Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Michael Winner|
|Screenplay by||Wendell Mayes|
|Based on||Death Wish|
by Brian Garfield
|Music by||Herbie Hancock|
|Cinematography||Arthur J. Ornitz|
|Edited by||Bernard Gribble|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures (United States)|
Columbia Pictures (International)
|Box office||$22 million or $20.3 million|
Death Wish is a 1974 American vigilante action drama film loosely based on the 1972 novel of the same title by Brian Garfield. The film was directed by Michael Winner and stars Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey, an architect who becomes a vigilante after his wife is murdered and his daughter sexually assaulted during a home invasion. This was the first film in the Death Wish film series; it was followed eight years later with Death Wish II and other similar films.
At the time of release, the film was criticized for its apparent support of vigilantism and advocating unlimited punishment of criminals. Allegedly, the novel denounced vigilantism, whereas the film embraced the notion. The film was a commercial success and resonated with the public in the United States, which was experiencing increasing crime rates during the 1970s.
Paul Kersey is a successful, middle-aged architect and family man who enjoys a happy home in Manhattan with his wife Joanna. One day, Joanna and their grown daughter Carol are followed home from D'Agostino's by three thugs, who invade the apartment by posing as deliverymen. Upon finding that Carol and Joanna only have $7 on them, the thugs rape Carol and brutally beat Joanna before fleeing. Upon arriving at the hospital, Paul is devastated to learn that Joanna has died from her injuries. Shortly after attending his wife's funeral, Paul has an encounter with a mugger in a darkened street. Paul fights back with a homemade weapon, an improvised blackjack made from a sock with two rolls of quarters in it, causing the mugger to run away. Paul is shaken and energized by the encounter.
Paul's boss sends him to Tucson, Arizona, to see Ames Jainchill, a client with a residential development project. A few days later, Paul is invited to dinner by Ames at his gun club. Ames is impressed with Paul's pistol marksmanship at the target range. Paul reveals that he was a conscientious objector during the Korean War, when he served as a combat medic. He had been taught to handle firearms by his father, a hunter, but after his father was killed in a hunting accident, Paul's mother made him swear never to use guns again. Paul is successful in helping Ames plan his residential housing development. Ames drives Paul back to Tucson Airport and presents Paul with a gift for his work on the development, which he places into Paul's checked luggage.
Back in Manhattan, Paul learns from his son-in-law, Jack, that his daughter is severely depressed from the trauma of the assault and is now catatonic, and they have Carol committed to a mental hospital. Paul learns that Ames has given him a nickel-plated Colt Police Positive revolver and a box of ammunition. He loads it and takes a late-night walk during which he is mugged at gunpoint. Paul shoots the mugger, and in a state of shock, he runs home and vomits. The next night, Paul walks through the city looking for violent criminals. Over the next few weeks, Paul kills several criminals, some of whom he lures into attacking him by presenting himself as an affluent victim for a mugging, and others when he sees them attacking innocent people.
NYPD Inspector Frank Ochoa investigates the vigilante killings. His department narrows it down to a list of men who have had a family member recently killed by muggers and are war veterans. Ochoa soon suspects Paul and is about to make an arrest when the district attorney intervenes and tells Ochoa that "we don't want him." The district attorney and the police commissioner do not want the fact to get out that Paul's vigilantism has led to a drastic decrease in street crime, and they fear that if that information becomes public knowledge, the whole city will descend into vigilante chaos, but they do not want Paul to be arrested because they do not want a martyr. Ochoa does not like the idea but relents and agrees to try to "scare him off".
One night, Paul shoots two more muggers before being wounded in the leg by a third mugger with a pistol, whom he pursues to a warehouse. When Paul corners him, he challenges him to a fast draw, only to faint because of blood loss, with the mugger escaping. His gun is discovered by a young patrolman, Jackson Reilly, who hands it to Ochoa and is told to forget he ever saw it. The press is informed that Paul is just another mugging victim. Hospitalized, Paul is told by Ochoa to have his company transfer him to another city, and in exchange, Ochoa will dispose of Paul's revolver. In addition, Paul is ordered by Ochoa to leave New York permanently.
Paul arrives in Chicago Union Station by train. Being greeted by a company representative, he notices a group of hoodlums harassing a young woman. He excuses himself and helps the woman. The hoodlums make obscene gestures, but Paul makes a finger gun at them and smiles.
