This sleazy and highly controversial crime thriller finally made Charles Bronson a star in America and set a regrettable trend for trashy and ultra-violent vigilante thrillers.
Bronson plays liberal New York architect Paul Kersey and we first meet him when he and his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) are taking a holiday in Hawaii. Paul happily taking photographs of her as she runs up the beach.
On their return to New York City, however, their pleasant lifestyle is brought to an abrupt end by an act of mindless violence. While Paul is at the office, his wife and their married daughter, Carol (Kathleen Tolan) go shopping and are spotted by three youths who follow them home.
Gaining admission to the apartment by a ruse, the cretinous trio (led by Jeff Goldblum in his film debut) proceeds to smash the place up before brutally raping the younger woman and savagely kicking her mother because she hasn’t enough money in the apartment to satisfy them.
Later at the hospital, Paul learns that Joanna is dead and that his daughter, at least for the time being, is mentally unhinged and it is impossible to say if her condition will be permanent.
The police are sympathetic and will, of course, do their best to trace the killers – but Paul knows the chances of his wife’s killers and his daughter’s rapists being brought to justice are remote.
With his daughter now in an asylum, Paul decides to take matters into his own hands and deal out some revenge to all the muggers and thieves who populate the city. He gets himself a gun. He practices and becomes a crack shot. Then he goes out for a stroll one evening in a notoriously dangerous section of the city and it isn’t long before he is confronted by a mugger.
Paul is not afraid when the psychopathic deadbeat makes his pitch. He regards him coldly and then, deliberately, shoots him dead. He goes home and vomits.
Paul becomes a dedicated killer. Convinced of the righteousness of his cause, he hunts down the muggers and kills them. Every morning, after a night of vicious action in the seamier streets and subways of the city, he goes back to his normal, everyday existence, working placidly in his New York architect’s office. Until the next night . . .
But his actions – and the newspaper headlines about “The Vigilante” – bring him to the attention of the police. The detective in charge of the case, Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia), is faced with a difficult dilemma. He must do all he can to apprehend The Vigilante – as he would with anyone else who took the law into their own hands – but he knows that in doing so he will outrage public opinion.
As the weeks pass, New York’s mugging statistics drop fantastically – would-be muggers are thinking twice before risking a confrontation with The Vigilante. How Ochoa is able to resolve his dilemma satisfactorily provides a most ingenious twist to this unusual thriller.
Director Michael Winner’s blood-lusting shocker is intense and upsetting and was very influential in its day, but spawned a series of dismal sequels: Death Wish II (1982), Death Wish 3 (1985), Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987) and Death Wish 5: The Face of Death (1994). Bronson played Paul Kersey in all four sequels.
A 2018 remake starred Bruce Willis.
Fred J Scollay