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USA 1974
Directed by
Michael Winner
93 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Death Wish

This modest film was a huge hit in its day and sparked a lot of controversy with respect to its apparent condoning, if not outright encouraging, of urban vigilantism. 

In his most iconic role, Charles Bronson plays Paul Kersey, a liberal-minded architect living in middle-class comfort in New York City. One day, a group of thugs break into his apartment (its décor is fabulous) while he's at work, killing his wife (Hope Lange) and raping his married daughter (recalling a similar scene done much better by Stanley Kubrick four years earlier in A Clockwork Orange). As the police are unable to find the culprits, Kersey begins his own program of cleaning the streets of scum. Meanwhile Detective Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) is tasked with the job of finding the vigilante killer

Despite what you might think Death Wish is relatively low key in its depiction of vigilantism. Or at least so it seems with the benefit of hindsight.  There is none of the pumped-up violence and consequent misplaced enjoyment in vicariously killing that we are now well familiar with. Rather it is a measured study of a man in pain and his response to his situation.

The script by Wendell Mayes from a novel by Brian Garfield takes considerable trouble in portraying Kersey as a liberal, an anti-gun proponent even, who was a conscientious objector during the Korean War and it is quite canny in relating his change of character to the myths of American manhood as enshrined in Wild West films. Giving approximately half the running time to establishing Kersey’s profile and justifying his actions there is certainly no simplistic, crowd-pandering exhortation to violence here.  When Kersey kills his first victim he goes home and throws up. This is the only instance of a one-to-one confrontation and  overall Winner’s depiction of the subsequent killings are depicted in the manner of the traditional Western. That is, matter-of-factly and not for any vicarious thrill but simply because that is what happens to bad guys.

The film’s title suggests a certain fatalism and psychologically Death Wish is about a character akin to that of Christopher Walken’s Nick in The Deer Hunter (1978).  Kersey has been traumatized into numbness and engaged in risk-taking behaviour in order to revive a native virility lost in the strictures of modern urban society. Not that Winner's film is in any way of comparable dramatic substance and cinematic quality to Cimino's.

The fact that, whatever approval it gets here, vigilantism didn’t become a popular activity as a result (nor subsequently in ever more sensationally violent films) is perhaps a good indication that there is no one-to-one relation between what is depicted on screen and an audience’s response to it. Or perhaps it is simply that emotionally the film is rather affectless, in part because Bronson is such an impassive performer and in part because the film is in essence a self-aware appropriation of  the Western with no more claim on reality than that genre (there are nearly as many low-lives in Kersey’s Manhattan as in a Serge Leone Western).

FYI: There were four sequels in which Bronson reprised the same lead character. The film was also the first screen appearance of Jeff Goldbum playing an unlikely street punk.

 

 

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