Death Wish (film)

Death Wish

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Michael Winner
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis
Hal Landers
Bobby Roberts
Screenplay by Wendell Mayes
Based on Death Wish by
Brian Garfield
Starring Charles Bronson
Hope Lange
Vincent Gardenia
Steven Keats
William Redfield
Music by Herbie Hancock
Cinematography Arthur J. Ornitz
Editing by Bernard Gribble
Distributed by Paramount Pictures (U.S./U.K Distribution)
Columbia Pictures (International Distribution)
Release date(s) July 24, 1974 (1974-07-24)
Running time 93 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $3 million
Box office $22 million

Death Wish is a 1974 crime thriller film loosely based on the novel Death Wish by Brian Garfield. The film was directed by Michael Winner and stars Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey, a man who becomes a vigilante after his wife is murdered and his daughter is sexually assaulted by muggers.

The film was a commercial success, and generated a movie franchise lasting four sequels over a twenty-year period. The film was disliked by many critics due to it advocating vigilantism and unlimited punishment to criminals.[1] The novel denounced vigilantism, whereas the film embraced the notion. Yet, it was seen as echoing a growing mood in the United States as crime rose during the 1970s.[2]



Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) and his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) vacation in Hawaii. They return to New York City, where Paul works as an architect.

Joanna and their daughter Carol Anne (Kathleen Tolan) shop for groceries at D'Agostino's Market. Three hooligans (one played by Jeff Goldblum) are wreaking havoc in the supermarket. They catch Joanna's address after she asks that her groceries be delivered. They follow her to the apartment, burst in and trash the apartment. They search for money but find only $7. The hooligans then rape Carol and savagely beat Joanna, escaping scot-free.

Paul's son-in-law Jack Toby (Steven Keats) calls to tell him only that Joanna and Carol are in the hospital. After waiting impatiently, Paul is told by a doctor that his daughter is OK and that she was sedated and put to bed, but Paul is also informed that his wife has died. Devastated, he is told by police that the likelihood of catching the criminals is small.

The next day, Paul's boss gives him an extended business vacation to Tucson, Arizona to meet a client, Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin), who shows him the ropes. Paul witnesses a mock gunfight at Old Tucson, a reconstructed Western frontier town used as a movie set. At a gun club, Ames is impressed when Paul shoots near bulls-eye accuracy. He reveals that he was a "CO" (conscientious objector) during the Korean War who served his country as a combat medic. Ames drops him at the airport, slipping a little going-away present, a handgun, into Paul's bag.

Back in Manhattan, New York City, his daughter is catatonic. Paul opens his suitcase to find a nickel-plated .32 Colt Police Positive revolver. He pockets the gun and takes a stroll. Paul encounters a mugger, an ex-convict named Thomas Leroy Marston who attempts to rob him at gunpoint with a .38 Smith & Wesson Model 36 revolver. Paul shoots him with the revolver, killing him.

Shocked that he just killed a human being, Paul runs home and throws up. But his vigilantism continues the following night, when he guns down three more men who are robbing a defenseless old man in a vacant alley.

A few nights later, two muggers see Paul on a subway. They attempt to rob him at knife-point but Paul shoots them both with the revolver.

The next scene has Paul then sitting in a sleazy Times Square coffee shop surrounded by prostitutes and assorted street people. He pays his bill to the cashier purposely revealing a wallet full of cash. He leaves followed by two thugs who have taken the bait. Yet again a robbery attempt is made. Paul shoots one but the other manages to stab him in his shoulder. As a wounded Paul stumbles off, the one who stabbed him gets away mortally wounded, dying at a hospital.

NYPD Lt. Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) investigates the vigilante killings. His department narrows a list to men who have had a family member recently killed by muggers and who are war veterans. The public, meanwhile, is happy that somebody is doing something about crime.

Ochoa soon suspects Paul. He is about to make an arrest when the District Attorney (Fred J. Scollay) intervenes and tells Ochoa to "let him loose" in another city instead. Ochoa doesn't like the idea, but relents.

Paul shoots two more muggers before being wounded by a third mugger with a M1911A1 pistol at a warehouse. Hospitalized, he is ordered by Ochoa to leave New York, permanently. Paul replies, "By sundown?".

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 Kersey points his right hand like a gun and smiles, suggesting that his vigilantism will continue.


