Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey, vigilante family man
New York City, Winter 1974
Film: Death Wish
Release Date: July 24, 1974
Director: Michael Winner
Costume Designer: Joseph G. Aulisi
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Today would have been the 100th birthday of Charles Bronson, one of the most legendary cinematic ass-kickers perhaps best known for his starring role as family man-turned-street vigilante Paul Kersey in the 1974 revenge thriller Death Wish.
Bronson was born Charles Buchinsky into a Lithuanian-American family on November 3, 1921 in western Pennsylvania coal country, where he worked in the mines until enlisting in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. During his service, Buchinsky flew 25 missions in the Pacific theater and earned a Purple Heart for wounds sustained. Buchinsky’s history working in coal mines and serving in the war made him a bona fide tough guy when he arrived in Hollywood, and thus the newly rechristened Charles Bronson became a familiar face in westerns (The Magnificent Seven and Once Upon a Time in the West) and war movies (Never So Few, The Great Escape, and The Dirty Dozen).
By the early ’70s, Bronson had emerged as a popular leading man in action thrillers when his frequent collaborator, director Michael Winner, approached him with a script about a man who kills muggers following a brutal attack on his wife and daughter. “I’d like to do that,” Bronson replied to Winner. “The film?” “No… shoot muggers.”
What’d He Wear?
Until it’s ruined when he’s stabbed by one of his potential targets, Paul regularly wears a knee-length herringbone coat for stalking the streets and subways of the Big Apple as he baits the city’s various lowlifes into attacking him and finding a fatal surprise.
Paul always wears the coat with the beige-and-brown herringbone woolen side out, though it is actually a reversible coat with the alternating side faced in a light khaki gabardine that could be pressed into service as a raincoat. These double-duty coats were common through the mid-20th century, particularly in urban areas like New York City where many denizens had limited storage areas in their apartments for multiple coats (though the affluent Paul, with his spacious apartment, doesn’t seem to have that issue.)
Raglan sleeves allow the coat to more comfortably fit over a tailored jacket like the tweed that Paul regularly wears under it, as well as offering a greater range of movement to draw his .32 when facing a team of muggers. The sleeves end with plain cuffs, which prevents any straps or tabs from snagging when worn inside-out.
Paul’s coat has a long single vent, side pockets with slanted welt entries, and a three-button covered fly front. A closer look at the large dark brown buttons shows a buttonhole behind them, indicative of a reversible coat as these buttonholes would accommodate the three buttons on the other side when the coat is worn inside-out.
The collar on the broad, pointed ulster-style lapels matches the herringbone shell, while the rest of the lapels show the solid-shaded gabardine reverse side. Each lapel has a buttonhole, with the left buttonhole fastened with a smaller button that would presumably close the top of the coat when worn reversed.
Upon returning from Tucson to find that his sharpshooting pal Ames has gifted him a nickel-plated Colt revolver, Paul hits the streets in what may be a mugger-baiting walk or just an evening stroll celebrating his new sense of pistol-packing freedom, but Paul’s lone perambulations capture the attention of a violent young man with a gun of his own, who soon ends up dead after messing with the wrong New Yorker. The act itself repels Paul, who collapses to the floor and vomits immediately upon his return home.
It’s not long before Paul comes to terms with—and, in fact, embraces—his new vigilante vocation, adopting what becomes his de facto mugger-killin’ uniform of his reversible herringbone coat layered over a tweed sport jacket, brown trousers, brown shoes, and a dark brown woolen scarf with fringed ends.
The only time Paul wears the coat without murder on his mind is during a daytime trip to the sanitarium with his son-in-law Jack (Steven Keats), visiting his daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan) after she survived the traumatizing attack that killed her mother and inspired Paul’s rampage.
Paul foregoes the scarf this time, wearing a jaunty violet shirt and a tonally coordinated periwinkle-and-purple diamond-woven silk tie. His russet-brown trousers and leather cap-toe derbies are variations of the darker trousers and shoes he wears during his evening kills, and he layers the coat over the same light taupe tweed sport jacket.
This sports coat is always the same tweed jacket, woven in a small-scaled herringbone that presents as a light taupe-brown. We rarely see the jacket worn on its own, as it’s not the same gray tweed sports coat he had worn in Arizona, but we can discern that it has notch lapels, patch pockets, and three front buttons.
