Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey, architect and soon-to-be vigilante
Tucson, Arizona, and New York City, Winter 1974
Film: Death Wish
Release Date: July 24, 1974
Director: Michael Winner
Costume Designer: Joseph G. Aulisi
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
After a wave of films celebrating outlaws during the counterculture era of the late ’60s (i.e. Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), an opposing wave crashed through American cinema at the start of the following decade, centered around a philosophy of vigilantism. The trend arguably kicked into high gear with Clint Eastwood’s renegade detective in Dirty Harry who despised the proverbial red tape preventing him from bringing deadly criminals to justice with his famed .44 Magnum. Within five years, Martin Scorsese had already evolved the focus from an endorsement of vigilantism into a cautionary tale with the release of Taxi Driver. Before the troubled Travis Bickle took it upon himself to “wash all this scum off the streets” of New York City, there was Paul Kersey.
Adapted from a novel by Brian Garfield, Death Wish‘s journey to the screen began after Charles Bronson completed a back-to-back trio of movies helmed by Michael Winner and was looking for another project where he could collaborate with the English director. “The best script I’ve got is… about a man whose wife and daughter are mugged and he goes out and shoots muggers,” said Winner, according to his autobiography Winner Takes All, to which Bronson replied: “I’d like to do that.” “The film?” “No… shoot muggers.”
Garfield himself was reportedly displeased with how his 1972 novel was reinterpreted for the screen that he followed it up with the follow-up novel Death Sentence, a more definite indictment of the dangerous consequences of extreme vigilantism as Paul faces a copycat killer.
Death Wish establishes Paul Kersey as a gentle-natured family man whose more liberal beliefs are chided by his conservative colleagues. Paul’s idyllic life is torn apart when a gang of violent rapists (including a young Jeff Goldblum) attacks the Kersey family, leaving Paul’s wife dead and his daughter hospitalized. A business trip to Tucson connects Paul with Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin), a cowboy-type developer who brings the New Yorker to his gun club. Impressed by Paul’s hidden talent with firearms, Ames slips a “going-away present” in the form of a nickel-plated Colt Police Positive into Paul’s checked suitcase—not exactly a welcome surprise in the modern age of airport security.
Returning home to find his daughter catatonic in the hospital and the freshly delivered photos from the Hawaiian vacation he had taken with his late wife, Paul may have just been pushed far enough over the edge to go full Bernie Goetz on the criminals of New York with the help of the newly acquired revolver he discovered in his suitcase.
What’d He Wear?
Paul Kersey is still dressed for a winter in Gotham when he arrives in Tucson on what would be an extended business trip with the gregarious Ames Jainchill hosting his Arizona adventures.
“You look like a New Yorker!” Ames exclaims when Paul asks how he recognized him so quickly at the airport, and indeed Ames looks considerably better-suited for the southwest in his warm-toned Western suit and Stetson than Paul does in his cool-toned sports coat and tie, anchored by a gray-and-black herringbone tweed single-breasted jacket.
A relatively timeless style in itself, the sport jacket concedes to the fashions of the decade only in the extended breadth of the notch lapels, which extend out to only an inch shy of each armhole and have narrower notches approaching the cran necker lapel, also known as the “Parisian” or “fish mouth” lapel due to its distinctive shape. The lapels roll to a two-button front with black sew-through buttons similar to the three buttons adorning each cuff. The breast pocket is welted with a patch pocket on each hip, and there is a single vent in the back.
Costume designer Joesph G. Aulisi evidently liked the idea of his New York-dwelling everyday heroes sporting gray herringbone tweed sports coats and blue shirts as he would dress down this same sartorial approach with a jumper, woolen tie, and jeans the following year in Three Days of the Condor (1975).
For his arrival, Paul wears a sky blue shirt, likely made in a then-fashionable cotton and polyester blend, with a large point collar, plain front, and two-button cuffs. His tie is block-striped in three shades of blue, balanced in the traditionally American “downhill” stripe direction.
This tie would prove its versatility later during the trip when Paul wears it with a much darker indigo-tinted blue shirt—likely also polyester or a poly-blend—with a similarly large point collar, front placket, flapped breast pocket, and button cuffs.
Here, Paul illustrates the virtues of packing light: by merely swapping out his shirt (arguably the most essential piece of an outfit to change for freshness) and wearing the same jacket, trousers, and tie, Paul easily transforms a daytime business look to a more sporting look appropriate for his evening excursion to Ames’ shooting range.
For his TWA flight home, Paul dresses again in the herringbone sports coat and sky blue shirt, this time paired with the red paisley silk tie he had worn with his charcoal chalkstripe flannel office suit the day his family was attacked. Though red remains the prevailing color, the busy paisley pattern also includes tones of brick, burgundy, beige, slate, and navy blue.
Paul wears dark navy flat front trousers that appear to be worn with a belt, unlike his beltless suit trousers. In this case, it’s a dark belt with a gold-toned single-prong buckle, likely black leather to coordinate with his shoes. The tops of Paul’s square-toed shoes are covered by his gently flared trouser bottoms, but the raised heels and the prevailing styles of the time suggest that they may be some form of ankle boots.
