Death Wish

Dir: Michael Winner, 1974


death_wish (2)

The vigilante film that kick started it all.

Michael Winner’s seminal drama about a man driven to the edge, makes no apologies for its stance.

Based on the novel by Brian Garfield, Winner’s film takes a very liberal approach with the source material. In the book, the protagonist is a ginger haired, scrawny little man by the name of Paul Benjamin. Here, of course, it’s Paul Kersey, played by the non-ginger, fairly athletic Charles Bronson.

Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is an architect and bleeding heart, liberal. He feels for the underprivileged.

His wife (Hope Lange) and daughter, Carol, are shopping for groceries, when three thugs (one of them, a very young Jeff Goldblum) in the supermarket follow them home.

Breaking into their apartment, they brutally attack the wife and sexually assault Carol.

The attack is fatal for his wife and leaves his daughter in a comatose state.

Grief stricken, his boss sends him to Tucson, Arizona as a working holiday.

The client is pleased with the work that Kersey’s done, and gives him a going home present; a revolver.

His mind finally broken, Kersey sets out on to the streets, armed with his pistol to set the record straight.

With news about the killing of muggers and criminals, crime rates decrease rapidly. Victims are fighting back.

However, the police can’t let the vigilantism continue. But they also have to keep the crime rates down. Lieutenant Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) is assigned to find the vigilante and “persuade” him to stop, but keeping the illusion that the one man police force is still out there.

Death Wish is a political film of sorts. The crime rates in America were rising, the police couldn’t keep up, the country was experiencing civil unrest. It arrived in cinemas at just the right time.

Paramount’s blockbusting thriller, gave the public what they needed: an outlet. Frustrated with all the crime taking place, the country could release all that pent up anger, watching somebody, anybody, retaliate.

It’s more of a psychological thriller, than an action one. Bronson’s Paul Kersey, doesn’t just decide to go out and kill muggers. It’s a slow progression triggered by an act of self defence.

Kersey can’t really handle what he’s doing. The first time he shoots a mugger, he runs home and vomits in the toilet. This works in the films favour.

It’s only after reading and hearing the news reports of the vigilante, and the support he’s gathering, he accepts his “calling”.

This is where the moral messages between the two mediums differ. Garfield makes it clear in the novel and it’s sequel, Death Sentence, that Benjamin is a dangerous man and that vigilantism is not the answer. The film, however, unequivocally takes the feeling of the American citizens as it’s message, an eye for an eye.

The film was particularly controversial in Britain (surprise, surprise!). Stephen Murphy of the British censors was extremely worried about the attack on Carol, primarily the spray painting of her backside by the thugs. Another cause for concern was Goldblum’s  double usage of the word “cunt”. Language of this sort had never been permitted in UK cinemas and Murphy was greatly worried about the public’s reception if the word was allowed to remain.

Months of backward and forwarding occured between Murphy and Winner, with the latter reluctant to remove or alter so much as a single frame. Murphy did not believe the film to be exploitative and felt that the rape scene was important in establishing why the main character did what he did. But it was too strong. The censors found it difficult to cut the scene without ruining it. They didn’t even know which bit to cut. Winner had no alternate takes of this to substitute for the offending footage.

It was eventually decided that the film would be released to British cinemas uncut and uncensored.

Capitalising on the growing VHS industry, CIC Video put Death Wish out on tape in the UK.

death wish pre cert
Pre 1984 UK VHS, housed, unusually, in a cardboard slipcase.

After the Video Recordings Act came into force, the video was withdrawn from sale and rental. It had been shown on television, albeit, in a censored form.

Around 1987, CIC submitted the video for a certificate but the censors hit the same problems as they did back in ’74. They just didn’t know how to cut it. James Ferman was strongly of the opinion that the film could not given approval in its current state. The submission was withdrawn and the film rested in limbo for the next decade.

In 1999, with Ferman having retired and the BBFC beginning to allow previously unavailable works, CIC resubmitted the video for a certificate. The current examiners were able to point out he areas that concerned them and simply edit the most unacceptable parts. The removal of Carol getting her backside spray painted was implemented, several shots of the thugs exposing and molesting her breasts, and Goldblum, thrusting his crotch in her face, forcing her to give fellatio. In total, 29 secs were cut and the video receiving an ’18’.

death wish 2nd vhs release
Censored 2nd UK VHS release with shiny cover

Thankfully, times change and so do standards. Paramount Pictures presented the board with an uncut print for consideration of a possibility of a DVD release.

It was clear to the board that the rape scene didn’t offer any sexual titillation or erotic elements or pose a credible risk. Couple that, with films that have far stronger material, being passed by the board, the censors issued an uncut ’18’ certificate, with the previous 29 secs of cuts restored.

If you want a straight up action flick, then you’d do better to watch the sequel, Death Wish II. But, if you want a solid thriller about psychology and grief, then watch this. It’s a good one.



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