The Cult of Personal Vengeance in the Death Wish Movies (Part One)

*contains spoilers

I’ll try not to get too heavy but injustice is a part of our everyday lives in terms of either your life being ruined by another person or a family member or loved one being murdered or raped by another person. There are those that forgive and but don’t forget. Those that forgive and forget. Those that simply forget or block … and then there are those like Charles Bronson (1921-2003 Alzheimer’s disease) in the Death Wish movies who will exact revenge.

And they’re perfect if you haven’t got a gun as movies are the perfect weapon to rent or buy to help vent the feelings of revenge in your heart. Bronson as the character of Paul Kersey embodies that need of collective injustice within the subconscious in the community. The Death Wish movies are an antidote and also very bingeworthy.

Death Wish (1974) poster
Charles Bronson sets the agenda in Death Wish (1974)
Clint Eastwood was the box office inspiration in Dirty Harry (1971)

Ever since the legend of Robin Hood avenged the poor against crooked politicians and robbed the rich and gave back their money to the poor… revenge and its spoils is for the living. Today the seed of those billionaires who don’t pay enough tax still riles the poor who suffer and still pay tax. It’s a part of our psyche to feel a bit pissed off … Think GST.

The modern-day vigilante film was kicked off inadvertently by the smash hit of Clint Eastwood’s (1930-) Dirty Harry (1971) which had a good cop kind of wipe out a killer who pushed him too far… But if we go back a bit further, we may see that it was actor Alan Ladd’s (1913-64 drug and alcohol overdose) urban revenge movie 13 West Street (1962) which although ignored was the first protest against police inaction and impotence in enforcing the law against juvenile crime. Its script was based on a book by Leah Brackett (1915-78) who wrote a couple of Raymond Chandler (1888-1959 long illness) based scripts. The Ladd movie is remembered for its low-key approach as its hero speaks softly and carries a big stick which he uses at the end on rich delinquents as opposed to those who are poor and possibly addicted and thus driven to crime. No excuse for being evil but the end of the movie is pretty flaccid. America has always had vigilantism in its blood in terms of westerns with the local posse stringing up villains while European villagers usually ran around in Frankenstein movies with lit torches with the same thing in mind… Ladd even used revenge in his earlier western One Foot in Hell (1960) where he dooms a town which let Ladd’s pregnant wife die over a couple of bucks worth of medicine. I think of The Ladd Company logo and that troubled man whenever I see a certain tree when I go walking. The ent shape and form of that logo… and there is a Bronson family link to one of the Death Wish movies which I will get to in a moment…

Underrated actor Alan Ladd in 13 West Street (1962)
From little things big things grow…
The real Buford Pusser
The Rock struts his stuff in Walking Tall (2004)

Clint Eastwood hardened up the soul of vigilantes along with the movie Walking Tall (1973) which had lawman Buford Pusser (1937-74 car accident?) take on local thugs with a baseball bat. It was remade starring The Rock in 2004. It was novelist Brian Garfield (1939-2018 Parkinson’s disease) who published his novel Death Wish in 1972 which created the phenomenon of the Bronson movies. The book was not a success in terms of the number of copies it sold but it was respected critically and producers were soon snapping up the film rights in what they saw as a possible mainstream exploitation market proposition.

The book of Death Wish is about accountant Paul Benjamin who avenges his wife’s murder and the rape of his daughter which left her in a vegetative state. The script was tweaked and the name changed to Paul Kersey who is an architect.

Garfield said of the script: “The screenplay for the original Death Wish movie was quite good, I thought. It was written my Wendell Mayes (1919-92 cancer) … but his Death Wish script was designed to be directed by Sidney Lumet (1924-2011 lymphoma), with Jack Lemmon (1925-2001 bladder cancer) to star as Paul.”

Original Death Wish book cover
Novelist Brian Garfield
Actor George C. Scott directed Rage (1972)

Unfortunately, Lumet passed to make Serpico (1973) and the script which was said to have been offered to such actors as Steve McQueen (1930-80 mesothelioma), George C. Scott (1927-99 abdominal haemorrhage), Burt Lancaster (1913-94 heart attack) and even Frank Sinatra (1915-98 after heart attack) before Bronson took on the role after it also changed producers.

“I hated the four sequels,” said Garfield who thought the films were little more than “vanity showcases for a very limited talent.”  But, oh, what exploitation they made! And my how they sated the feeling within that justice had cheated so many souls over the years.

