We start on a beach – Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) and his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) are on holiday in Maui. They are enjoying their holiday – and why shouldn’t they? They’re a middle-aged couple taking it easy, but as Joanna says, “I don’t want to go back home”. And it’s as well she doesn’t, as when they return to their home in New York it’s as grimy, polluted and as aggressive as Maui was clean, hygienic and laid-back.
The landscape is blighted by ugly, grey, concrete and steel monoliths. The atmosphere is dark and brooding. The people seem to be on a hair trigger, with horns in traffic jams being blared repeatedly at the slightest opportunity. In short, it’s the complete antithesis of their idyllic holiday. Their apartment is enclosed and dark, although Joanna tries to lighten the atmosphere a little by decorating the bedroom mirror with a remnant of their holiday – a flower necklace. Paul and Joanna are the very embodiment of middle-aged domesticity.
At his work as an architect, Paul is cornered by work colleague Sam Kreutzer (William Redfield), who delights in telling him that the crimes in New York while he was away have risen. Although Paul initially begins to argue that crime is a side-effect of the failing economic system and its effect on the “under-privileged”, Sam calls Paul a “bleeding heart liberal”. Even Harry, Paul’s boss, calls New York a “war zone”.
Meanwhile, Paul’s wife Joanne and daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan) are shopping. A rather unpleasant gang (including a young and somewhat goofy-looking Jeff Goldblum) are marauding in the same supermarket, intimidating the staff.
As Joanne and Carol leave, the gang see the address on their shopping delivery and decide to follow them. After dodging a rather distracting and randomly placed pack of wandering nuns in the street, the gang go up the back stairwell of the Kersey’s apartment building. On the way up one of them decides to “do a thing” (spray some paint on the wall – after all, aren’t all people with spray-cans inherently evil?). After one of them poses as a delivery boy, the gang break into the apartment with the intention of robbing Joanne and Carol. When they learn that there isn’t any money to be had, they decide to do something else…
The following sequence is rather disturbing, filmed in shaky ‘wobble-cam’, and although the UK version has been cut by 30 seconds it’s still pretty strong stuff. The upshot of the scene is that both of them are beaten (Joanne quite viciously), and Carol is assaulted.
Paul is at work. He gets a phone call from Jack (Steven Keats), Carol’s husband and therefore Paul’s son-in-law. Jack tells him that Joanne and Carol have been taken to hospital after an assault, and Paul leaves work to go there. When they arrive, after speaking to Officer Joe Charles (Robert Kya-Hill), they discover that although Carol has been sedated, she is physically OK. Joanne, however, has died from her injuries.
After Joanne’s funeral, Paul goes to the police, but is told by the Lieutenant in charge of the case (Ed Grover) that there isn’t really a chance of catching the criminals who did it – “In the city,” the Lieutenant reasons, “that’s just the way it is.”
Things start getting worse for Paul – Carol is becoming more disturbed and sleeping more and more. Paul’s life is getting more and more empty, although he tries to keep busy and keep his mind off things. He sees crime right outside his apartment and yet ignores it (but he does go to the bank to get two rolls of quarters, which he keeps with him inside a sock – just as a precaution).
He’s given the opportunity to go to Tuscon, Arizona to supervise a building project but feels that he has to stay for Carol’s sake. He feels more and more redundant as he sees Jack take the decisions for Carol that Paul feels he should be taking.
Then, one night, on his way home, he is nearly mugged. The only thing that stops him is the two rolls of quarters in the sock, which he uses to hit the would-be mugger in the face. After scampering home, Paul is in a state of shock, confusion and joy. He’s just vanquished a mugger! After a very stiff drink to stop shaking, he starts to swing the sock around his apartment in a victory dance. Could this be the emotional release he’s been looking for?
If only he had a gun...
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By: Jimmy Green
Death Wish follows in some distinguished footsteps. The vigilante / revenge films had already started in the early 1970s with films such as "Dirty Harry" (1971), "Straw Dogs" (1972) and "Coffy" (1973), amongst others setting the rules for the genre(s), and "Death Wish" was an urban, white, everyman tale of revenge and social chaos.
The twist with this film that the others didn’t have, was that as the Lieutenant says, there is little chance of catching the perpetrators of the crime. What realistic chance does Kersey have of tracking down men that he hasn’t seen, that he doesn’t know, or that he can’t prove had anything to do with the death of his wife and the deteriorating mental state of his daughter?
And that’s exactly how the film plays it. Not that it’s entirely realistic down to the last detail, but it follows Brian Garfield’s source novel quite closely, even using word for word some of the dialogue at times. (Although Paul Kersey’s name in the novel was Paul Benjamin.)
There is an interesting look in this film (no matter how heavy handed it comes across) at what lines a man has to draw when it comes to turning a blind eye. “How has society got into such a state that someone like Paul can hold anyone other than the criminals responsible for their actions?” the film asks. Why does he pull down the blinds (literally and symbolically) on the crime that is happening literally on his front doorstep? And should it feel so good to take a physical revenge on those who threaten, who attack, and who steal from ‘decent’ citizens?
The film takes a long look at what makes a man. It takes a long look at what America is built on – how the west was won (with violence, of course). But, unlike the book, it is not so clear in looking at Paul Kersey as someone who is gradually losing his mind.
