Movie review: ‘Death Wish’

dwUnlike its pathetic sequels, “Death Wish” with Charles Bronson actually has depth, layers and good acting. It is not just an action-vengeance film where tough-guy Bronson mows down the bad guys like ducks in a shooting gallery (that’s left to the sequels). You’ll find nuance, character development and a familiar philosophical debate that remains on the front burner today four decades after the film’s release. Check it out even if you didn’t care for it the first time because it’s worth a second look.

‘Death Wish’
(1974; 93 minutes; rated R; directed by Michael Winner and starring Charles Bronson, Hope Lange and Vincent Gardenia)

HE DEALT WITH CRIME ALL BY HIMSELF

It’s much too easy to remember “Death Wish” as a one-dimensional film where Charles Bronson puts his character and fortitude on display and nothing else. Watching it again today and you might be surprised at the wonderful job by Bronson and especially the work by director Michael Winner to make this an actually intelligent film.

Further, each component (before the killing of Bronson’s wife; on a business trip after; and then the vigilante stage) contributes to make a whole and elevates “Death Wish.” Some films’ reputation is made on just one component and in “Death Wish” some might expect only one. You’ll get them all here. Forget the four sequels, but if you must choose one then pick “Death Wish II” (it’s the least objectionable).

Death Wish” is the story of a family destroyed by violence when three men break into their apartment and attack the wife and daughter and the aftermath when the husband becomes a vigilante. The wife is killed and the daughter so traumatized she ultimately needs to be institutionalized. A nice twist closes up the story.

Bronson is “Paul Kersey,” a mild-mannered engineer. Bronson is shown first with his wife, played by Hope Lange, on vacation in Hawaii. They return home to New York City and after a day of shopping with their daughter, the two are attacked by three men (including Jeff Goldblum as “Freak #1” in his first movie). Lange is killed in the vicious attack, which will make you squirm in your seat.

Bronson and his son-in-law, “Jack Toby” played by Steven Keats, then have to move forward: Bronson with his wife’s funeral and Keats dealing with his traumatized wife.

Bronson, who also starred in the war classics “The Great Escape” and “The Dirty Dozen” as well as “The Mechanic” before his signature turn in “Death Wish,” does an outstanding job of conveying the descent from loving husband to devastated victim to grieving spouse. It’s a role much deeper than any other you’ll find from him.

The next component for Bronson is a trip to Arizona on business. He needs to get away from New York and Tucson is just the place. He meets Stuart Margolin, who plays developer “Aimes Jainchill.” While Margolin is in the development business and works with Bronson on a project, he’s also an avid gun sportsman. Margolin gets Bronson to come to his gun club and engages in a wonderfully acted discussion about gun control and guns in society. The two actors do a great job here and much of it rings true in the gun debates of today.

Margolin, who was in “Kelly’s Heroes,” “S.O.B.” and “The Stone Killer,” is especially effective conveying his character’s need to press the right buttons to bring Bronson into his way of thinking. The emotion comes through his eyes as the gleam with satisfaction when he sees Bronson fire a handgun. It’s a great acting job in a film where you wouldn’t expect it.

Upon his return to New York, Bronson finds that Margolin’s going away present is a revolver. However, Bronson doesn’t immediately go out and begin hunting muggers. Winner and the writers wisely spend time showing the quickening evolution of Bronson into a vigilante.

Bronson shows his ability to project depth into a role as his character starts by carrying a roll of coins in a sock and first uses it as weapon to foil a mugging. He immediately gets sick when he gets home, but soon finds himself carrying the gun and the first mugger is dead.

The pace picks up here as the authorities get on his trail fairly quickly. Vincent Gardenia is detective “Frank Ochoa” and is leading the task force to find the vigilante killer. Still, New York loves its vigilante and authorities are caught between enforcing the law and seeing a reduction in crime through homicide.

Gardenia is superb in the role as a New York detective. He has the timing, grit and intelligence to make his mark. Gardenia was twice nominated for Oscars (“Moonstruck” and “Bang the Drum Slowly”) and was also in “The Hustler,” “Skin Deep” and “Heaven Can Wait.”

While Bronson is putting himself up as bait for muggers (from walking in a park at night to riding a lonely subway line), the authorities aren’t stupid and finally home in on him. At the same time Bronson continues his excellent acting with his next evolution: regaining at least some happiness.

However, as it has to both in life and on film, Bronson finally has fate and circumstance catch up. Although having been injured in one confrontation with muggers, he’s shot and wounded in his last climactic scene with muggers and the audience gets an obvious twist at the end.

At 93 minutes “Death Wish” isn’t long, but it conveys more than some films do in two hours. I can only imagine that Hollywood was scared in 1974 to acknowledge that Bronson, Margolin, Gardenia (who’d earn nominations later) and Winner actually did competent work and were deserving of Oscar consideration. Too bad.

Death Wish” made $22 million at the box office on a budget of $3 million and placed outside the top 10 for the year, according to Wiki. “Blazing Saddles” was No. 1 with $119.5 million (no kidding; it is sensationally hilarious). Plus, “Death Wish” was the top weekly winner four weeks running in the summer of 1974 and its opening weekend broke the record (over Clint Eastwood’s “Magnum Force”) for first weekend box office by a crime film at $6.9 million, according to Wiki.

Other cast notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Both Goldblum and Denzel Washington (a mugger in an alley) had their first big-screen roles here. Washington’s role is uncredited.
  • Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, who has an uncredited role as a mugger, became “Freddie ‘Boom Boom’ Washington” in the hit TV series “Welcome Back, Kotter” the next year.
  • The role played by Bronson was written with megastar Steve McQueen in mind, but he turned it down (and had “The Towering Inferno” come out the same year). Further, Clint Eastwood turned it down because he thought he’d be miscast and reportedly believed Cary Grant would be good in the role (Eastwood had “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” released that year).
  • Bronson racks up 10 kills in this one.
  • Christopher Guest, who is Jamie Lee Curtis’ husband, had his third film role here as a cop, following a similar role in “The Hot Rock” two years earlier and an uncredited role in “The Hospital” in 1971.
  • Director John (“2 Days in the Valley”) Herzfeld has an uncredited role as a mugger on a subway train. Other notables with uncredited roles include Olympia Dukakis, Al (“Grandpa Munster”) Lewis and Paul Dooley.

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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