365 Days, 100 Films #84 – Death Wish (1974)

Death Wish, 1974.

Directed by Michael Winner.
Starring Charles Bronson, Hope Lange, Vincent Gardenia, Steven Keats and William Redfield.


Paul Kersey wages a one-man war against crime in New York City after the murder of his wife.

After enduring Movember, you appreciate a man with a good moustache. Charles Bronson has a great moustache.

He plays Paul Kersey, an architect and ‘bleeding-heart liberal’ in New York, i.e. the guy you would least expect to pick up a gun and start killing criminals. And be really good at it.

While at work one day, his apartment is brutally invaded by three punks, one being a young Jeff Goldblum. His daughter is sexually assaulted and his wife later dies in hospital from her injuries. Goldblum home invasions were rife in the 70s. Bloody Jeff Goldblum.

New York appears a little darker after that day, like Gotham without the architecture. It has the same chill, the same rampant, unstoppable crime, the same ever-falling snow. The police are pragmatic. They don’t offer hope. It’s a cold whore of a city.

It’s a sentiment anyone who has ever been robbed in the street or had their home burgled will share – everything looks a little suspicious in the months immediately after. Your faith in humanity takes a considerable knock. And that’s just for a Playstation 2 and an old VCR. Imagine how Kersey must feel.

His boss sends him on a business vacation to Tucson, Arizona. It’s real nice out there. Kersey becomes friends with the company’s client, Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin), and the two visit a reconstructed Ol’ West town. A few actors stage a mock gunfight for the tourists with a group of bandits against the lone sheriff. Justice was done with bullets in those days.

Half inspired by the tourist attraction, Kersey becomes a vigilante. He’s always had the skill of a killer (his father was a hunter), but never the heart. Until his wife murdered and his daughter raped, that is.

Walking through New York’s darkened streets, Kersey sees the face of his wife’s murderer, his daughter’s rapist in every street crawler, drug dealer or mugger’s face. The crime of the city is so extensive that it has produced its own antibody in Kersey. He’s a Batman who kills.

Kersey’s justice is a tad heavy handed – perhaps petty thieves should be given a trial rather than shot dead – but the city’s crime rate has dropped significantly since he’s taken the law into his own hands. The vigilante question adorns billboards and the front covers of magazines; he’s the main topic of conversation at middle-class parties; old women beating muggers away with their bags claim him as their inspiration. Kersey’s alter ego is now a symbol against lawlessness, despite being a murderer himself. The architect has constructed an effective crime deterrent, but missed the structural flaw in its foundations.

Nevertheless, Death Wish is an immensely enjoyable film. Half ridiculous, maybe, but the revenge motive is played perfectly throughout. Despite killing a whole load of people who don’t deserve to die, you never stop rooting for him. In fact, it’s a rather nice, passive aggressive way of releasing any anger you might have towards any shifty looking people in your town centre.

All you have to do is get past the shudder upon seeing the movie’s opening credit: A MICHAEL WINNER FILM.


Oli Davis

365 Days, 100 Films