Michael Winner (1935-2013) wasn’t just a film director, but he was also a media personality in his native England as well as a restaurant critic when he wasn’t making movies. First attracting notice from Hollywood following Hannibal Brooks (1969), he made his debut on the American side of the Atlantic with the Burt Lancaster western Lawman (1971). However, it was with Charles Bronson that Winner made some of his best known films, including Death Wish. Originally released on DVD and Blu-ray by Paramount, Kino has licensed the movie for its Blu-ray debut.
The Production: 4/5
For New York City architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson), violent crime was not something he and his family ever had to worry about because it had never touched them personally. That all changes when “freaks” follow his wife and daughter home from the grocery store and violently assault them; Joanna (Hope Lange) later dies from the injuries sustained in the beating while Carol slips into a catatonic state from the trauma of the sexual assault. Devastated at first, Paul gradually takes back his life and – after receiving a gun as a token of appreciation from an eccentric client in Arizona – slowly begins to take out vengeance on the muggers and hoodlums on New York City’s mean streets. While his actions are applauded by those who’ve often felt threatened by the rising tide of crime, NYPD Inspector Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) is determined to make sure that Paul’s vigilante ways are stopped before more copycats flood the streets, even if it means getting him out of New York City for good.
One of the most notable titles in the urban action genre of the 1970’s, Death Wish maintains a rather irresistible charm nearly 50 years later. Adapted from the Brian Garfield novel – which would be remade in 2018 by Eli Roth with Bruce Willis in the lead – screenwriter Wendell Mayes and director Michael Winner create one of the grittiest portrayals of the city of New York ever put on film during the decade; it rivals The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, released in the same year as this one. One of the most notable flaws in the film is that the concept of vigilante justice is glorified whereas in the Garfield novel it’s condemned as another problem; these mixed signals – especially in light of the rising crime rates during the era – were frequently pointed out by critics who derided the film upon initial release. However, this is a film not known for subtlety, as Winner pulls all the strings to get solid performances from his cast to achieve the maximum impact emotionally. So, while it may never win any awards for being subtle emotionally or plot wise, Death Wish is still an undeniably thrill filled romp in the revenge genre, one that fully cemented Charles Bronson with cult status as an action hero; the movie also launched 4 sequels and the aforementioned remake in 2018, but none matching the full forced and gritty impact of this one.
While Bronson is the main draw here, the contributions of the supporting players should not be overlooked either. Second billed behind Bronson – and fresh off of a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) – Vincent Gardenia casts a memorable impression as the dogged and persistent Ochoa; he would reprise the role in Death Wish II (1982) and would earn another Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for playing Cher’s father in Moonstruck (1987). Hope Lange makes a brief yet strong impression as the ill-fated Joanna Kersey while Kathleen Tolan also functions well in her brief part as Paul’s daughter Carol. As the wealthy client who gives Paul the gun that would later be used in his one-man crusade against NYC crime, Stuart Margolin is memorable as the flamboyantly eccentric Aimes Jainchill; Steven Keats acquits himself well as Paul’s distraught son-in-law while Stephen Elliott – better known for playing a suspected murderer in Cutter’s Way (1981) – also does a solid yet brief job as the NYPD police commissioner. Rounding out the cast here are William Redfield as Paul’s boss, Fred J. Scollay as the Manhattan DA, Jeff Goldblum in his film debut as one of the “freaks”, Helen Martin as the hatpin wielding samaritan, Sonia Manzano as the D’Agostino grocery clerk, Tom Hayden as an E.R. doctor, Olympia Dukakis as Officer Gemetti (she would later reunite with Gardenia on Moonstruck and win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar), Christopher Guest as the officer who finds Paul’s gun at the end of the movie, Paul Dooley as the cop at the hospital, Robert Kya-Hill as Officer Joe Charles, John Herzfeld as a subway mugger, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs as one of the Central Park muggers and Al Lewis (Grandpa Munster himself) as a security guard; rumors have swirled that Denzel Washington made his film debut here uncredited, but they are unsubstantiated.
3D Rating: NA
The film is presented in its original 1:85:1 aspect ratio, taken from a brand new Dolby Vision master from a 4K scan of the original 35mm camera negative; while that’s how the release is billed, there’s some evidence to the contrary, as HTF’s own Robert A. Harris talks about here. For the most part, film grain, color palette and fine details appear to be faithfully represented on both UHD and Blu-ray discs; however, on the UHD disc, there appears to be some evidence of DNR applied to the grain structure that’s more noticeable in some scenes than on the Blu-ray disc. The print itself appears to have only minor cases of scratches, dirt or tears present. So, while it’s not the total knockout it could’ve been, this release is still an improvement over the previous Paramount/Warner Bros. Blu-ray release and Paramount DVD release; in short, the difference between the HDR presentation on the UHD Blu-ray and the SDR presentation on the Blu-ray here is negligible at best.
There are two audio options for this release: a 2.0 and a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Both tracks exhibit solid strength and clarity with dialogue, sound mix and Herbie Hancock’s music score; there’s minimal cases of distortion, hissing, popping or crackling present here. Overall, this release is likely the best the movie will ever sound on home video.
Special Features: 3.5/5
On both UHD Blu-ray and Blu-ray discs
Commentary by author Paul Talbot – Newly recorded for this release, Talbot goes over the background on the film’s production, cast and crew bios, differences between the script and the Brian Garfield novel and its reception.
On Blu-ray only
Interview with actor John Herzfeld (18:24) – In this new interview, Herzfeld – who played one of the subway muggers and would later be a filmmaker in his own right – talks about his memories of breaking into show business and working on the movie.
Theatrical Trailer (2:20) – Newly remastered in 2K
TV Spot (1:03)
Radio Spots (2) (1:31)
Bonus KLSC Trailers – Violent City, Cold Sweat, Chato’s Land, The Valachi Papers, Mr. Majestyk, Breakout, Breakheart Pass, The White Buffalo, Cabo Blanco & Murphy’s Law
Despite being savaged by critics for glorifying vigilante justice, Death Wish – striking a nerve with the public, who made it a hit at the box office – is still an important part of Charles Bronson’s career and a time capsule of the grittiness that New York City had in the turbulent 1970’s. Kino’s UHD release is a decidedly mixed bag, with a HD transfer that’s decent (with noticeable differences between the UHD Blu-ray and Blu-ray disc on this release) though slightly below the norm for Kino, yet with a nice slate of special features included. Despite issues with the transfer, the release is still recommended for fans of the movie and worth an upgrade from past home video releases.
Amazon.com: Death Wish (4KUHD): Michael Winner, Charles Bronson, Hope Lange, Vincent Gardenia, Steven Keats, Stuart Margolin, William Redfield, Stephen Elliott, Stephen Elliott, Kathleen Tolan, Jack Wallace, Jeff Goldblum, John Herzfeld, Helen Martin, Paul Dooley, Olympia Dukakis, Art Evans, Christopher Guest, Al Lewis: Movies & TV
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