It’s easy to dismiss the late Charles Bronson as a granite-faced macho behemoth of a bygone age. It’s even easier to dismiss director Michael Winner (who had directed Bronson in Chato’s Land, The Mechanic, and The Stone Killer), as an overbearing boor and filmmaker of low-rent but popular actioners. To do so, however, would be to severely underestimate how spectacularly prescient they were when they combined their venerable talents on the 1974 thriller, Death Wish. This luridly well-made tale of revenge in Manhattan (based upon a far more sober and left-leaning novel by Brian Garfield) tapped into and then influenced the zeitgeist like no other film for years. Audiences were literally cheering as Bronson’s urban avenger took his wrath out on New York’s colourful roster of scumbags.
Bronson plays architect Paul Kersey, whose life is turned inside out when a notoriously ugly home invasion sees his wife (Hope Lange) beaten and murdered, and his daughter (Kathleen Tolan) raped and left catatonic. Once a reserved, easygoing everyman, Kersey is quickly converted into an armed, one-man vigilante crusader, wandering the streets of New York first with a sock full of coins, and then a loaded gun. He doesn’t have much trouble finding targets for his retribution, with a mugger seemingly hiding in every dark alley and behind every street light. Kersey soon finds himself in the sights of Lt. Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia), a not entirely unsympathetic and typically exhausted New York cop who finds himself conflicted in his pursuit of the vigilante.
The knee-jerk reaction that the film generated was huge, largely because of its perfect timing. New York in 1974 was on the verge of corporate bankruptcy, needing a huge cash injection from federal reserves to basically avoid going out of business. Crime was consequently on the rise and muggings were endemic and practically out of control. The public saw Death Wish as a cathartic release for their pent-up frustrations. Timing is, indeed, everything, and the film became an enormous success, riding the kind of big blustering wave of anger that had served Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry so well just three years earlier.
“I didn’t think that Death Wish was going to be a big success at all,” the late Michael Winner wrote in his book, Tales I Never Told. “It wasn’t an action film with big action scenes – big chases and cars flying out of windows – it was rather sombre compared with the other films I had done. I was in the office of Dino De Laurentiis, the Italian producer who financed the film, on the day Death Wish opened in New York, when the manager of the 86th Street East Cinema called to say how shocked he was that his theatre was full at one o’clock in the afternoon. He said, ‘We’ve not seen anything like it since The Godfather opened.’”
Though a huge success, the film represented a major right turn from the book that had inspired it. “The point of my novel, Death Wish, is that vigilantism is an attractive fantasy but it only makes things worse in reality,” the book’s author, Brian Garfield, told Pop Matters. “By the end of the novel, Paul Kersey is gunning down unarmed teenagers because he doesn’t like their looks. The story is about an ordinary guy who descends into madness.”
The enormous success of the far more reactionary and pro-vigilantism film adaptation almost guaranteed a sequel, which was certainly teased in its ending. Told to leave town by Lt. Frank Ochoa, Paul Kersey ends up in Chicago, where he instantly notices a group of young thugs harassing a woman. He steps in to help the woman, and is met with a tirade of abuse from the thugs. Now with iced water running through his veins, Paul makes a gun sign with his finger and thumb, and smiles menacingly at the thugs. It looks like the vigilante has found another densely populated urban hunting ground…
Bronson’s connection with the material certainly made the setting up of a sequel even easier. “We were driving to Kennedy airport in 1973 to shoot the last scene of The Stone Killer, the third film we made together, when Charlie asked me what we should do next,” Winner wrote of the origins of the first Death Wish film. “I told him I had this script about a man whose wife and daughter are mugged and then the man goes out and shoots muggers. I mentioned that I’d had it for five years but no one seemed interested. [At one stage, Sidney Lumet was set to direct a more faithful adaptation of Garfield’s book with Jack Lemmon as Kersey and Henry Fonda as Ochoa.] Charlie said, ‘I’d like to do it.’ I said, ‘What, you mean you want to do this movie?’ And Charlie replied, ‘No, I’d like to shoot muggers.’”
Bronson continued to shoot muggers in Death Wish II, which was again directed by Michael Winner. Though Brian Garfield had written his own sequel to Death Wish with his 1975 novel, Death Sentence, Winner ignored that tome’s bleak, anti-vigilantism tone in favour of basically, well, doing more of the same. Also ignoring the end of his own film, Death Wish II finds Kersey in Los Angeles, where he is living with his daughter, Carol (Robin Sherwood), who remains mute and horribly traumatised after her attack. That is not, however, the end for Carol, who must surely rate as one of the most tragic and unfortunate characters in cinema history.
