-mannered architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) stalks the streets of New York City, shooting criminals with a handgun.

What Works: Death Wish is a prime example of its genre and it is effective in virtually every way. Vigilante pictures are about justice and revenge and they work if they create a feeling of righteous indignation. Death Wish accomplishes that through the vicious assault on Paul Kersey’s family. The sequence includes brutal and explicit sexual violence that was shocking in its day and remains upsetting. But the assault scene is executed in such a way that it doesn’t make the viewer hate the movie or themselves. Its awfulness carves out a justification for what happens later as Paul Kersey brings frontier justice to the streets of New York City. The film deals with its violence in a credible way. Kersey does not begin the story as a trigger happy maniac and he’s never a superman like John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone). Instead, Kersey is a white collar liberal who is shocked into vigilantism by a random act of violence and the morally bankrupt atmosphere of the city. That’s one of the exceptional things about Death Wish; it captures the flavor of New York City at that time. The film has a gritty style and an atmosphere of hostility that distinguishes it from other shoot-’em-up pictures. In this environment, Kersey’s vigilantism seems like a logical response to the world around him. Death Wish is also ambiguous and self-aware. The morality of what Kersey is doing is uncertain and the movie underscores that in its drab visual style as well as in its music. Even daylight scenes appear dark and dreary and Herbie Hancock’s music score does not swell with heroic themes. Lighting and music often communicate how we should feel about the images of a motion picture and in Death Wish both of those qualities are imbued with dread. A similar ambiguity exists in the narrative. The assault of this man’s family put us on his side and so we don’t want to see Kersey killed or apprehended by police. But his vigilantism is not presented in the way we might see violence in a typical action picture. On the other hand, Death Wish knowingly references the traditions of Westerns, a genre in which lawless violence was celebrated. But Death Wish presents those Western tropes with a helping of irony. That creates a tension in the movie that is unnerving. It must also be said that Death Wish scored a coup with the casting of Charles Bronson in the lead role. Bronson possesses the right proportion of alpha male masculinity and white collar sophistication to make him the perfect fit for the character and Bronson’s performance in Death Wish would define his career.

What Doesn’t: The success of Death Wish yielded an entire genre of vigilante pictures. Few of them had the craft or style of Death Wish and many of them were terrible both in their filmmaking but also in the values that they embodied. However it’s not fair to blame filmmakers for their imitators. At the time of its release, Death Wish was controversial and the movie remains contentious, with Death Wish’s detractors arguing that the movie endorses vigilantism and appeals to our worst impulses. While this is undeniably true of the Death Wish sequels, the original movie is more ambiguous than it is generally given credit for. Death Wish is one of those movies in which viewers will often see what they want to see and project their own values onto it. As a result, whether a viewer enjoys this movie or not is largely dependent upon the point of view from which they see it.

DVD extras: Trailer.

Bottom Line: Death Wish is a classic. The movie has been unfairly stigmatized over the years but there is much to admire about it. It’s a moody, rugged, and well-crafted piece of work that satisfies as entertainment but it is also a challenging work of art.

Episode: #689 (March 11, 2018)