I’m having a hard time deciding where the start with Death Wish. I wanted to open with a glib comment about how much I appreciated (even though it’s counter to some expository dialogue in the film) more of the criminals being white than black. Very progressive (or cautious) for 1974. But then I thought maybe starting with director Michael Winner–who actually does achieve one well-directed sequence in the entire film (and Death Wish shot on location in New York, so it’s hard to mess up, but Winner makes it look like a Mentos commercial). Or the writing, which is more Hollywoodized than an episode of “Friends.” I never thought about starting with Bronson’s performance, because I wanted to positive comments to come as a surprise. And Vincent Gardenia being terrible isn’t particularly interesting. I even thought about outlining how the story elements could have been juxtaposed to create something good. But then I finished watching the movie and the ending sort of messed it all up. For the majority of the film, Death Wish implies it’s going to be responsible for its content and then ends instead as an action movie. Bronson’s character is obviously suffering from a psychological break and, again, it’s suggested this insanity will be addressed… it isn’t. The lack of responsibility does just undo Bronson’s otherwise excellent work, it also damages the film. The last half hour of Death Wish–the film only really has a good half hour, the middle one–is mostly Gardenia’s bad acting… so it needed to end well and it did not.
Oh, I didn’t mention the score. I guess getting Herbie Hancock was some sort of coup for director Winner (based on wikipedia), but Hancock’s music is the film’s biggest problem (besides the directing and Gardenia, ahead of the writing). Hancock blares everything in the score–there’s practically a ‘mugger theme’–and brings absolutely no nuance to the movie, which is exactly what it needs. Besides the lousy third act, it’s a very quiet, intimate story… something Bronson either gets or just couldn’t mess up.
The real problem is Winner, who can’t figure out how to direct family scenes, fight scenes, men at work scenes–there are a couple good establishing shots, but I’m guessing those were second unit. He’s a terrible, terrible director. Like I said before, Mentos commercials (“it’s the freshmaker.”)
The lousy supporting cast doesn’t help. All the cops are terrible, not just Gardenia. Steven Keats tries real hard as Bronson’s son-in-law, but he just doesn’t pull it off (a combination of his performance and, visibly, not getting enough back from Bronson). Stuart Margolin, as the gun-lover who opens Bronson’s eyes, is good. Otherwise, it’s mediocre acting at best.
The film’s effects (I find it odd I could care less about popular novels of particular eras, but popular films of past eras I usually get around to seeing) are wide-reaching (Taxi Driver being an obvious example–I’m sure, after Death Wish made a fortune, studios got a lot more willing to release this material), though it’s a toss-up between the film’s financial success and Dino De Laurentiis’s particular brand of filmic storytelling. Once I saw his name as presenting it… I actually had some idea what I was in for.
Directed by Michael Winner; screenplay by Wendell Mayes, based on the novel by Brian Garfield; director of photography, Arthur J. Ornitz; edited by Bernard Gribble; music by Herbie Hancock; production designer, Robert Gundlach; produced by Hal Landers and Bobby Roberts; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Charles Bronson (Paul Kersey), Hope Lange (Joanna Kersey), Vincent Gardenia (Frank Ochoa), Steven Keats (Jack Toby), William Redfield (Sam Kreutzer), Stuart Margolin (Ames Jainchill), Stephen Elliott (Police Commissioner), Kathleen Tolan (Carol Toby) and Jack Wallace (Hank).