Once Paul returns to snowy New York City, he re-dons the long overcoat he had carried off the plane in Arizona. This charcoal wool knee-length coat has wide notch lapels that roll to a three-button covered fly front as well as a welted breast pocket and straight side pockets.
When Paul returns home only to be grimly greeted by the vacation photos his wife didn’t live to see, he puts on a pair of oversized tortoise-framed rectangular reading glasses to flip through them.
Modern action movies often prominently feature our hero’s wristwatch, and even the 2018 remake of Death Wish depicted Panerai fan Bruce Willis conspicuously wearing not one but two Panerai Radiomir watches.
When Bronson originated the role of Paul Kersey, horological product placement wasn’t as prevalent as it would be forty-four years later though Bronson’s earlier collaboration with director Michael Winner, The Mechanic (1972), at one point nearly filled the frame with a close-up of his character’s non-date Rolex Submariner.
A straitlaced architect at the start of Death Wish, Paul Kersey has no need for the latest dive watch nor anything more adventurous than a plain stainless steel dress watch with a round silver dial, secured to his left wrist on a flat steel “rice grain” bracelet.
Herringbone is evidently one of Paul Kersey’s favorite weaves to wear, as he would later don a more beige-toned herringbone tweed raglan coat while doling out his version of justice across New York City.
“Hot damn, what a guest to bring to a gun club!” Ames laughs as Paul recalls his time as a conscientious objector during his Korean War service more than 20 years prior. “Hell, a gun is just a tool, like a hammer or an axe,” Ames explains, echoing Alan Ladd’s famous statement from Shane.
Ames pulls a duo of 19th century handguns for Paul to fire, beginning with a revolver he identifies as an 1842 percussion pistol but has been recognized on IMFDB as the distinctive Remington 1858 New Army revolver. “Goddamn! Paul, ya hit damn center,” exclaims an impressed Ames after Paul’s first shot is, indeed, a bullseye.
“Mind if I try this hog-leg Colt?” Paul asks, picking up and checking a Cavalry-length Single Action Army, which Ames explains had belonged to a gunfighter named Candy Dan in 1890. “You’re a peculiar conscientious objector,” observes an excited Ames.
“I do know something about guns, Ames, I grew up with them,” responds Paul. “All kinds of guns.”
When Paul returns to New York, he discovers that the “going-away present” slipped in his bag by Ames was a nickel-plated Colt Police Positive double-action revolver with a four-inch barrel and pearl grips. Considering Death Wish‘s role in establishing Bronson’s reputation as an action star, the .32-caliber revolver looks surprisingly small in his hands, particularly when compared to the massive .475 Wildey Magnum handgun (and rocket launcher) he would later use in Death Wish III.
The smaller-framed Police Positive would be realistic armament for a man carrying a concealed weapon in New York City, particularly given the city’s restrictive firearm laws where Paul would need to be especially cautious to avoid printing. Also, while Paul demonstrates considerable ability on the range, the lighter caliber would allow for less recoil and improved accuracy for someone who hasn’t regularly handled or fired a weapon in decades.
Colt introduced the Police Positive in 1907, superseding the earlier New Police revolvers aimed for the law enforcement market. Double-action revolvers with swing-out cylinders were still a relatively new milestone in the world of firearms and Colt was continuing to innovate its products, improving upon the New Police design with the addition of a “positive lock” internal hammer block safety that—along with its intended market—gave the Colt Police Positive its name.
The Police Positive was available in a range of smaller revolver calibers, most prominently .32 Long Colt as likely used in Paul Kersey’s revolver though .32 S&W Long and .38 S&W “Short” models were also available. In 1908, Colt introduced the somewhat stronger-framed Police Positive Special designed to fire longer and more powerful cartridges like the .32-20 Winchester round and the .38 Special, the latter of which would become the preeminent law enforcement cartridge for most of the 20th century.
How to Get the Look
Paul Kersey anchors his business trip wardrobe with a timeless herringbone tweed jacket and tie that he dresses up for daytime travel with a sky blue shirt and dresses down for a less formal night at the gun club in a darker indigo shirt.
- Gray-and-black herringbone tweed single-breasted 2-button sport jacket with wide notch lapels, welted breast pocket, patch hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and single vent
- Blue polyester shirt with long point collar and button cuffs
- Blue tri-toned “downhill” block-striped tie
- Navy flat front trousers with belt loops, side pockets, and and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Black leather belt with gold-toned squared single-prong buckle
- Black leather square-toed ankle boots with raised heels
- Charcoal wool knee-length single-breasted overcoat with notch lapels, 3-button covered fly front, welted breast pocket, and straight hip pockets
- Tortoise rectangular-framed oversized reading glasses
- Stainless steel wristwatch with round silver dial on steel “rice grain” bracelet
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Despite the film receiving criticism from Garfield and prominent critics, Bronson and company would continue with four more Death Wish sequels, each increasing in their scope of Paul’s one-man anti-crime vendetta at the cost of quality until Death Wish V: The Face of Death (1994), starring a 72-year-old Bronson in a dull “action thriller” that maintains its well-deserved 0% on Rotten Tomatoes.