Michael Winner (left) with Charles Bronson on the set of Death Wish.
British filmmaker, producer and food critic Michael Winner passed away of a heart attack in his home in London earlier today. He was 77.
Winner began his filmmaking career as an assistant director for the BBC, netting his first on-screen credit for the 1958 thriller Man With a Gun. He went on to shoot a series of British crime thrillers and mysteries, as well as the Second World War satire Hannibal Brooks, the success of which resulted in his fielding offers from American studios.
In 1971, Winner made his Hollywood debut with the Burt Lancaster vehicle Lawman, a film that set the tone for many of Winner's American outtings: complex, often vengeful anti-heroes wading through a world beset by the reality of violence. These themes were further explored in 1972's Chato's Land, which kicked off Winner's fruitful working relationship with legendary movie tough guy Charles Bronson. Bronson would also appear as a nihilistic hitman in Winner's The Mechanic (also 1972) and, most famously, as urban vigilante Paul Kersey in Death Wish (1974) and its two of its sequels.
While the Death Wish films solidified their place in the larger culture as archly stupid conservative revenge fantasies - in the fifth one (directed by Allan Goldstein), Bronson blows up a bad guy with a remote-controlled soccer ball bomb - the original film is something of a high masterpiece of the revenge-thriller genre.
Where subsequent sequels offered diminishing returns, the original Death Wish believably articulated the pain and anguish of Bronson's liberal NYC architect who turns to armed vengeance after his wife and daughter are brutally attacked by a gang of hooting goons (among them, a very young Jeff Goldblum). Death Wish defined Charles Bronson as a viable screen presence in the 70s, recertifying the tough guy bona fides he'd earned in earlier films like The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen and Once Upon A Time In The West. Death Wish's celebration of vigilantism in the face of inept, hand-wringing authority figures can be felt in everything from the rape-revenge film cycle of the late 1970s, to "Gimmie My Kid/Wife/Family Back" thrillers like Ransom and Taken and even the recent wave of high-minded superhero blockbusters, which have redefined the Hollywood landscape with their own costumed vigilante fantasies.
After the release of Death Wish 3 in 1985, Winner's productivity as a filmmaker slowed. Instead, he refocused on his writing, penning regular restaurant reviews and food criticism for the Sunday Times. Winner published his last column on December 2, 2012, citing his declining health as the reason for his retirement.
In autumn of last year, Winner revealed that liver specialists had given him between 18 months to two years to live. He began researching assisted suicide options in Switzerland, but was put off by the paperwork. "It's not a walk-in death," he told London's Daily Express. "You don't just go in and say ‘Here I am, do your worst.' You have to through a whole series of papers and re-examinations just to die."
It's a fitting cosmic irony that a filmmaker who traded so frequently with the administration of extrajudicial death-dealing would should find himself stymied by the inefficiency of bureaucracy.