‘Death Wish’ director Michael Winner has died
Michael Winner, best remembered for directing the Charles Bronson action hit Death Wish, died earlier today at his home in Kensington, London. According to reports, Winner had been suffering from (an unspecified) liver disease. He was 77.
Born in London (on Oct. 30, 1935) to a well-to-do family of Eastern European Jews – his father was Russian, his mother was Polish – Winner studied law and economics at Cambridge University. Following a stint as a gossip columnist (reportedly at the age of 14), he proceeded to study journalism and film criticism. He began working in the field in the mid-’50s.
Michael Winner movies
Michael Winner’s directorial career also took off in the mid-’50s, when he began directing several documentary and live-action shorts, a couple of which featured well-known names such as A.E. Matthews and Dennis Price. Winner progressed to features in the early ’60s, directing the crime thriller Shoot to Kill (1960), and youth-oriented fare such as Play It Cool (1962) and The Cool Mikado (1963).
Later in the decade, Winner focused on more off-beat themes. In the crime comedy The Jokers (1967), Michael Crawford and Oliver Reed play two ambitious brothers out to steal the crown jewels from the Tower of London. In I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname (1968), Oliver Reed plays an advertising executive who attempts to leave behind his successful life, including wife and lovers; Orson Welles and Carol White co-starred. In The Games (1970), Michael Crawford and Ryan O’Neal are two of four runners of various nationalities competing in the Rome Olympic Games. The Nightcomers (1971), which focuses on some of the characters found in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, was a generally well-regarded prequel to Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961); Marlon Brando, Stephanie Beacham, and Harry Andrews had the key roles.
Michael Winner: ‘Death Wish director dies’
Yet, Michael Winner’s fame rests on his action movies of the ’70s. Chief among these is the ultra-violent Death Wish (1974), every weapon-worshiping right-winger’s wet dream, starring Charles Bronson as an architect-turned-vigilante out to avenge the death of his wife and daughter. Death Wish was a solid hit, grossing $22 million (approx. $91 million today); however, two latter-day sequels, Death Wish II (1982) and Death Wish 3 (1985), both also starring Bronson, failed to create much of a stir.
“When I die, it’s going to be ‘Death Wish director dies’,” Michael Winner said last year. “I don’t mind though – Death Wish was an epoch-making film. The first film in the history of cinema where the hero kills other civilians. It had never been done before. Since then it has been the most copied film ever. [Quentin] Tarantino put it in his top 10 films ever made.”’
Brian Garfield, author of the 1972 novel on which Death Wish was based, apparently had other thoughts. “The screenplay for the original Death Wish movie,” Garfield told Pop Matters‘ Nikki Tranter in 2008, “was quite good, I thought. It was written by [Anatomy of a Murder, Advise and Consent screenwriter] Wendell Mayes […] but his Death Wish script was designed to be directed by Sidney Lumet, with Jack Lemmon to star as [family man-turned-vigilante] Paul. The last-minute changes in director and star were imposed by a new producer [an uncredited Dino De Laurentiis] to whom the project was sold, rather under protest, by the original producers Hal Landers and Bobby Roberts.”
‘Death Wish’: Michael Winner’s movie vs. original novel
“The point of the novel Death Wish,” adds author Brian Garfield, “is that vigilantism is an attractive fantasy but it only makes things worse in reality. By the end of the novel, the character (Paul) is gunning down unarmed teenagers because he doesn’t like their looks. The story is about an ordinary guy who descends into madness.”
A few years ago, Sylvester Stallone had plans to remake Death Wish, which (probably not coincidentally) has elements in common with Stallone’s (perhaps even more brutal and more pro-vigilantism) Cobra (1985). Stallone’s Death Wish remake, however, never came to fruition. Early in 2012, The Grey‘s director Joe Carnahan stated that he was planning an updated version of Death Wish.
Michael Winner’s other ’70s movies: Directing Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, and more Charles Bronson
Among Michael Winner’s other action movies of that period were two starring Burt Lancaster, Lawman (1970) and Scorpio (1973), the latter co-starring Alain Delon; and three others with Charles Bronson: Chato’s Land (1972), The Mechanic (1972), and The Stone Killer (1973).
An ill-advised remake of The Big Sleep (1978), with Robert Mitchum in the old Humphrey Bogart role and Sarah Miles as Mitchum’s leading lady, was followed by the box office bomb Firepower (1979), starring James Coburn, Sophia Loren, and O.J. Simpson.
As for Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976), it remains an anomaly in Winner’s career. Possibly inspired by the box office success of the sleeper blockbuster Benji and by Mel Brooks’ Hollywood-set Blazing Saddles, the widely derided Won Ton Ton stars a hero dog reminiscent of Rin Tin Tin, and features an endless array of cameos by Old Hollywood stars, among them Dorothy Lamour, Ruby Keeler, Alice Faye, Johnny Weissmuller, Virginia Mayo, Yvonne De Carlo, and Joan Blondell.
Michael Winner in the 1980s: Critical and box office disappointments
Michael Winner was never to recover the same box office standing he had enjoyed in the early 1970s. The two Death Wish sequels; The Wicked Lady (1983), starring Faye Dunaway; the Agatha Christie adaptation Appointment with Death (1988), featuring an all-star cast that included Peter Ustinov, Lauren Bacall, Carrie Fisher, John Gielgud, and Piper Laurie; and the adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn’s play A Chorus of Disapproval, starring Anthony Hopkins and Jeremy Irons, were all critical and box office disappointments – or downright disasters.
Michael Winner’s last feature film was the little-seen Parting Shots (1998), which also revolved around a vigilante, but this time for tragicomic effect: a man (Chris Rea) who believes himself dying of cancer decides to kill those who have made his life miserable – the problem is that the cancer diagnosis was way off.
In the United Kingdom, Michael Winner was also known for what the BBC‘s Winner obit describes as “his barbed restaurant reviews, written for The Sunday Times under the banner ‘Winner’s Dinners’.”
Somewhat ironically, Winner fell seriously ill after contracting the deadly bacterial infection vibrio vulnificus while on vacation in Barbados. And an E. coli infection led to his being hospitalized numerous times in the last few months.
Charles Bronson Death Wish image: Paramount Pictures.