Death Wish was also the point when Charles Bronson began to become a screen presence (you could hardly call Bronson an actor). Bronson had been working steadily as an actor since the 1950s and began to earn a name for himself following a supporting role in The Magnificent Seven (1960). He appeared throughout the 1960s in films like The Dirty Dozen (1967) and especially found employment in Italy in a host of Spaghetti Westerns, the most well known of these being Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Bronson came into his own back in the US in the early 1970s in crime films such as The Mechanic (1972), The Valachi Papers (1972) and The Stone Killer (1973), although it was Death Wish that made him a star. For the next decade-and-a-half after Death Wish, Charles Bronson would find himself typecast in these vigilante avenger roles in films like 10 to Midnight (1983), The Evil That Men Do (1984), Murphys Law (1986), Assassination (1987), Messenger of Death (1988) and Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (1989), as well as four Death Wish sequels.
Death Wish was made by Michael Winner. Michael Winner is a director who has a bad reputation Tim Healeys The Worlds Worst Movies (1986) devotes an entire chapter to Winners oeuvre. Winner emerged in England in the 1960s with various nudies and trendy Swinging 60s comedies, before being invited to the US by Death Wish producer Dino De Laurentiis to make the Western Lawman (1971). Winner had previously worked with Charles Bronson on the Western Chatos Land (1972) and then The Mechanic, which many regard as Bronsons best film. Winner has made a number of entries that venture into genre material with the Turn of the Screw prequel The Nightcomers (1971), the occult horror The Sentinel (1977), the psycho-thriller Scream for Help (1984), the amazingly sordid gun-toting vigilante chick flick Dirty Weekend (1992), and Parting Shots (1999) where a dying man sets out to eliminate those who made his life miserable.
Death Wish is a film rooted in 1970s urban anxiety. This was a decade when middle-class people in large cities suddenly began to become afraid of the lawlessness they saw around them Death Wish even starts quoting urban crime statistics within its first few minutes of screen time. The background of the film is filled with images of urban disorder or indifference Charles Bronson seeing random attackers from out his window or in the background at railway stations, people complaining about being made to wait at hospitals and police stations. The muggers that we see throughout are characterised as evil scuzzballs who delight in vandalism, creating anarchy and striking terror in the hearts of the innocent more than they do in robbing.
Michael Winner lays everything on with characteristic heavy-handedness. Early on in the piece, Charles Bronson states: My heart bleeds for the underprivileged, yeah while redneck co-worker William Redfield retorts The underprivileged are beating our brains out. Stick em in concentration camps, thats what I say. The initial assault that we see of hoods breaking in, murdering Bronsons wife and raping his daughter (even spray-painting her ass with a red target) has been designed to strike a mortal spike into the heart of Charles Bronsons traditional identity as a family man. Later Bronson asks son-in-law Steven Keats: What are we? What do you call people who are faced with a condition of fear and do nothing about, just run and hide, to which Keats can only timidly reply Civilised?
It is not long before Bronson is given to realise: What about the good old custom of self-defence? If the police dont defend us, maybe we ought to do it ourselves. What is seen as the ideal response to such urban anarchy is the legally permissible carrying of guns in the state of Arizona. Bronson travels to visit Stuart Margolins developer in Tucson where Margolin is given to speeches like: Youre probably one of the knee-jerk liberals who thinks we gun boys just shoot our guns because its an extension of our penises or Unlike your city, we can walk through our parks and streets at night and feel safe. Muggers out here just plain get their asses blown off. (Death Wish could almost be a 93-minute NRA recruiting commercial as the arguments are the same ones used by the NRA to justify gun ownership). Winner makes frequent contrast between the urban jungle of New York City, which is seen as a nightmare place to live, and Arizona, which is seen as an almost utopian place because of the lack of urban anxieties afforded by liberal gun laws there is even talk about how the people of Arizona enjoy the wide-open freedom derived from the lack of urban overcrowding and the strong implication given that this is what gives rise to crime. We also see Charles Bronson getting ideas from watching a mock Western town simulation, during which Michael Winner seems to be drawing a connection to Western frontier justice.
Charles Bronson has a character arc not dissimilar to Dustin Hoffmans character in Straw Dogs (1971), which sets up a man with token liberal views whose journey is to recognise the need to take up arms against the rampant injustice around him. To this extent, Bronson is even characterised as a man who was a conscientious objector during the Korean War (something that becomes hard to swallow given Bronsons subsequent career as an action star in vigilante-type roles). The film even indulges in a fantasy of vigilantism where it is seen that Bronsons crime spree causes the citizenry of New York everywhere to fight back against muggers that the solution to rampant urban crime is simply for people to stand up and no longer fear the cowards who prey on them.
In all of this whether reacting to the shock of his wife being murdered or trying to show euphoria at having killed a mugger Charles Bronsons face never varies from a brick-like stoicism and a squinting mien. It is a (lack of) performance that Bronson managed to make an entire career out of. There would hardly be any part of Death Wish (or indeed any of his other films) where one can say they ever remember Bronson smiling. One of the more amusing scenes is watching a tall, gangly young Jeff Goldblum (in his first ever screen role) playing one of the muggers that attack Hope Lange and Kathleen Tolan while screaming Rich cunts. I hate rich cunts. Later-to-be director Christopher Guest also turns up as a cop near the end.
The sequels were: Death Wish II (1981), Death Wish 3 (1985), Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987) and Death Wish V: The Face of Death (1994). All starred Charles Bronson. Michael Winner returned to direct the first two sequels. A remake is set to emerge with Death Wish (2017) from Eli Roth starring Bruce Willis. Also of note is Death Sentence (2007), which is based on the book sequel to Death Wish, although this completely changes the names of the characters and the plot.