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Vigilante Bronson Vigilante Bronson
by Asa Butcher
Issue 9
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Film
Death Wish
Michael Winner
1974
“Is that a young Jeff Goldblum?” I exclaimed to my wife, while settling into the opening fifteen minutes of Death Wish. It appeared my observation was right, as a youthful Jeff played Freak #1 in his feature film debut and shocked me with one of his first lines, “Stab her in the ass!”

My review of the classic 1974 film Death Wish is getting ahead of itself and we shall return to the future star of Jurassic Park later. Michael Winner and Charles Bronson carved out three Death Wish films together (two more with just Bronson), but this is the first I have ever seen.

As I sat down to watch this film, I was unsure of the spectacle that would unfold over the 90-minutes…a bit like watching Newcastle United, actually. I knew that the film has built a cult following in the three decades since its release, but you are never sure if cult films are any good.

Paul Kersey (Bronson) is an architect who admits to being a bleeding-heart liberal and has not touched guns since his father died in a freak hunting accident. A day after returning from a romantic holiday in Hawaii, his wife and daughter are fatally attacked in their apartment by three thugs. Kersey goes to Arizona to meet a client and recover from the shock. During his stay, the client reintroduces guns into his life and he receives one as a gift. Back home in New York, he begins carrying it on the streets and before long he has captured the public’s imagination as a vigilante standing up to street crime.

Death Wish left me feeling slightly warmer than tepid. The story had a careful methodical structure that left me believing Kersey’s journey into a cool minded vigilante. The police had honestly told him that there was little hope in catching those responsible for his wife’s death and we see Kersey vomit after his first run-in with a potential mugger.

Bronson was not the first or second choice for the role, both Steve McQueen and Henry Fonda turned it down, but he has such a softly spoken screen persona that you cannot help but be drawn into his world. We never see him mourn the death of his wife or the despair over his daughter’s condition; he is just a man with a determination to do what the police are unable.

However outdated the Crime Scene Investigation techniques are in the film, it was fascinating to watch old-fashioned policing when trying to hunt down Kersey. It was interesting to see how somebody in the media eye receives the police’s full attention, while all the other mugging statistics, including the Kersey family’s own misfortune, was glossed over with a, “I’d be less than honest if I gave you more hope, Mr. Kersey. In the city, that’s the way it is.”

The rape and murder scene is where young Jeff returns to the review and it is certainly a startling first outing on the silver screen for him. The scene has undergone many cuts from censorship boards over the years, but I believe what I watched on DVD was the full uncut version. It was a graphic and violent depiction of a brutal assault and rape, reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange released three years earlier. I can say that there have been worse rape scenes in movies, but there was something harrowing about the fact the mother and daughter were the victims.

Aside from Bronson, one other actor caught my attention. Stuart Margolin played the client in Arizona and was such a refreshing change from all the characters we had seen in New York that you could not fail to like him. He could be seen as the guardian angel or guiding hand Kersey desperately needs at that time, as he shows him a cowboy stunt show, the great wide open, a shooting gallery and gives him a gun. One or all of these pushes Kersey further onto his future course and it is thanks to the man who wanted to keep his hills.

Slightly warmer than tepid was my response to Death Wish, I guess the cold water was the numerous vigilante killings that Kersey performs. I understood that it was essential to the plot, but something about the quantity of vengeance didn’t feel right. Whether it was the fact that he began by killing an individual mugger and was immediately wiping out gangs could be the answer.

Death Wish is well worth watching, even if it is just to hear an ultra-thin Jeff Goldblum shouting, “I’m going to piss in her mouth!”

   
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