For the notable subway scene that would eerily foreshadow the infamous Bernie Goetz incident a decade later, Paul dresses up his usual look with a dark brown polyester tie detailed with white polka dots arranged in double “downhill”-directional sets, perhaps resembling an airport runway at night or—more on brand with Death Wish‘s themes—neatly arranged rows of bullet holes.
The double-killing of the two subway muggers—including one that I would have sworn was Frank Zappa—escalates Paul’s vigilantism to international news, also escalating his ambition as he attracts three muggers at once in an isolated subway platform. It turns out to be one too many, and Paul gets wounded in the attack that leaves his vigilante “uniform” torn and bloodied.
When her returns home to peel off the bloody layers, we see more of the tan poplin shirt he’d worn for most of these sequences, detailed with a then-fashionable long point collar, front placket, button cuffs, and a breast pocket covered with a pointed button-through flap.
When Paul wears this coat, he always wears trousers and shoes in shades of brown. The flat front trousers, with self-suspended waistbands and plain-hemmed bottoms, range between a russet shade during the day and a darker chocolate tone by night.
His derby shoes also range from the lighter English tan leather uppers he wore during the daytime sanitarium visit to a darker burgundy-adjacent brown at night.
Predating the era when action heroes’ wristwatches are almost a supporting star, Paul Kersey’s wristwatch falls under the radar—or his shirt cuffs—as much as his own reserved attire. (That said, Bronson and director Michael Winner’s previous collaboration, The Mechanic, does give us a nice close-up of the non-date Rolex Submariner worn by Bronson’s character.)
Paul wears a plain stainless steel watch with a round silver dial, secured around his left wrist on a flat steel rice-grain bracelet with a single-prong buckle.
Paul returns to New York to find his “going-away present” from Ames, a nickel-plated Colt Police Positive revolver with pearl grips. Despite its four-inch barrel consistent with most police service revolvers, the smaller-framed .32-caliber double-action revolver looks surprisingly undersized in Charles Bronson’s hand, given that the Death Wish series would later find him wielding larger weapons ranging from the massive .475 Wildey Magnum to the rocket launcher that would both appear in Death Wish III.
Viewers may have expected a larger weapon like Dirty Harry’s famous .44 Magnum Smith & Wesson revolver in a movie so centered around vigilante justice, but Paul Kersey has neither Harry Callahan’s badge nor professional experience, so it’s likely more realistic that his sidearm would be the lighter-caliber and more easily concealed Police Positive.
Colt introduced the Police Positive in 1907, its name reflective of the “positive lock” internal hammer block safety that remained consistent with the manufacturer’s continued innovations as double-action revolvers with swing-out cylinders continued to supersede the more old-fashioned revolvers. The first run of Police Positives were chambered for smaller calibers like .32 Long Colt, followed by the Police Positive Special variant in 1908 with a stronger frame that could handle more powerful loads like the .38 Special.
How to Get the Look
Brown clothing was popular in every era, though it’s commonly associated with ’70s clothing and design. Paul Kersey incorporates varying shades into his winter-appropriate layers that give him the quintessential “gray man” advantage as muggers may take the unassuming businessman as an easy mark… and not their worst nightmare.
- Beige-and-brown herringbone woolen tweed reversible raglan coat with ulster-style collar, three-button single-breasted front, slanted hand pockets, and khaki gabardine reversible side
- Light taupe-brown herringbone woolen tweed single-breasted 3-button sport jacket with notch lapels and patch pockets
- Tan poplin shirt with long point collar, front placket, flapped breast pocket, and button cuffs
- Brown woven polyester tie with diagonal double rows of white polka-dots
- Dark brown flat front self-suspended trousers with plain-hemmed bottoms
- Dark brown leather derby shoes
- Dark brown woolen scarf with fringed ends
- Stainless steel wristwatch with round silver dial on steel “rice grain” bracelet
Well-made reversible coats are still offered by high-end outfitters today, including:
- Brooks Brothers Reversible Gabardine-Herringbone Twill Trench Coat (Brooks Brothers, $499)
- Chrysalis Runcorn Reversible Raincoat – Tan/Gold Herringbone with Window (O’Connell’s, $1,295)
- J. Press Tan Grey Herringbone Reversible Coat (J. Press, $1,495)
- Maison Margiela Reversible Herringbone Wool Rain Jacket (Grailed, $1,400)
All prices and availability updated as of October 29, 2021.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.