Movie review: ‘Death Wish’

Unlike 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). With “Death Wish,” 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. After all, “Death Wish” isn’t an “action” movie in the true sense. It is a true motion picture. Its “reboot” is coming in November 2017 with Bruce Willis headlining. I hope it is one-tenth as good as the original.

‘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

(NOTE: I expanded and reorganized this review with additional opinion, a bit more trivia and the updating of links on July 26, 2017.)

It’s much too easy to stereotype “Death Wish” as a one-dimensional film where Charles Bronson puts his character and fortitude on display and nothing else. That’s an incorrect recollection or you’re just mouthing the cant of liberal critics who believe no one should ever fight back. Watching “Death Wish” again today might find you surprised at the wonderful job by Bronson and especially the work by director Michael Winner to make this an actually intelligent film.

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Further, each “act” of the film – from before the killing of Bronson’s wife; to his business trip after; and then on to the vigilante stage, climax and denouement — 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 or be remembered for it. Not with “Death Wish” You’ll get a real film to remember. 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 (look close … Jeff Goldblum is “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 with weak-kneed, whiny perfection by Steven Keats, then have to move forward: Bronson with his wife’s funeral and Keats dealing with his traumatized wife.

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.

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 but not quick 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.

While Bronson is putting himself up as bait for muggers (from walking in a park at night to riding a subway line at a lonely hour), the authorities aren’t stupid and finally home in on him. 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.

Here’s a look at some of the principal cast:

  • Primetime Emmy nominee Bronson, who also starred in the war classics “The Great Escape” (click here for my review) and “The Dirty Dozen” as well as being a master assassin in “The Mechanic” (click here for my review) 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. Bronson died in 2003 at 81 of a variety of ailments.
  • Two-time Primetime Emmy winner Margolin, who was in “Kelly’s Heroes” (click here for my review), “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. Margolin gives the underappreciated effort of his career here. He won his two Emmys for “The Rockford Files.”
  • Two-time Oscar nominee Gardenia is superb in the role as a New York detective. He has the timing, grit and intelligence to consistently hit his mark. Gardenia was nominated for “Moonstruck” and “Bang the Drum Slowly” and was also in “The Hustler,” “Skin Deep” and “Heaven Can Wait.” He died of a heart attack in 1992 at 72.
  • As I already noted, Keats, a Primetime Emmy nominee, is the whiny, weak-kneed member of the cast. He mopes about (although I’d say he’d earned the right) as if was born to the role. Another underappreciated effort. Keats’ career was mostly on TV and did notable work in “The Executioner’s Song.” Keats was also in the wonderful (and also underappreciated) “Turk 182!” – click here for my review. He died of an apparent suicide in 1994 at the age of 49, according to IMDb.com.
  • Oscar nominee (not for this one) Hope Lange plays “Joanna Kersey” and makes a quick, violent exit from the film. Lange doesn’t get much in the way of work here and there’s really no way to grade her acting chops from this one. Lange had a lot of time on TV (and is best known for “The New Dick Van Dyke Show”) and her Oscar nomination was for 1957’s “Peyton Place.” Lange died at 70 in 2003.
  • Kathleen Tolan overplays her part as Bronson’s daughter “Carol Toby.” I guess she just wanted to make a mark with the little screen time given her character. The character of the victim could have possibly been explored a little more and Tolan given a bit meatier part, but I’m not sure where she would have fit in beyond going from daughter to victim to hysterical victim to catatonic victim. Tolan’s career had only four credits and she did most of her work in 60 episodes of “Ryan’s Hope” on TV.

At 93 minutes “Death Wish” isn’t long, but it conveys more in just over an hour-and-a-half than some films do in two or more hours. I can only imagine that Hollywood was scared in 1974 to acknowledge that Bronson, Margolin, Gardenia (who’d earn their nominations later) and Winner actually did competent work and were deserving of Oscar consideration. Too bad, but politically correct bad ideas are the norm in some circles.

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” (click here for my review) was No. 1 with $119.5 million (no kidding at No. 1; it remains sensationally hilarious today). 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” – click here for my review) for first weekend box office at $6.9 million, according to Wiki. Here are the other films I’ve reviewed from 1974:

Additional cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Bronson’s real name was Charles Dennis Buchinsky and he was 5-foot-8 and a half inches tall.
  • 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 his basically awful “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” released that year).
  • Burt Lancaster, George C. Scott and Frank Sinatra all turned down the “Paul Kersey” role. Too bad. Each one in his own way would have been very interesting, but not necessarily better.
  • 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” (click here for my review) 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. Forget Herzfeld as an actor. His “2 Days in the Valley” is simply stupendous and is one of the best films you probably never saw (click here for my review).
  • Other notable actors with uncredited roles include Olympia Dukakis, Al (“Grandpa Munster”) Lewis and Paul Dooley, who was tremendous in “Breaking Away” (click here for my review).

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