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Tough guy Charles Bronson had a long established career with guns in his movies: The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, Once Upon a Time in The West and The Mechanic, to name a few. Some of his feature film titles (television included) made specific references to guns: Love and Bullets, Guns for San Sebastian, Guns of Diablo, Have Gun – Will Travel, Machine-Gun Kelly, Colt .45 and Riding Shotgun. But Michael Winner’s compelling film classic Death Wish was Bronson’s most famous firearms-o-centric project, the film that catapulted the actor to stardom at the ripe old age of 52 . . .

Death Wish was an early 1970’s statement about law, order and self-protection in a civilized (or uncivilized) society. It makes it point with precision accuracy. It’s a movie that is as relevant today as it was nearly 40 years ago.

The story is simple. Paul Kersey (played by Bronson) is a kind and gentle husband and father living somewhere along the upper west side of Manhattan. After the brutal attack and murder of his wife, and sexual assault of his daughter, Kersey transforms into a vigilante.

Kersey is an architect by training and a development engineer by trade. According to the story line, he was a conscientious objector during the Korean war, where he served in a medical unit. He was an admitted liberal. His mother was a pacifist. After his father died in a hunting accident, his mother sheltered him from guns.

From the brutally violent opening scene that propels the film right to the end, Death Wish is a compellingly honest movie. The movie was extremely popular—despite, or because of, critics who claimed Death Wish made a hero of a vigilante. They painted Kersey as a man who takes the law into his own hands by searching out bad guys to waste. That’s not exactly accurate.

Bronson’s character never approaches any of his victims. Basically, they come to him. He “finds” the bad guys by placing himself in normal yet vulnerable daily (or in this case, nightly) situations: walking alone in the park, sitting by himself in a train car and so forth.

The front cover of the DVD box and the poster for the film doesn’t suggest Bronson is avenging or hunting anyone. His body placement at the bottom of a staircase suggests he’s being approached by some threat from above, at the top of the steps. Bronson’s body position and posture suggests his back was turned; he had to suddenly spin around to aim his Colt .32 revolver for self-protection.

In truth, Death Wish is an exploration of an individual’s right to self-defense.

As Kersey explains, “What about the old American social custom of self-defense? If the police don’t defend us, maybe we ought to do it ourselves.” Kersey asks his son-in-law “What do you call people who when they’re faced with a condition of fear do nothing about it, they just run and hide?” “Civilized,” his son in-law replies with uncertainty.

Although gritty, Death Wish contains skillfully presented symbolism. After visiting his committed daughter, who is suffering from post-traumatic depression, Kersey and his son in-law walk down a flight of stairs within the nursing home. As the two men walk down the steps, nuns in dark garments accompany the helpless and weak up the stairs.

It’s an image suggestive of our heroes descending back to the hell of what is our world, as the helpless rise to the heavens with angels by their side.

In another symbolic sequence [above], two thugs enter a train car as a police officer turns his back and exits. As the thugs travel deeper through the train, passing nervous commuters, they intimidate and bully, all the while, the lead thug bears the American flag on the back of his black jacket, implying the country is being run by the criminals.

Ultimately these thugs’ reign of fear and terror ends when they try to victimize our hero, who in self-defense puts a bullet through the thug’s jacket, placing red blood spots along the flag’s image. It’s a point well taken: to regain America from the criminals, citizens need to fight back.

Later, the District Attorney worries that arresting the vigilante would upset the city’s citizens and possibly turn him into a folk-hero. They just want the good bad guy to disappear. This kind of honesty and realism is a credit to the filmmakers; they never insult the viewers’ intelligence.

Even after Kersey shoots his first assailant the realization of what he had done makes him sick to his stomach. He never goes on a one-man killing crusade after his wife’s killers, nor are they ever apprehended. There are no car chases or fancy gun tricks with a hip holster or eight shots fired from a six-shooter.

Death Wish is a thinking man’s action film; it’s a social commentary with valid points presented in a manner that’s simple and direct. The cinematography is competently lensed under the watchful eye of Arthur J. Ornitz (Serpico, An Unmarried Woman). Herbie Hancock’s moody and haunting urban jazz arrangements support the movie’s tone and texture.

Liberals may hate Death Wish just as conservatives love it. But anyone who watches the movie as a human drama can’t help but be drawn into the world of “what if it was me?” It’s a good question.

