If popular movies can tap into the zeitgeist of any moment in history, then Michael Winner's 1974 Death Wish encapsulates an American era the early 1970s, when many urban Americans started to feel they couldn't walk outside without fear of being attacked, and when liberal courts ensured a lot of career criminals remained on the street. Charles Bronson stars in Death Wish as Paul Kersey, an affluent urban planner with a wife (Hope Lange) and a happily married daughter (Kathleen Tolan). Early in the film Paul's limousine-liberal values are established he was a conscientious objector serving as a medic in the Korean War, and he has compassion for the less-fortunate, whom he believes often are driven to crime by circumstance. But when three gallivanting hoodlums break into his luxury Manhattan apartment, raping his daughter and killing his wife, Paul begins to re-evaluate his world-view, helped in part by an extended business trip to Arizona, where handguns are readily available and crime is nearly non-existent. Back in New York, Paul gradually becomes obsessed with street-criminals, eventually arming himself with a .32 caliber revolver and placing himself in risky situations. All muggers who approach him get a belly full of lead, and the press dubs the mysterious avenger "The Vigilante." Meanwhile, the NYPD has few clues to follow, but are nonetheless determined to root him out and bring his vengeance-spree to a halt. Like Dirty Harry, Winner's Death Wish while an inferior film was a popular success with American moviegoers, and it remains a highly entertaining 90 minutes of escapist cinema. But it also was a controversial film upon release, and it has a dangerous side the original novel (by Brian Garfield) on which the screenplay was based did not endorse Kersey's crusade, whereas the film wholeheartedly supports the idea that baiting two-bit criminals a very different idea than traditional and legally sound "self-defense" can be a noble pursuit. And yet, as a film, Death Wish is almost perfect in its audience manipulation. Bronson is an empathetic central character (this is, after all, the film that transformed him from supporting player to hard-boiled leading man), and his torturous journey from placid urbanite to avenging angel is developed scene-by-scene so that we, the viewers, can vicariously enjoy the naughty tingle of unleashing live ammo on scummy creeps without the need for cops, courts, or Constitutionally guaranteed due process. In the "before they were famous" category, look for Jeff Goldblum as one of the first three muggers and Christopher Guest as an NYPD patrolman. Paramount's DVD release of Death Wish is an acceptable disc, if not outstanding. The anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) is clean, but the print has desaturated over the years, and the original monaural audio (DD 2.0) wasn't all that great to begin with its range is thin, and the looped elements are distracting. A commentary track from Winner, Bronson, and/or anybody else attached to the film would have been a nice addition. Trailer, keep-case.
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