“I mean, if we’re not pioneers, what have we become? What do you call people who, when they’re faced with a condition or fear, do nothing about it? They just run and hide?”
The urban crime thriller craze of the late 60s and across the 70s yielded many a new action star, breakout director, and landmark motion picture. Films like Bullitt, The French Connection, and Dirty Harry kicked down the door to tales of moral gray and corruption that had been previously opened by decades worth of film noir, blended with explosive violence the likes of which audiences of the time were simultaneously unused to, and were craving all the while. One of the players in this scene is Britain’s Michael Winner, a jack-of-all-genres veteran director who first hit it well and truly big when he began his collaboration with action icon Charles Bronson. After a western and a pulpy action thriller in 1972 (Chato’s Land and the classic hitman film The Mechanic respectively), Bronson and Winner entered the urban crime scene with the cop thriller The Stone Killer in 1973. And but one year later, a defining moment for troubled city streets on celluloid would be made.
Before the cavalcade of absurd (but admittedly fun) Cannon sequels, Winner and Bronson worked to bring Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel to the big screen, albeit with a different message in mind. Death Wish, for all intents and purposes, is a time capsule of all the fear and rage felt by the masses with rising crime rates of the 70s. Vigilantism in cinema has served a variety of purposes, but one of the foremost is satisfying people’s primal emotions. There are people who want to see justice served instantaneously, process be damned. Death Wish is a film that speaks to that desire, for better or for worse, with a frankness that is quite unreal. Upon the pages was a warning against the pitfalls of taking matters into your own hands, on the screen was theatrical catharsis for those who could not.
The buildup to Bronson’s transformation is one of the most fascinating series of sequences to witness. A man who has never truly felt the statistics he was bombarded with has his whole world collapse in on itself when his wife and daughter become them. I consider this to be a fabulous Bronson turn as this first half is not the star we know. He is more pensive and grief-stricken, almost recalling the sadness he exuded near the end of the 1972 crime drama The Valachi Papers. The scene where he upchucks into his bathtub after his first real taste of vigilantism is something that has lingered with me. I think it is just seeing someone pushed to the very limits of what he was previously only thinking of, especially after a brief slug at a mugger which shook him up.
The second half is a relatively basic cat-and-mouse game that brings the film to a pulpier demeanor. It breaks away from the first half’s relatively grounded nature, but it still makes for some entertaining action. Its classic Winner cool that made him a fantastic director of action cinema. DP Arthur J. Ornitz aims for that sweet Owen Roizman realism, shooting New York with a fabulously gritty nocturnal sensibility. When night falls, that is when everything and everyone comes out of the woodwork. Another item of note is a gorgeous & horrifying score by jazz icon Herbie Hancock. Though much of the underscore is pretty anonymous & dissonant, there are some knockout moments of pure, jazzy resonance and solid synth craft.
That is not to say the film is without its problems. The biggest is some of the wayward editing of Bernard Gribble. One could make the argument that the disorienting cuts come in handy in the more chaotic moments of the film, but the cuts usually feel off regardless. And while the pacing is perfectly fine, that change from the complexities of the first half to the urban crime theatrics of the second half is a noticeable shift in tone and style. It never feels like a cohesive film, but two halves stitched together. One is an enriching drama, the other an action thriller. It also doesn’t help in the grand scheme of things given that the second half would dominate the approach Cannon Films would take, be it Winner at the helm or otherwise, and the first half would barely make it into the second installment in 1982. Not knocking the sequels though. If you want unvarnished action-packed insanity, they are the go-to series. But that does not diminish the almost light-switch flip that occurs narratively in this original film.
I will leave the debate over the film’s politics to the reader, but what I can say is this: Death Wish is a surprisingly thoughtful film that turns into a bout of classic urban crime thriller theatrics. A career turn from Bronson, some chilly location photography, tight pacing, and a potent jazz soundtrack seal the deal on a film that is as hotly discussed today as it was back in 1974. Worthwhile, entertaining, but certainly provocative. In short, everything I could want from an urban crime thriller from the 1970s, perhaps everything you could want as well.