If you went to the cinema today and saw the title Death Wish you would assume that it was some brainless, and without logic, an action film where things are blown up, and witty one-liners are delivered. In 1974 it was a film with heart, sadness, brutality, and a message. The four sequels, however, did turn it into the former.
Death Wish was written as a novel by Brian Garfield. The book, released in 1972, was about an accountant whose wife is murdered and daughter’s raped. The accountant, Paul Kersey, falls into violent vigilantism to deal with his grief. The book has a strong message against taking the law into your own hands.
The film Death Wish was released only two years after the book’s release and changed the accountant to an architect whose suffers the same fate but it is more of a revenge tale than one of grief. It removed the strong stance against vigilantism that the novel’s author publicly disowned the film. Brian also wrote a sequel called Death Sentence which focused on the consequences of vigilantism.
Originally the film was going to be made by 12 Angry Men and Network director Sidney Lumet with Jack Lemmon and Henry Fonda to star. Sidney decided to make Serpico with Al Pacino. The film went into the hands of director Michael Winner.
Many stars were asked to star in the film but were rejected because of the vigilante nature of the character. Names like Clint Eastwood, Gregory Peck, Steven McQueen, Lee Marvin, and even Elvis Presley were asked, but all rejected the role. The role eventually, and ironically, went to Charles Bronson.
Famously after making the film The Stone Killer from 1973, Charles wanted to work with director Michael Winner again. Michael had just scored Death Wish and handed the script to Charles. After reading the script, Charles told Michael that he’d “like to do this.” When Michael asked “The film?” Charles replied “No…shoot muggers.”
If you think you recognise one of the bad guys in the film, you are right as it was the film debut for actor Jeff Goldblum.
While the original was a box office success and had a real heart to it the sequels did not. The four sequels Death Wish II (1982), Death Wish 3 (1985), Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987), and Death Wish V: The Face of Death (1994) did star Charles Bronson but were made off the success of the first film and were standard action fare.
The original is still a classic and was at the top of the box office this time in 1974.