The man who directed the first three Death Wish movies of Death Wish (1974), Death Wish II (1982) and Death Wish 3 (1985) was Michael Winner (1935-2013 no cause given) who had already directed a few films starring Bronson including the successful The Stone Killer (1973). The pair were looking for something and they fell upon Death Wish.

From all accounts Winner was a bit of a prick to work for despite the fact he was a “wonderful friend” according to actress Felicity Kendal (1949-) when I cornered her after a theatre performance and asked if I could have a peck – she turned her head and pointed to her cheek the beautiful girl. Anyway, the pair worked together on what would be Winner’s swansong vigilante movie Parting Shots (1999) but more later on that film…

Director Michael Winner and Charles Bronson on the set of Death Wish (1974)
Girl next door Hope Lange (left) in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)
Felicity Kendal in Michael Winner’s Parting Shots (1999)

“The point of the novel Death Wish is that vigilantism is an attractive fantasy, but it often makes things worse in reality,” original novelist Garfield said about the fact that a vigilante could accidentally shoot an innocent person just because they acted or dressed inappropriately: “The story is about an ordinary guy who descends into madness.”

Anyone who watches the Death Wish movies knows that Charles Bronson doesn’t make mistakes and I have worshipped these movies in the past as Winner’s trilogy captures something in terms of the films growing epic in anger which reach epic scope despite descending in the order of their quality into exploitation as Bronson’s madness becomes more ambitious and outrageously overblown on increasingly modest budgets. Garfield’s original book is genius and contains eternal zeitgeist.

“I’d like to do that… shoot muggers,” said Winner about accepting the job as director.

Bronson in the meantime declined the use of his wife Jill Ireland (1936-90 breast cancer) and instead the girl next door image of actress Hope Lange (1933-2003 colitis infection) was used as the wife of Paul Kersey in the first movie who is attacked and killed by muggers and rapists which include a young Jeff Goldblum (1952-). Ireland would appear when the belated sequel appeared in the early 1980s and she is the only one of Charles Bronson’s partners in the five Death Wish movies to survive as he probably insisted on script approval before her casting.

Jeff Goldblum and Hope Lange in Death Wish (1974)
Cannon released a wave of Bronson movies before its demise
Death Wish II (1982) poster

Death Wish II was greenlit by infamous producers The Cannon Group headed by cousins Menahem Golan (1929-2014 and Yorum Globus (1943-). They would produce the remaining movies, while the final one was made under the banner of Golan’s short-lived 21st Century Film Corporation in the wake of Cannon going broke. Note also that Sesame Street star Sonia Manzano plays a cashier at the supermarket at the beginning of Death Wish.

The sacrificial lambs are usually women in these films who are often raped and murdered and the spur for Bronson to begin or return to his killing sprees. I should mention the subtle difference in the ending of the original book and the movie. The movie has a gunshot in the night which may signal Bronson’s return to killing and that is it. In the book it is a policeman who turns a blind eye to the latest vigilante killing upon hearing or seeing a vigilante. I sometimes wonder if Garfield protest-eth too much and that he really celebrated vigilantism. He seemed to think the ending is cautionary in the book whereas in the movie it is definitely the celebration of the freedom of the judicious gunshot.

It took years before Death Wish II was made and its use of Roman numerals was dropped for the third movie when it was found that the American public couldn’t read them and thought the film was Death Wish eleven. The third movie was Death Wish 3 as a result.

Musician and composer Jimmy Page
Page’s at times haunting soundtrack
An Oscar for Herbie Hancock

Death Wish II has a great score by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page (1944-) and there is a cue which was used again in the third movie which is haunting. The first movie was scored by Herbie Hancock (1940-) who would win an undeserved Oscar for Round Midnight (1986) when Ennio Morricone’s (1928-2020 after fall) score for The Mission (1986) was the obvious winner. Personally, I like the cheap synthesiser and guitar of Page’s score the best and he was chosen for the job possibly because he was Bronson’s neighbour. Maybe he played music too loud and Bronson gave him a job rather than shot him!

The violence in Death Wish II is nastier and worse than in the first movie. There is a gang rape scene which treads the line of taste and it was heavily censored in some countries. This is probably why this is the most critically reviled of the five films and yet the most enjoyable in terms of the revenge that Bronson carries out as a result. Whereas in the first movie the real muggers got away with it, which made the premise of the movie more ironic and cutting… in this sequel each of the killers are knocked off.

Death Wish (1974) trailer
Bronson and Winner on the Death Wish 3 (1985) location
The gang in Death Wish II (1982). Each picked their own hairstyles and costumes.