Character actor Robert Miano had a minor role as a mugger in the film. John Herzfeld played the mugger who slashes Paul's newspaper on the subway. Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, who later co-starred on the television show Welcome Back, Kotter, had an uncredited role as one of the Central Park muggers near the end of the film. It has been rumored that Denzel Washington made his screen debut as an uncredited alley mugger since in a long shot, the actor shown appears to resemble him, but Washington stated that not to be true. Actress Helen Martin, who had a minor role as a mugging victim who fights off her attackers with a hatpin, subsequently appeared in the television sitcoms Good Times and 227. Christopher Guest made one of his earliest film appearances as a young police officer who finds Kersey's gun. Marcia Jean Kurtz, who played the receptionist at Paul's office, has appeared in multiple roles on the TV series Law & Order. Sonia Manzano, who played Maria on Sesame Street, had an uncredited role as a supermarket checkout clerk. The film also marked Jeff Goldblum's screen debut, playing one of the "freaks" who assaults Kersey's family early in the film.
The film was based on Brian Garfield's 1972 novel of the same name. Garfield was inspired to use the theme of vigilantism following incidents in his personal life. In one incident, his wife's purse was stolen; in another, his car was vandalized. His initial thought each time was that he could kill "the son of a bitch" responsible. He later considered that these were primitive thoughts, contemplated in an unguarded moment. He then thought of writing a novel about a man who entered that way of thinking in a moment of rage and then never emerged from it. The original novel received favorable reviews but was not a bestseller. Garfield sold screen rights to both Death Wish and Relentless to the only film producers who approached him, Hal Landers and Bobby Roberts. He was offered the chance to write a screenplay adapting one of the two novels, and chose Relentless. He simply considered it the easier of the two to turn into a film.
Wendell Mayes was then hired to write the screenplay for Death Wish. He preserved the basic structure of the novel and much of the philosophical dialogue. It was his idea to turn police detective Frank Ochoa into a major character of the film. His early drafts for the screenplay had different endings from the final one. In one, he followed an idea from Garfield. The vigilante confronts the three thugs who attacked his family and ends up dead at their hands. Ochoa discovers the dead man's weapon and considers following in his footsteps. In another, the vigilante is wounded and rushed to a hospital. His fate is left ambiguous. Meanwhile, Ochoa has found the weapon and struggles with the decision to use it. His decision is left unclear.
Originally, Sidney Lumet was to have directed Jack Lemmon as Paul and Henry Fonda as Ochoa. Lumet bowed out of the project to direct Serpico (1973), requiring a search for another director. Several were considered, including Peter Medak who wanted Henry Fonda as Paul.United Artists eventually chose Michael Winner, due to his track record of gritty, violent action films. The examples of his work considered included The Mechanic (1972), Scorpio (1973), and The Stone Killer (1973).
The film was rejected by other studios because of its controversial subject matter and the perceived difficulty of casting someone in the vigilante role. Winner attempted to recruit Bronson, but there were two problems for the actor. One was that his agent, Paul Kohner, considered that the film carried a dangerous message. The other was that the screenplay then followed the original novel in describing the vigilante as a meek accountant, hardly a suitable role for Bronson.
"I was really a miscast person," Bronson said later. "It was more a theme that would have been better for Dustin Hoffman or somebody who could play a weaker kind of man. I told them that at the time."
The film project was dropped by United Artists after budget constraints forced producers Hal Landers and Bobby Roberts to liquidate their rights. The original producers were replaced by Italian film mogul Dino De Laurentiis.
De Laurentiis convinced Charles Bluhdorn to bring the project to Paramount Pictures. Paramount purchased the distribution rights of the film in the United States market, while Columbia Pictures licensed the distribution rights for international markets. De Laurentiis raised the $3 million budget of the film by pre-selling the distribution rights.
With funding secured, screenwriter Gerald Wilson was hired to revise the script. His first task was changing the identity of the vigilante to make the role more suitable for Bronson. "Paul Benjamin" was renamed to "Paul Kersey." His job was changed from accountant to architect. His background changed from a World War II veteran to a Korean War veteran. The reason for him not seeing combat duty changed from serving as an army accountant to being a conscientious objector. Several vignettes from Mayes' script were deemed unnecessary and so were deleted.
