Joanna Kersey, played by Oscar nominee and Emmy winner Hope Lange (Peyton Place), and her daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan), take a trip to the super market to purchase some groceries. After paying at the checkout counter, Joanna tells the cashier that they would like the groceries delivered. What could possibly go wrong? Well, in director Michael Winner’s (The Sentinel) thought provoking film “Death Wish,” plenty. Three thugs, one of whom is played by a young, Jeff Goldblum (Independence Day), in his film debut, follow the pair to their apartment. Thinking she is letting in the delivery man, Carol opens the door. Once doing so, her mother is murdered and Carol is sexually assaulted.
A short while later, arriving at the hospital, where the two women have been brought, are Paul Kersey, portrayed by Golden Globe winner and Emmy nominee Charles Bronson (The Dirty Dozen), and his son-in-law, Jack, Emmy nominee Steven Keats (Seventh Avenue). After receiving the jarring news of what has transpired, and a subsequent scene showing a funeral taking place, Bronson’s character begins the normal period of mourning. His daughter, however, goes into a catatonic state. Doctors feel she is doing so in order to protect her mind from the horrific events that have unfolded.
Based on the 1972 novel written by Brian Garfield, the film was adapted for the screen by Oscar nominated screen writer Wendell Mayes (Anatomy of a Murder). The movie, which has a runtime of ninety-three minutes, premiered in American theaters on July 24, 1974.
“Death Wish” is a blending of the genres of action, crime, drama and thriller. Although an iconic role for Bronson, he was not the first choice to play the main character, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, and Frank Sinatra all turned down the part. Nor for that matter, was Winner the first director hired to bring the book to cinematic life. Sidney Lumet was originally going to direct the film, and it was going to star Jack Lemmon in the Kersey role, but Lumet opted to drop out and direct “Serpico” instead. Furthermore, producer Dino De Laurentiis and Paramount Pictures wanted to originally title the film “The Sidewalk Vigilante,” thinking that the word ‘death’ in the title would keep audiences away.
Eventually, Kersey, who is very good at his architectural job, returns to work. A short time later, he is sent by his boss to Arizona to personally oversee a twenty million dollar project for the company. He will be working for land developer Aimes Jainchill, acted by two time Emmy winner Stuart Margolin (The Rockford Files). Aimes, a gun lover, takes Kersey to the practice range of the gun club he belongs to. While there, Bronson’s character demonstrates his proficiency with a fire arm. During the course of conversation between the two, it is revealed to the viewer that Kersey served in the military during the Korean war. His classification, however, was that of a conscience objector, who worked in the medical core.
Before Kersey departs to go back to New York, and while being dropped off at the airport, Aimes asks him if he is checking his suitcase. Once confirmed, Margolin’s character places a gift wrapped present inside of it. When Kersey returns home, he unwraps the gift, and discovers that the present is a .32-caliber revolver. While looking over photographs of his vacation in Hawaii with Joanna, a sequence which opens the film, Kersey gets an idea, the seeds of which were planted while he was in Arizona. That evening, Kersey ventures out, seeking a criminal, in order to administer his own special brand of vigilante justice. Initially repulsed by his actions, Kersey soon begins to embrace his new persona.
After a period of time, Kersey’s nocturnal activities make him a hero to the law-abiding citizens of the five boroughs of New York City who are tired of living in fear, especially once the sun sets. The collective body of New York law enforcement, however, wants to put an end to Kersey, who single handedly has reduced the rate of muggings in the city by fifty percent.
Adding intrigue to the film is two time Oscar nominee and Emmy winner Vincent Gardenia’s (Age-Old Friends) character of Detective, Frank Ochoa. Ochoa, the head of the task force assigned to capturing the vigilante, makes for a formidable adversary. Gardenia’s character’s outside the box thinking, combined with his veteran skills, as the days pass, inch him ever closer to nailing Kersey as the thorn in law enforcement’s side.
Will Ochoa catch Kersey? If so, does Kersey take a final stand or does he allow himself to be arrested to face his crimes? Does Kersey, sensing the ever tightening grip of law enforcement desperate to catch him, leave New York to escape possible prosecution? While the film does provide closure to the viewer by answering those questions, it also can make one think of deeper societal issues. Is there ever a valid enough reason for a citizen who has been wronged to take the law into his or her own hand? Can Bronson’s character’s actions be sympathized with; even if his actions can be sympathized with, if it were real life, should someone who acts like that be treated the same as the criminals he seeks to rid the world of? If what happened to Kersey’s wife and daughter happened to a family member or close friend, could any of us say with one hundred percent certainty we wouldn’t at least think about seeking retribution against those responsible? When looked at from a certain perspective “Death Wish,” which at first glance might seem like a simple revenge film, goes much deeper.