The rape scene of Bronson’s maid took six days to film and it still shocks today. Actress Silvana Gillardo (1953-2012 no cause given) said she spoke to rape victims to prepare for the movie and she was treated with respect on the set once director Winner yelled: “Cut” as a sheet was used to cover her modesty. Bronson was aged 61 for this first ever sequel of his career and he was paid $1.5 million for the role in a film with a budget of $8 million. It doubled its money in box office receipts in the United States alone. It probably played the drive-ins as I don’t remember it at the mainstream cinemas and I couldn’t watch it anyway because it had and under 18 restricted rating. Thank God for VHS.

“Goodbye,” says Bronson to one of his scummy victims with a finality which has never been equalled in terms of the use of a single word in a revenge flick as he pulls the trigger. He is a man drained of emotion and feeling as you would expect following the rape and death of his daughter by scum and so is driven beyond the brink.

In another moment of glorious relief for those who have suffered injustice he shoots a punk wearing a cross after asking him if he believes in Jesus. “Well, you’re going to meet him,” says Bronson to the meek reply of “yes”. Viewers would doubt this very much as eternal damnation beckons beyond seeing the sainted face of Paul Kersey/Charles Bronson as the final thing they see on the planet.

Writer Brian Garfield wrote a follow-up novel entitled Death Sentence in the wake of the first movie in 1975. He called it his repentance due to the success of the first movie and this title and the book was used as the basis for the excellent Death Sentence (2007) starring Kevin Bacon (1958-) who loses family members in a mugging and then more in a home invasion. Death Sentence was directed by the excellent Australian James Wan (1977-) who kicked off the Saw franchise as well as the Insidious movies.

Real life couple Jill Ireland and Charles Bronson in Breakout (1975)
“Goodbye,” says Charlie in Death Wish II (1982)
Director James Wan helped forge Death Sentence (2007)

After the first Death Wish movie, Winner had a string of directorial failures which led to him to be enticed to make the Los Angeles set sequel. The beauty of the Death Wish movies is that the odd numbered ones are set in New York while the even ones are set in Los Angeles. In terms of Star Trek movie mythology, the best ones are the even numbered ones and the worst the odd numbered. But the Death Wish movies are all good or all bad according to your taste!

“(Mugging) has spread to towns where it was not a problem before. In Beverly Hills, instead of talking about people’s failed movies… they talk about their muggings,” said Winner about the impetus behind Death Wish II and the burgeoning crime rate in America in the early 1980s. The film doesn’t shy away from the death penalty as an option and deterrent for crime… It’s just it hasn’t worked as Bronson avenges the ones that got away.

Critic Roger Ebert (1942-2013 cancer) erred on popular mainstream taste and probably missed the point when he gave Death Wish II no stars with fellow thumbnail critic chiming in with the same score as Ebert described the movie as “artistically inept and morally repugnant.” Talk about living a sheltered life in terms of the suffering on the streets… You tell victims of crime and their families about your point of view!

Death Wish II (1982) trailer
Gene Siskel (left) and Roger Ebert trashed too many movies
An Eye For An Eye (1996) poster

The idea of the self as judge, jury and executioner may be the perfect starting point for discussion about the polarity of views on crime and how to deal with it. The Death Wish movies blur the views and maybe unite the views of those on the right wing of politics and those on the Left side. Those united possibly tears instead of prayers as people on both sides of politics view the Death Wish movies through cult eyes even if they are criminals themselves who wish revenge on other criminals. At least it is a de facto violence and not the real thing as our wish to identify with the perpetrator is reflected onto us and carried out on the big screen.

Winner apparently let the actors playing the punks in Death Wish II choose their own costumes and hairstyles and the results are distinctive with Kevyn Major Howard’s (no info) haircut the main reason for his snake like character getting blown away. Stanley Kubrick (1928-99 heart attack in sleep) was so impressed by Kevyn that he used him in Full Metal Jacket (1987).

If you take note, the mainstream world was watching Eastwood in Any Which Way You Can (1981) and Excalibur (1981) as posters for these films decorate the facades of the movie theatres that Bronson drives past looking for the reality of the streets and dole out destiny to that reality…

The moral repugnance is that this film faces the awful truth and despite the critics’ attempts to suppress its success it became an instant cult once more around the world and sold a record amount of VHS tapes upon its home entertainment release in Germany.

A real life vigilante leads to Death Wish 3 and a family connection for Bronson leads to its sequel in PART TWO.

Legal drug addiction is explored in The Prescription for Misconduct (2016) may have killer Side Effects (2013) PRESS HERE

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