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Film / Death Wish 1974

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He wants the filth off the streets. If the police can't do it, he will... his way.

"People like the idea of revenge. You ever hear the expression, 'The best revenge is living well'? It means supposedly the best way to get back at someone is just by being happy and successful in your own life. Sounds nice. Doesn't really work on that Charles Bronson-kinda level, you know what I mean? Those movies where his whole family just gets wiped out by some street scum. You think you could go up to him, 'Charlie, forget about the .357. What you need is a custom-made suit and a convertible. New carpeting, French doors, a divan! That'll show those punks!'"

A 1974 action-crime-drama film based on the 1972 novel by Brian Garfield (who also wrote Death Sentence). The film was directed by Michael Winner and stars Charles Bronson (the actor, not the prisoner).

New York architect Paul Kersey has his world shattered forever when his apartment is attacked by three vicious punks, who murder his wife and rape his daughter. After being sent to Arizona by his boss to meet with a client, Kersey old interest in guns is rekindled and eventually has one slipped into his bag by the client as he's preparing to return to New York (this film was made back before things like hijackers and airline security were an issue—but the gun, in a presentation case, was actually put into the bag that Kersey was checking, not into his carry on bag). Upon his return, Kersey starts dispensing justice to the scum on the streets, shooting down any mugger that tries to rob him. The police want him arrested, but the public are behind him, glad that someone's doing something to clean up the streets. Kersey is eventually asked to leave New York to avoid prosecution, much like the Old West vigilantes of long ago.


The film was a major commercial success and generated a movie franchise lasting four sequels over a twenty-year period. The film was denounced by critics as advocating vigilantism and unlimited punishment to criminals (and by Garfield - see Creator Backlash in Trivia), but it was seen as speaking to a growing mood in the United States as crime rose during the 1970s.

A remake of this film (and just this one, it is unrelated to the rest of the pentalogy) premiered on March 2018, moving the action to Chicago and now starring Bruce Willis under the direction of Eli Roth.

For a character with a death wish, see Death Seeker.

The Death Wish Pentalogy:


These movies provide examples of:

