DEATH WISH (1974)
Amongst the rampant crime rates, countless poor and piling trash, meek Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) makes it day by day working for a housing development company and spending time with his loving wife. His peaceful life is destroyed though, when a gang of hoods breaks into his home and attacks his wife and visiting daughter. After the attack, Paul attempts to hang on to his life by keeping busy and constantly checking on his daughter's health. When the police are unable to apprehend the unknown criminals, Paul finds his thoughts turning to vengeance.
Taking to the streets at night, Paul sets himself up time and time again as easy prey for would-be muggers. But when the muggers make their move, Paul instead pulls his hidden gun and kills the muggers. His actions quickly spread through tabloids and he becomes a media sensation. The police begin a citywide manhunt for the vigilante, hoping to stop him from killing again, before the entire city populous churns into a murderous frenzy in the name of self defense.
Based on the book of the same name, DEATH WISH takes a very harsh and real look at what drives a man to turn to vigilantism as a way to cope with pain, loss, and a sense of helplessness. Director Michael Winner spends over half the movie building up Paul Kersey before letting him lose into the streets. Before Paul turns to the gun, he tries using the cops, turns to escapism as he flies to Tucson for a business trip, and even to the bottle. It is only when all else fails, and he sees his family crumble away forever that he finally loads his revolver.
The film itself, though running just over ninety minutes, tries to encompass a rounded view of vigilantism and how people cope as victims of crime. Paul's daughter runs from her pain within herself, and eventually becomes catatonic. Paul's son-in-law offers a cowardly "cut and run" excuse. The mayor even get a piece of the action when he secretly learns that mugging rates have gone down significantly during Paul's midnight outings. The police are even reluctant to arrest him, partially due to not wanting to create a martyr, and more so because they secretly admire what he is doing.
Charles Bronson, in arguably his greatest role, which would also typecast him for the rest of life, brings a depth and pain to the screen that is heartbreaking to watch unfold even when he finds solace in the gun. It is perhaps even more painful after he resorts to the gun. It is a slow transformation, taking almost thirty minutes, and incorporates not just an emotional range that allows the viewer to gain a true understanding and compassion for him, but takes the time to explain both his hesitation and proficiency with firearms. Bronson, though not quite the everyman as originally written in the book due to his stocky frame, is given weaknesses such as glasses to differentiate him from the more rugged Bronson characters in THE DIRTY DOZEN and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. It is no mistake though that he is given a six-shooter, as he takes down the lawless thieves one by one like a gunslinger in the wild west.
The landscape that Michael Winner paints of New York is a frightening image, still to this day. Upon its theatrical release, it must have been a shocking sight for both urban viewers, and even more horrific to suburbia to witness what had be fallen the Greatest City On Earth. Winner pulls no punches here as he takes his time to paint the small details in his concrete jungle. His attack sequence in the apartment, a vital element to the story, is portrayed with an especially visceral touch as he shows the true and very real evil that lurks the streets. Taken as a period piece today, it is among the top films of its time to give an honest portrayal of just what New York City was like in one of its darkest times, and should prove as a warning of history repeating itself, should crime once again take a vice-like grip on the Big Apple.
DEATH WISH still elicits the same gut emotional reactions now as it did over thirty years ago, and is still a top contender in the vigilante subgenre due to the time it takes to hone the main character into an all too believable person in an all too real situation. He is flesh and blood and not invincible, and Winner takes time to show us that as well. It also remains relevant even in today's debates and conversations, as it brings up universal thoughts and conflicting opinions on how to deal with crime, criminals, and punishment. No one would ever want to be in Paul Kersey's shoes, but deep down inside us all, there is a part that would all too willingly lace up those shoes and walk the shadowed sidewalks if need be.