In Death Wish II, she is beaten and raped by another gang of punks, and while attempting to escape them by jumping through a second story window, she dies when she is impaled on an iron fence stake. Lurid, unpleasant, and repugnantly excessive even by Michael Winner’s often base-level standards, it’s a profoundly horrible and distasteful scene. Just for good measure, Kersey’s housekeeper is also raped and murdered! “I knew from the script that it would have to be brutal,” Silvano Gallardo – who played the vigilante’s unfortunate domestic – told Cinema Retro. “I didn’t know it was going to be that graphic.”
These brutal attacks, however, provide Kersey with ample psychological ammunition to return to his punk-killing ways, and he quickly sets about taking down his daughter’s attackers. Still retaining the undeniable grit of its predecessor, Death Wish II (boasting a musical score by, wait for it, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page!!!) is far inferior to that often powerful, utterly compelling film, but is a flat-out masterpiece compared with the three increasingly ridiculous films that would follow it.
Winner and Bronson (and Jimmy Page!!!) reunited for 1985’s absurd smorgasbord of violence and destruction, Death Wish 3, which finds Kersey avenging another murder, this time that of his old buddy, Charley (Francis Drake), who has died at the hands of a vicious gang led by Manny Fraker (Gavan O’Herlihy), who brutally lords it over the few law abiding citizens struggling to make an honest living in a crime-wracked borough of New York City. With the unlikely support of the NYPD’s Richard Shriker (Ed Lauter) – who allows Kersey to kill all the criminals he wants if he keeps the cops informed about the body count!!! – Bronson’s once timid suburbanite goes full-tilt Rambo, and kick-starts nothing short of a large scale war with Fraker and his gang.
1987’s Death Wish 4: The Crackdown boasted an ageing Bronson, but by this time Winner had jumped ship (as had Jimmy Page), handing the directorial reins to famed journeyman, J. Lee Thompson, who had directed a clutch of fine films (The Guns Of Navarone, Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes, Battle For The Planet Of The Apes), as well as a number of sub-par Bronson vehicles (The Evil That Men Do, Murphy’s Law, 10 To Midnight) and some more eccentric films for the not-exactly-picky star, including The White Buffalo, Caboblanco, and St. Ives. Paul Kersey has now become nothing short of an urban commando, and in this shoddy entry is charged with wiping out two rival gangs of crack dealers. Intriguingly, what had once been a zeitgeist-charging, highly controversial film franchise was now largely toothless, despite its blazing torrents of gut-blasting violence. “Death Wish 4: The Crackdown is as efficient and predictable as Kersey himself, and inoffensive as long as you can root for a sociopathic hero,” wrote The New York Times’ Caryn James, with the kind of indifference that characterised the critical and audience response to the film.
With a now even more haggard Charles Bronson still fighting (decimating?) urban crime, the grimly titled Death Wish V: The Face Of Death (directed by hack Allan A. Goldstein) had moved so far away from the timely, provocative original Death Wish as to not even warrant discussion. Lots (and lots) more people die, and the chief antagonist this time is a New York criminal kingpin and his minions. Though a Bronson-free next installment – Death Wish 6: The New Vigilante – was in the works, it thankfully never eventuated, and Death Wish V: The Face Of Death ended up being the final, most inferior entry in the franchise. “I hated the four sequels,” the original book’s author, Brian Garfield, told Pop Matters. “They were nothing more than vanity showcases for the very limited talents of Charles Bronson.”
Though obviously divisive, 1974’s Death Wish still stands as a strong, envelope-pushing piece of filmmaking. Yes, Michael Winner’s famed prurience (witness 1983’s The Wicked Lady to see a filmmaker unashamedly getting his freak on and indulging his own perversities) is on display, but the film is grim, gritty, strikingly in-your-face, and utterly compelling. Hopefully, director Eli Roth has soaked up that film for inspiration for his Bruce Willis-starring remake, and not the four sequels that slushed up in its initially impressive wake. “It’s about good, it’s about bad,” Roth has said of his revenge thriller. “He’s going after bad guys… he’s going after the guys that did this to him. Everybody gets a taste of justice in this movie.”
It looks like Paul Kersey’s guns have been well and truly reloaded…
With additional reporting by Steve Saragossi.
Death Wish is released in cinemas on March 8.