  • Adaptational Job Change: Paul was an accountant in the book. In the film, he's an architect, because it was felt that no-one would buy Charles Bronson as a meek accountant.
  • Adult Fear: The thought of your loved ones getting brutally raped and/or murdered when you're not around to help is a pretty potent fear for most people.
  • Badass Mustache: Paul sports one.
  • Berserk Button: Paul is an equal-opportunity vigilante crook-killer, but he is a lot more vicious when dealing with rapists, muggers and drug addicts, all of whom were responsible for his greatest tragedies.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Paul is a pacifist, but he learned to use guns during his younger years despite later serving as a combat medic in the The Korean War. And it shows.
  • Big Bad: Averted, as there is no singular main villain.
  • The Big Rotten Apple: Both the original film and its New York-set sequels depict a city where violent crime is so out of control that citizens are forced to take vigilante action.
  • Bland-Name Product: Time Magazine appears as "Tempo".
  • Cartwright Curse/Disposable Woman: One of the series' most notorious traits—his wife in the first film, his daughter in the second, girlfriends in the third, fourth, and fifth films, numerous non-Kersey women in all films — basically, if you're female and hang around Paul Kersey, you're pretty much screwed.
    • Men occasionally fall prey to this curse too - Paul's friend beaten to death by street scum in the opening of Death Wish 3, for example.
  • Cool Guns: Paul uses a nickel-plated Police Positive with pearl grips.
  • Crapsack World: New York City and Los Angeles as depicted in these movies.
  • Crusading Widower: The entire reason Paul is risking his life by fighting muggers and gangbangers is because they killed his wife and raped his daughter.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: The original film is a gritty, realistic, look at urban decay and out of control crime in major American cities during the era. The movie was such a hit largely because it embodied the feelings of many honest citizens at the time. In the end there is no dramatic showdown with the men who killed his wife and raped his daughter, they simply disappear into the city and Paul will never know who they were. There's little graphic violence, but what's there is very disturbing. Nothing in the movie could be defined as gratuitous. The sequels all follow all the clichés avoided in the original.
  • Famous Last Words:
    • "Just leave her alone!" Joanna Kersey
    • "Gimme your money or I'll bust you up!" Thomas Leroy Marston
  • Finger Gun: Paul Kersey does this at the thugs at end of the movie in a freeze frame shot, signifying that his days as "Mr. Vigilante" are not yet over.
  • Heroic BSoD: Paul's reaction after doctor announces his wife's death.
  • It Gets Easier: Paul is not very comfortable fighting criminals early on in the film. At first, he beats up a mugger with a sock filled with quarters, then goes home, taking a drink of whisky to calm his nerves. He also vomits after killing his first criminal.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Paul drinks a couple of time in the film to deal with the stress in his life.
  • Karma Houdini: The three muggers and rapists from the first film, who start Kersey's road toward vigilantism, are never caught by the cops or killed by Kersey. In the sequels, however, the trope is averted; if you're a bad guy, then you're not leaving the movie alive.
  • Let Off by the Detective: Lt. Ochoa figures out that Paul Kersey is the vigilante who has been killing criminals, but the District Attorney does not want the negative press that would come from prosecuting him. Because they are among the only authorities who know, they tell Paul to just get out of town, and they'll bury the evidence.
  • The Lopsided Arm of the Law: The movies showcase repeatedly that the police is incapable of doing anything about the immense crime waves assaulting the cities and has all but called it quits, but pull out all the stops to hound anybody who tries to fight back (even out of their jurisdiction). On the first movie they are afraid that the vigilante may escalate or that people fighting back may force the crooks to become even worse, but on the rest of the films this is shown as them not wanting to be shown over, thinking It's Personal, or wanting to get rid of a problem because they are Dirty Cops.
  • Mugging the Monster: When Paul Kersey becomes a mysterious vigilante, anybody who approaches him armed will get shot.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: After Paul kills his first man, he is so horrified by what he just did that he runs home and throws up. He quickly becomes more comfortable with killing.
  • Older Hero vs. Younger Villain: The entire series, Kersey was always the old man.
  • Part-Time Hero: Paul maintained his work as an architect up through and including the fourth film. Unusually for a plain clothes adventurer of 1970s and 1980s film, Paul Kersey did in fact maintain a dual identity/alter ego, since the general public did not know that Paul Kersey acted as the vigilante and Kersey continued his work as an architect while acting as a vigilante. In fact, his nightly prowls to find muggers to slay caused him to miss calls from business associates, who civilly asked him about this situation.
  • Phallic Weapon: While at a gun range in Tuscon, Arizona with his client Ames Jainchill, Kersey mentions he was a Conscientious Objector during the Korean War.
    Ames: I suppose you're one of those liberals who think our guns are a substitute for our penises.
    Kersey: I never thought about it that way. Maybe it's true.
    Ames: Maybe. But this is gun country.
  • Police Are Useless: See The Lopsided Arm of the Law above.
  • The Quincy Punk: Like most Cannon Films, the thugs are primarily punks and all punks are thugs.
  • Random Events Plot: Most of the film is Paul getting into gunfights with random goons on the street, without much in the way of structure except for the subplot about the police trying to stop him.
  • Rape and Revenge: Subverted. Kersey goes after criminals in general after his wife and daughter are raped, as they disappear into the city and he has no way of finding them.
  • Rape as Drama: Kersey's daughter was raped and his wife was killed, all for drama and motivation.
  • Rape Leads to Insanity: Kersey's daughter becomes unresponsive and catatonic after her violent rape.
  • Rated M for Manly: The original film follows the transformation of Paul Kersey from pacifist to killer who deals his own brand of justice. And the entire series depicts the tough guy vigilante as a manly hero.
  • Reality Ensues: Only in the first film where the attackers are never seen again. Sadly with that type of crime, and forensics at the time, the only evidence would be the description of a traumatized victim. Modern day audiences likely assume the climax will be a confrontation with the guys who raped his daughter and murdered his wife, but how would he even know who they are?
    • Being a vigilante is really dangerous. There are two separate occasions where Paul is seriously injured by the muggers he's fighting, once where he's stabbed, another where he's shot.
  • Revolvers Are for Amateurs: Paul Kersey's first gun is a Colt revolver.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: When the first movie starts, Kersey is essentially a pacifist until his wife is murdered and his daughter raped into catatonia, then turns violent against criminals. While all five of the films have Kersey seeking vengeance, Death Wish II is perhaps the one that most resembles this particular trope.
  • Secret Identity:
    • In the novel and its sequel Death Sentence, Paul went to elaborate lengths to maintain his dual identity as the vigilante. He knew quite well that the police would object to his sudden justice. In the second novel, Benjamin buys goggles, a fake mustache, and a fur cap to disguise himself.
    • The film series somewhat muddies this, since movie producers often demand that expensive name actors make their face completely visible, since they pay so much for them. However, the makers of the films did not completely ignore that Kersey had a dual identity. In the second film Paul Kersey buys an old pea coat, gloves, longshoreman's cap, and beat up pair of pants while prowling around as a vigilante. He rents a room in a flophouse to do first aid for his injuries. In the fourth film, the LAPD did not know the vigilante's identity. Also in that film, a man blackmails Paul Kersey into a meeting by announcing to him that he knew of his activities as the vigilante and would expose him.
  • Sequel Hook: The movie ends with Kersey, at a railroad station (Union Station, Chicago), pointing his finger at some muggers like a gun while smiling.
  • Sinister Subway: Paul gets mugged in the subway twice.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: The people who rape Kersey's daughter and kill his wife are never seen again, but their actions cause the rest of the movie to happen.
  • Sock It to Them: Kersey gets worth of rolled quarters, puts them into a sock and practices swinging and hitting it into his hand at his office, shaking it slightly in pain, indicating it works. Soon someone with a knife tries to mug him, and a single hit makes the other guy drop the knife and try to run away, go headfirst into a wall, and then stumble off.
  • Stress Vomit: After Kersey kills his first mugger, he goes home to the bathroom and throws up in his toilet.
  • Unbuilt Trope: The Death Wish saga pioneered the urban Vigilante Man concept, but it also showed how dangerous it would be. The Violence Is Disturbing and graphic but infrequent, and the men who kill and rape Paul's wife and daughter are not sadistic arch-villains, they're a couple of random, violent mugs who just disappear into the night and are never seen again, as Paul has no idea how to find them. Basically, the first film avoided all of the cliches that its many sequels and imitators would go on to play unabashedly straight.
  • Urban Hellscape: The series falls into this trope, particularly the third film, which portrays the criminal gang as brutish and savage to the point that when protagonist Vigilante Man Paul Kersey kills them with military-grade weaponry, there is little discension.
  • Vigilante Man: Death Wish is probably the Trope Codifier for this character type in media. Also an Unbuilt Trope as the film pioneered the urban vigilante concept, but it also showed how dangerous it would be.
  • Vomit Discretion Shot: Paul vomits in the toilet in the bathroom of his apartment room after killing a mugger who attacked him. It's his first ever kill.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Kersey becomes this, killing any thugs who menace others... granted, they have a terminal case of Too Dumb to Live going after him, but still.
  • Wretched Hive: A New York City where gangs and solitary muggers roam the streets and the subways. Citizens live in fear and the police seem to offer no safety.


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