Jeff Goldblum had his screen debut in Death Wish, playing one of the three criminals who attack Kersey's wife and daughter, especially forcing the daughter to perform fellatio on him. Character actor Robert Miano also has a minor role as a mugger in the film. Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, who would later co-star on the highly successful TV show Welcome Back, Kotter, had an uncredited role as another mugger near the end of the film. Denzel Washington makes his screen debut as an uncredited alley mugger. Actress Helen Martin, who had a minor role, subsequently appeared in the television sitcoms Good Times and 227. Sonia Manzano, 'Maria' from Sesame Street has an uncredited role as a grocery clerk. Christopher Guest makes one of his earliest film appearances as a young police officer who finds Kersey's gun. A young Saul Rubinek plays one of the robbers on the subway. He later appears as a NYPD officer in Death Wish V: The Face of Death.


Originally Sidney Lumet was to have directed Jack Lemmon as Paul until the original producer was replaced by Italian film mogul Dino De Laurentiis[3] and marketed by Paramount Pictures.

Death Wish was first released to American audiences in July 1974. The film was rejected by other studios because of its controversial subject matter and was dropped by United Artists after budget constraints forced producers Hal Landers and Bobby Roberts to liquidate their rights.

The original film was written by Wendell Mayes, also known for such thrillers as Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972). Michael Winner, a favorite director of De Laurentiis, oversaw its filming and would later direct the first two sequels. Of the five Death Wish films, the original most adheres to Garfield's novel.


Multiple Grammy award winning Jazz musician Herbie Hancock produced and composed the original score for the soundtrack to the original Death Wish movie. This would be his third film score, behind the 1966 movie Blow-Up and 1973's The Spook Who Sat By The Door. 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."

Home Video Release

The film was first released on VHS in 1980. It was re-released on DVD in 2001. Currently, the VHS and DVD versions are both now out of print.

Critical reception

Death Wish received mixed to extremely negative reviews upon its release, due to its support of vigilantism, but it had an impact on U.S. 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 as well as the explicit portrayal of Bronson's premeditated slayings, was considered exploitive, but realistic in the backdrop of an urban U.S. atmosphere of rising crime rates.[4][5]

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.[6][7][8] Brian Garfield was also unhappy with the final product, calling the film 'incendiary', and even stated that each of the following sequels are all pointless and rancid, since they all advocate vigilantism unlike his two novels which are the exact opposite. The result of this film, led him to write up a follow-up titled, Death Sentence and was published a year after the film's release.

The film holds a score of 67% "Fresh" with an average rating of 5.9/10 on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes.[9]

Impact and influence

Death Wish was a watershed for Charles Bronson, who was better known in Europe and Asia at the time mostly due to his role in The Great Escape. Bronson became an American film icon who experienced great popularity over the next twenty years.

In the series' later years, Death Wish became a subject of parody for its over-the-top violence and the advancing age of Bronson (An episode of The Simpsons named A Star Is Burns showed a fictional advertisement for Death Wish 9, consisting of a bed-ridden Bronson saying "I wish I was dead"). However, the Death Wish franchise remained lucrative and drew support from fans of exploitation cinema. The series continues to have widespread following on home video and is occasionally broadcast on network television.

In an episode of American Dad, 'The One That Got Away' Roger dresses up similar to the leading protagonist when he plans revenge on an alternate personality of himself. He tells an alternate character that Deathwish was a movie, when his reference via outfit is misconstuted.

The film was considered for two of the American Film Institute's 100 series lists. The character of Paul Kersey was considered a possible candidate for AFI's 100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains list.[10] The film itself was also a candidate for AFI's 100 Years…100 Thrills, a list of America's most heart-pounding movies.[11]


  1. ^ "Death Wish Movie Reviews". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved April 26, 2011. 
  2. ^ Frum, David (2000). How We Got Here: The '70s. New York, New York: Basic Books. p. 13. ISBN 0-465-04195-7. 
  3. ^ Nikki Tranter. "Historian: Interview with Brian Garfield". 
  4. ^ "Death Wish". Chicago Sun Times. Retrieved 2010-12-03. 
  5. ^ "Death Wish". Variety. 1973-12-31. Retrieved 2010-01-05. 
  6. ^ "Screen: 'Death Wish' Exploits Fear Irresponsibly; 'Death Wish' Exploits Our Fear". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-11-06. 
  7. ^ "Screen: 'Death Wish' Hunts Muggers:The Cast Story of Gunman Takes Dim View of City". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-11-06. 
  8. ^ Severo, Richard (2003-09-01). "Charles Bronson, 81, Movie Tough Guy, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-01-05. 
  9. ^ "Death Wish". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2011-11-02. 
  10. ^ "The 50 Greatest Heroes and the 50 Greatest Villains of All Time: The 400 Nominated Characters". Retrieved July 30, 2011. 
  11. ^ "America's Most Heart-Pounding Movies: The 400 Nominated Films". Retrieved July 30, 2011. 

External links

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