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  1. The subsequent sequels were pretty cheesy, the last being ridiculous. The original bears philosophical similarities to the Dirty Harry series although with a different type of hero and much bigger guns.

    • Death Wish III was hilariously bad, especially that rather large scale battle between the “creeps” and the good citizens who finally stood up to them.

  2. It is always hard to improve or even match the first movie in any series (Death Wish, Dirty Harry). Dirty Harry (The Enforcer and Magnum Force) did the best job, IMO, atleast for the first two follow up movies.

  3. Jeff Goldblum’s first credited movie role was that of the leader of the trio who murdered Kersey’s wife. He was as oily a character as you’d ever imagine. Stuart Margolin plays the character who gifts Kersey with the Police Positive. He also played Jim Rockford’s foil in The Rockford Files. Margolin also wrote a popular novelty song called “Day After Day,” about the “Big One” that may eventually hit Cali:

    Day after day, more people come to L.A.
    Don’t you tell anybody, the whole place’s slipping away
    Where can we go, when there’s no San Francisco?
    Better get ready to tie up the boat in Idaho

    • That’s right.  The movie was a launching pad for many future stars;  like you mentioned – Jeff Goldblum (“Jurassic Park,” “The Fly,” “Independence Day” ) as one of the 3 thugs in the opening scenes, Olympia Dukakis (“Steel Magnolias,” “Moonstruck”) as a female police officer at the precinct reading a chart, Roz Kelly (“Happy Days” Pinky Tuscadero) as a Hooker, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (Freddie ‘Boom Boom’ Washington of “Welcome Back, Kotter” fame), as a mugger, Christopher Guest (“This is Spinal Tap,” “Saturday Night Live”) as Patrolman Jackson Reilly, who find’s the Vigilante’s gun and Marcia Jean Kurtz (“Law and Order”) as a woman in the airport.  Quite a showcase of talent if you can spot them that is.

  4. I remember seeing Death Wish when it first ran in theaters. I was a bit surprised at how many people clapped and cheered when the bad guys got what was coming. I understand, that still happens today, when it is shown in theaters.

    I grew up in NYC and came of age in the 1970s. Movies like Death Wish and Taxi Driver capture perfectly the mood and environment of the city streets back then. I didn’t mind it very much and, in a sense, almost embraced it in my teens and 20s. If it were still anything like that, I wouldn’t go near there today. Fortunately, the quality of life has improved. A great place to visit.

    The thing I always remember that most impressed me about Death Wish is the creators resisted the temptation of having Kearsy encounter the thugs who attacked his wife and daughter. I remember, throughout the whole movie, expecting that formulaic anecdote, and how relieved I was when it didn’t happen.

    • Kersey did run into one of the three in the park, but didn’t know it was him. It was a classic touch to a classic film.

  5. A true classic. I loved Kearsy’s transformation from a “bleeding-heart liberal” (directly said by a minor character in the beginning) to a man who’s been shown the brutal truth of life, justice, and personal defense. As Blammo said, I also liked how he never did encounter the thugs who raped his daughter and killed his wife. The movie wasn’t about them; even Kearsy’s motivation wasn’t about finding them. It was about doing something, anything, in the face of brutality and victimhood utopia.

  6. Both Bronson and Steve McQueen gave solid, if low-key early performances in a largely forgotten Frank Sinatra film called Never So Few (1959), in which he and a crack team of operators work with Chinese guerrillas against the Japanese occupation.
    Dean Jones, of all people, wields a Thompson, and rather effectively at that.
    Gina Lollabrigida walks away with Franks heart and one of cinema’s classic cornball lines: “When I kiss you” she tells ol’ Blue eyes, “Bells ring wildly in my temples.”

  7. DW was very politically correct in that the bad guys were very diverse, or perhaps it is better to say that Kersey was an equal opportunity executioner. As folks mentioned, number one, and even two were OK. Then things became cartoonish. Also noted: it’s very dangerous and very bad luck to be PK’s wife/girlfriend.

  8. I wish Charles Bronson had declined to do the sequels. Sequels are rarely as good as the original film, being mostly money-making projects. Sometime’s it better to just bow and walk off the stage after a great performance instead of doing a weak encore. I doubt Bronson really needed the money after all those years making films. Unfortunately I think the sequels diminished the impact of the original movie as time went on, becoming a parody of it. His previous work was all decent too, but lots of people just know him now as the “old vigilante guy” from the sequels.


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