In the film, we sympathise with Kersey, mainly because the villains and criminals in this film are so cartoonish (with the exception of the truly disturbing attack on Joanna and Carol and the beginning by the gang). There is a certain relish that we, as viewers, are expected to take in the images of criminals being blown away. But in the book we were repelled by Kersey’s changing attitude throughout the story: at one point, he nearly murders two innocent cinema-goers on their way back from watching a film, who had the misfortune to be walking on the same side of the street as Kersey. Maybe that’s one of the drawbacks of not having an insight into Kersey’s mind…but the film is still at times disturbingly fascistic, and I suspect that the mental deterioration of Kersey is downplayed to get the more fascistic elements of the film over to the viewer.
However, that aside, it has some fine moments. Michael Winner, as an Englishman literally in New York, has a fine eye for the gritty landscape. As is pointed out in the Time Out Film Guide, he emphasises the hostility of the surroundings very effectively, making it seem nightmarish at times. Everywhere is dark, dank, depressing. There are muggers and other assorted criminals around every corner – this film was perfect at the time of release for playing on the inherent paranoia of city-dwellers.
The fact that it was so successful and influential shows that people were getting tired of promised action against criminals that was getting them nowhere…they wanted to see something done. Paul Kersey, with a gun, blowing away murderers, robbers, muggers and generic ‘hoodlums’ was appealing for people who’d seen crime rise alarmingly in the early 1970s and no longer felt safe to walk the streets in their own neighbourhoods. The streets are barren, deserted, shadowy. Someone can unexpectedly pounce out of the darkness at any moment. Subway trains are places of dirty white seating and flickering neon lighting. Subway stations are menacing, dark and cramped. Even hospitals aren’t exempt from the distortion (as seen when Kersey enters the hospital in the opening minutes of the film, and we follow his reflection in a strangely twisted mirror).
(As a sidenote, it is interesting to see how Michael Winner – a staunch supporter of the Police in the UK, and a regular contributor to Police charities – portrays the Police in many of his films, including his entries in the Death Wish series, as uninterested authority figures who can’t catch criminals. In the case of Death Wish 3, he goes so far as to portray them as authority figures who collude with killers like Kersey to murder other criminals, essentially in cold blood.)
Nonetheless, Death Wish is an effective and surprising film that stays away from the cliches that haunt the other three entries (not counting Death Wish 5: the Face of Death, which falls outside the realm of criticism here – being a 1990s film, after all). Watching it today is still quite a hard-hitting experience, if only for the views that it expresses and the forcefulness that it expresses them with (and THAT opening attack sequence). In common with other films made in the early 1970s, it carries a power that later films seem to lack. It was certainly deemed powerful in the UK, where it was rejected for video distribution after the 1984 Video Recordings Act. It remained unavailable for a decade and a half. When it was finally re-released in 1999, it was still deemed to be too powerful for general consumption and was cut by 30 seconds.
Still strong meat after all these years…
Death Wish was based on the book by Brian Garfield. Originally Paul Kersey's name was Paul Benjamin.
Lead guitarist for the classic rock group "Led Zeppelin", Jimmy Page provided the awesome background guitar sounds, for the film "Death Wish". [Thanks to Benjamin Servin]
know some Death Wish trivia that we could add? [Please
send it in]
Featured Location: Kersey's Apartment
Wanna see the real life location used for Kersey's Apartment in the movie? It was actually filmed at a private residence, located in New York City, New York. [Show me a Map/Directions]
Paul's office was located at 2 Park Avenue, 32nd Street, Murray Hill, New York.
'Death Wish' Park was, in fact, Riverside Park on the East Side of New York.
It is reputed that St Thomas' Hospital, Lambeth Palace Road, Lambeth in London was also used as well as a suberb of London called Brixton --itself a victim of gang problems at that time.
The famous stone stairway where he confronts the three muggers towards the end of the film exists today and is exactly the way it was in the movie! It's located on Riverside Drive...between 135 and 125th street.
His apartment building (33 Riverside Drive) is also looking the same as in the movie over 30 years ago! It's on 75th street. On that block you'll recognize the side entrance where the three thugs sneak in.
Not far from his apartment house is the park where he shoots his first mugger...but it HAS changed from the film. One will be able to sense the area of the scene though by following the walk by the Hudson River. [Thanks to Bobby Travieso]
Can you help? Do you know any of the New York City, New York (or any other) filming locations used for Death Wish? [Please send them in]
An eerie soundtrack, full of weird noises. Stand up please... Mr. Herbie Hancock! Yep, Jazz legend Herbie Hancock was drafted in to provide the soundtrack for Death Wish, and it's not something you'd really want to listen to at home. However, as a soundtrack it's very good. Recently reissued on vinyl as part of the Simply Vinyl series in the UK - the original pressing is very rare and sought after by DJs and producers for samples.
Tracklisting (on original vinyl)
1. Death Wish (main title)
2. Joanna's Theme
3. Do A Thing
4. Paint Her Mouth
5. Rich Country
1. Suite Revenge:
a) Striking Back
b) Riverside Park
c) The Alley
d) Last Stop
e) 8th Avenue Station
2. Ochoa Knose
3. Party People
4. Fill Your Hand
Soundtrack Available: On CD
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