Winner himself asked for several revisions in the script. Both the novel and the original script had no scenes showing the vigilante interacting with his wife. Winner decided to include a prologue depicting a happy relationship and so the prologue of the film depicts the couple vacationing in Hawaii. The early draft of the script had the vigilante being inspired by seeing a fight scene in the Western film High Noon. Winner decided on a more elaborate scene, involving a fight scene in a recreation of the Wild West, taking place in Tucson, Arizona. The final script had the vigilante making an occasional reference to Westerns. While confronting an armed mugger, he challenges him to draw (Kersey tells him to "fill your hand," the same challenge issued by Western movie icon John Wayne to his main opponent in the climactic shootout in 1969's True Grit). When Ochoa tells him to get out of town, he asks if he has until sundown to do so. The killing in the subway station was supposed to remain off-screen in Mayes' script, but Winner decided to turn this into an actual, brutal scene.
A minor argument occurred when it came to a shooting location for the film. Bronson asked for a California-based location so that he could visit his family in Bel Air, Los Angeles. Winner insisted on New York City and De Laurentiis agreed. Ultimately, Bronson backed down.Death Wish was shot on location in New York City during the winter of 1973-1974.Death Wish was first released to American audiences in July 1974. The world premiere took place on July 24 in the Loews Theater of New York City.
Multiple Grammy award-winning jazz musician Herbie Hancock produced and composed the original score for the soundtrack to the movie. It was his third film score, after the 1966 movie Blow-Up and The Spook Who Sat By The Door (1973). Michael Winner said, "[Dino] De Laurentiis said 'Get a cheap English band.' Because the English bands were very successful. But I had a girlfriend who was in Sesame Street, a Puerto Rican actress (Sonia Manzano), who played a checkout girl at the supermarket [in Death Wish], and she was a great jazz fan. She said, 'Well, you should have Herbie Hancock. He's got this record out called Head Hunters.' She gave me Head Hunters, which was staggering. And I said, 'Dino, never mind a cheap English band, we'll have Herbie Hancock.' Which we did."
Death Wish received mixed reviews upon its release because of its support of vigilantism, but it affected US audiences and began widespread debate over how to deal with rampant crime. The film's graphic violence, particularly the brutal rape scene of Kersey's daughter and the explicit portrayal of Kersey's premeditated slayings, was considered exploitative but realistic in the context of the US atmosphere of rising urban crime rates.
Many critics were displeased with the film, considering it an "immoral threat to society" and an encouragement of antisocial behavior. Vincent Canby of The New York Times was one of the most outspoken writers, condemning Death Wish in two extensive articles.Roger Ebert awarded three stars out of four and praised the "cool precision" of Winner's direction but did not agree with the film's philosophy.Gene Siskel gave the film two stars out of four and wrote that its setup "makes no attempt at credibility; its goal is to present a syllogism that argues for vengeance, and to present it so swiftly that one doesn't have time to consider its absurdity."Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times called it "a despicable motion picture... It is nasty and demagogic stuff, an appeal to brute emotions and against reason." Gary Arnold of The Washington Post described the film as "simplistic to the point of stasis. Scarcely a single sensible insight into urban violence occurs; the killings just plod one after another as Bronson stalks New York's crime-ridden streets." Clyde Jeavons of The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote, "Superficially, it's not all that far removed from a Budd Boetticher revenge Western ... The difference, of course, is that Michael Winner has none of Boetticher's indigenous sense of allegory or his instinct for what constitutes a good folk-mythology, let alone his relish for three-dimensional villains."
Garfield was also unhappy with the final product, calling the film "incendiary" and stated that the film's sequels are all pointless and rancid since they advocate vigilantism unlike his two novels, which make the opposite argument. The film led him to write a follow-up titled Death Sentence, which was published a year after the film's release. In later years, the film would be liked for its disturbing, serious view of one man's violent war on crime. Bronson defended the film and felt that it was intended to be a commentary on violence and was meant to attack violence, not romanticize it. Many critics rate the original film higher than the sequels, which were more exploitative and contrived.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
Death Wish was a watershed for Bronson, who was 53 years old at the time, and who was then better known in Europe and Asia for his role in The Great Escape. Bronson became an American film icon, who experienced great popularity over the next twenty years.
In March 2016, Paramount and MGM announced that Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado would direct a remake starring Bruce Willis. In May, Keshales and Papushado quit the project, after the studio failed to allow their script rewrites. In June, Eli Roth signed on to direct. The film was released on March 2, 2018.