Death Wish is a 1974 crime thriller film loosely based on the novel Death Wish by Brian Garfield. The film was directed by Michael Winner and stars Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey, a man who becomes a vigilante after his wife is murdered and his daughter is sexually assaulted by muggers.
The film was a commercial success, and generated a movie franchise with four sequels over the next twenty years. The film was disliked by many critics due to it advocating vigilantism and unlimited punishment to criminals.The novel denounced vigilantism, whereas the film embraced the notion. Yet, it was seen as echoing a growing mood in the United States as crime rose during the 1970s.
Joanna and their daughter Carol Anne (Kathleen Tolan) shop for groceries at D'Agostino's Market. Three bloodthirsty hooligans (one played by Jeff Goldblum in his first movie appearance) are creating havoc in the local grocery store. They catch Joanna's address after she asks that her groceries be delivered. They follow her to the apartment, burst in and trash the apartment. They search for money but find only $7. The hooligans then rape Carol and savagely beat Joanna, escaping scot-free.
Paul's son-in-law Jack Toby (Steven Keats) calls to tell him only that Joanna and Carol are in the hospital. After waiting impatiently, Paul is told by a doctor that his daughter is OK and that she was sedated and put to bed, but Paul is also informed that his wife has died. Devastated, he is told by police that the likelihood of catching the criminals is small.
The next day, Paul's boss gives him an extended business vacation to Tucson, Arizona to meet a client, Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin), who shows him the ropes. Paul witnesses a mock gunfight at Old Tucson, a reconstructed Western frontier town used as a movie set. At a gun club, Ames is impressed when Paul shoots with near bulls-eye accuracy. Paul reveals that he was a "CO" (conscientious objector) during the Korean War who served his country as a combat medic. Paul had been taught to handle firearms at a young age by his father, but after his father was killed in a hunting accident Paul decided to forswear the use of firearms for any purpose. After Paul makes substantial improvements to Ames' plans for a residential development, a thoroughly pleased Ames drops him at the airport, slipping a little going-away present into Paul's bag.
Back in Manhattan, his daughter is catatonic. Paul opens his suitcase and discovers that Ames' "going-away present" is a nickel-plated .32 Colt Police Positive revolver. He pockets the gun and takes a stroll. Paul encounters a mugger, an ex-convict named Thomas Leroy Marston who attempts to rob him at gunpoint with a .38 Smith & Wesson Model 36 revolver. Paul shoots him with the revolver, killing him.
Shocked that he just killed a human being, Paul runs home and throws up. But his vigilantism continues the following night, when he guns down three more men (one of whom is Denzel Washington also making his screen debut) who are robbing a defenseless old man in a vacant alley.
A few nights later, two muggers see Paul on a subway. They attempt to rob him at knife-point but Paul shoots them both with the revolver.
The next scene has Paul then sitting in a sleazy Times Square coffee shop surrounded by prostitutes and assorted street people. He pays his bill to the cashier purposely revealing a wallet full of cash. He leaves followed by two thugs who have taken the bait. Yet again a robbery attempt is made. Paul shoots one but the other manages to stab him in his shoulder. As a wounded Paul stumbles off, the one who stabbed him gets away mortally wounded, dying at a hospital.
NYPD Lt. Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) investigates the vigilante killings. His department narrows a list to men who have had a family member recently killed by muggers and who are war veterans. The public, meanwhile, is happy that somebody is doing something about crime.
Ochoa soon suspects Paul. He is about to make an arrest when the District Attorney (Fred J. Scollay) intervenes and tells Ochoa to "let him loose" in another city instead. Ochoa doesn't like the idea, but relents.
Paul shoots two more muggers before being wounded by a third mugger with a M1911A1 pistol at a warehouse. His gun is discovered by a young patrolman (Christopher Guest) who hands it to Ochoa, who tells him to forget that he ever saw it and additionally tells the press that the wounded Paul is just another mugging victim. Hospitalized, Paul is ordered by Ochoa to leave New York, permanently. Paul replies, "By sundown?"
Paul arrives in Chicago Union Station by train. Being greeted by a company representative, he notices a group of hoodlums harassing a young woman. He excuses himself and helps the woman. The hoodlums make obscene gestures, but Paul points his right hand like a gun and smiles, suggesting that his vigilantism will continue.
- Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey
- Hope Lange as Joanna Kersey
- Vincent Gardenia as NYPD Lt. Frank Ochoa
- William Redfield as Sam Kreutzer
- Steven Keats as Jack Toby
- Stuart Margolin as Ames Jainchill
- Stephen Elliott as Police Commissioner
- Kathleen Tolan as Carol Toby
- Christopher Guest as Jackson Reilly
- Jeff Goldblum as Freak #1
- Olympia Dukakis as Cop at Precinct
- Paul Dooley (uncredited) as Cop at Hospital
- Eric Laneuville (uncredited) as Subway Mugger
- Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (uncredited) as Mugger in Park
- Sonia Manzano (uncredited) as Grocery Clerk
Character actor Robert Miano had a minor role as a mugger in the film. Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, who would later co-star on the highly successful TV show Welcome Back, Kotter, had an uncredited role as one of the Central Park muggers near the end of the film. Denzel Washington made his screen debut as an uncredited alley mugger who, ironically, was the first mugger killed in that scene. Actress Helen Martin, who had a minor role, subsequently appeared in the television sitcoms Good Times and 227. Sonia Manzano, 'Maria' from Sesame Street has an uncredited role as a supermarket checkout clerk. Christopher Guest makes one of his earliest film appearances as a young police officer who finds Kersey's gun.