What makes for a great movie death?It’s tough to say; criteria are, of course, ultimately arbitrary.But to my mind there are a few guidelines.The death should be memorable.And moving.It should also be artful - well-written, well-performed.It should display some thought and originality.It doesn’t need to be gruesome or freaky - that would be a different list - it just needs to show that the artists took some effort to make the death unique. Here, then, is my list of the best.
1. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) - Psycho (1960)
Obviously. There’s no way Janet Leigh’s killing doesn’t hold the top spot on any “Top 10 Deaths” list - and it will for a long time, too. Directors, writers, and actors have had over fifty years to outdo Alfred Hitchcock’s knife-job in the shower, but no one has even come close. This movie, and this scene, have been analyzed seemingly ad infinitum so I don’t know if there’s anything special I could add to it. Except for my own personal observations. What pushes this scene into the sublime for me is what happens after the murder - from the shower giving out (which seems like the ultimate indignity - I hate that shower curtain!) to the slow rotating dissolve of the shower drain over Leigh’s open but lifeless eye. It’s a poetic, beautiful and nihilistic reverie - and we don’t get many of those in movies.
2. HAL (Douglas Rains) - 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
By rights Stanley Kubrick could claim the top spot on this list. No other film death is so meticulously drawn out, so artfully built, so layered, so large, such a show-stopper as the deactivation of HAL. What the death of Isolde is to opera, what the final collapse of Lear is on the stage, that's what HAL's death is to movies. Janet Leigh is swiftly butchered in Psycho but HAL is slowly taken apart piece by piece. He's disassembled, dismantled. Douglas Rain provides the unforgettable voice, but no actor could have performed this in the flesh. Not Brando, not Nicholson, not Olivier, not DeNiro, no one. In fact HALS's death is purely cinematic, it couldn't be done to full effect on a stage or in a novel or in any other medium but movies. And let's not underestimate how relentlessly and smoothly Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clark turn the screws on us. From HAL's comical delusions ("Take a stress pill..."), to his begging, to his regression to childhood and singing of "Daisy Bell" this death has been assembled with a level of thought and finesse unequaled in cinematic history.
3. Taketoki Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) - Throne of Blood (1957)
Toshiro Mifune plays the lead in Akira Kurosawa's version of Shakespeare's Macbeth. His death at the end of this film is in many ways the precursor to the first two deaths on this list. I don't know if Hitchcock ever saw Throne of Blood, but Kubrick most certainly did - the camera angle of the axe through the door in The Shining's classic bathroom sceneis clearly an homage to Mifune's death scene. The clip provided here simply doesn't do the scene justice. It's the end of the line for Washizu. His wife is dead and his enemies' army, disguised as a forest, are advancing on his fortress. Standing on a terrace above his own troops, he orders them into battle. They don't move. He yells at them, calls them "cowards" and "dogs". Suddenly an arrow from out of the mass of troops hits the wooden post next to him. He is startled. Then a lone arrow hits him in the chest. He screams, pulls the arrow out, throws it at the mutinous troops, yells at them more. Then a bunch of arrows hit the post next to him. Then two arrows hit him. Now the mutiny is on. Soon the arrows are flying, turning him into a human pincushion. He tries to escape but every exit is blocked by a fresh volley of a arrows. Kurosawa turns Washizu's death into a surreal, drawn out horrific nightmare. This was something new in 1957. Kurosawa showed that an onscreen death could be more than just a plot point; it could be a disturbing, excessive, powerful yet exhilarating moment on screen. Interesting production note: real arrows were shot at Mifune for this scene. He wore wooden blocks under his clothes for protection but much of his fear and screaming was real.
4. Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) - The Godfather (1972)
If the first three deaths on this list are loud and dramatic this one is quiet and intimate. And unforgettable precisely because of that intimacy. An old man plays with his grandson in the garden. In the midst of their play he suddenly dies - heart attack, brain aneurysm, we never know. And it doesn't matter. The Godfather is mythic and operatic. It has more amazing death scenes than almost any other film. I could have chosen the death of Sonny (James Caan), or the shooting of Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) and Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden - literally choking on the bullet before his epic face plant on a restaurant table!), or the killing of Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana), etc. So many fabulous deaths! But I've chosen this one death instead exactly because it's quiet and ordinary. At this key moment in the story, director Francis Ford Coppola lowers the volume for effect. Coppola has always struck me as being among the most musical of film-makers (his dad was a composer, for Christ's sake), and just as Wagner or Mahler knew when to diminish the whole orchestra and rely on a single violin or lone English horn for effect, so, too, does Coppola in this scene. Brando's performance is a masterpiece of acting. And Corleone's death is unique in another way: we go to the funeral. That usually doesn't happen in movies; in fact, in no other movie on this list does that happen. But it does in this one - and it needs to. Cut the funeral scene and the film is weakened. The Godfather is the story of a family, specifically of fathers and sons (it's actually a reworking of Shakespeare's Henry IV plays, but that's another post), so when one generation passes, when there's a changing of the guard, so to speak, attention must be paid. We need to mark the event, there needs to be - horrible word, but it fits - closure.
5. Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) - Ran (1985)
Sadly, the least known of the deaths on this list. Ran is Akiro Kurosawa's retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear. Lord Ichimonji decides to split his kingdom among his three sons and, as in the original, things go frightfully wrong. Lady Kaede is married to one of his sons and she is a scheming little minx. Imagine if Lady Macbeth or Richard III were suddenly dropped into King Lear and you get an idea of her impact. But she's more than that. We are told several time that Lord Ichimonji has shed oceans of blood to gain and hold his kingdom. Lady Kaeda's family were among his victims. At one chilling point she casually remarks to her husband that the room in which they are sitting is where her parents were killed. Despite her high rank she is one of the victims of the the powerful. And that makes her sympathetic. We feel for her, even though she has all the warmth of a rattlesnake. As she wheedles and schemes her way through the film we're never quite sure what her game is, though we know it's not good. She is never direct or candid. The scene below is one of the last in the film. Ichimonji is dead, so are two of his sons (the third, in the red coat, will soon commit harikiri), the rest of the royal family have been killed off, and the kingdom has been betrayed and invaded by a coalition of Ichimonji's enemies. It's doom and destruction. And when confronted in the scene below, Lady Kaeda finally puts her cards on the table. And gets her appropriately grand and magnificent comeuppance. I've seen Ran at least half a dozen times in the theater and Lady Kaeda's death always gets a cheer - not against her, mind you, but for her. Her final moment is one of victory, of the revenge of all the victims of history's tyrants and warlords. And we love her for it.
6. Pike and his gang, and 10,000 Mexicans (William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, and many, many extras) - The Wild Bunch (1969)
The best shoot out in film history, and, like the shower scene in Psycho, still unsurpassed after all these years despite several brave attempts. A word commonly used to describe this scene is “orgy” as in “orgy of violence” or “orgy of bloodshed” or “orgy of slo-mo deaths”, etc. But “orgy” is the correct word. Sam Peckinpah loves this - and so do we. There’s a moment before the shoot out which captures the true greatness of what Peckinpah does. Pike and his boys have walked into Mapache's (Emilio Fernández) compound to get back Angel (Jaime Sanchez), a companion of theirs whom Mapache has kidnapped and tortured. Surrounded by his army, Mapache takes Angel, slits his throat, and throws him dying to the ground. The bunch pull out their guns and shoot Mapache dead. But - and this is the key part - none of Mapache’s men pulls out a gun. They stand there and do nothing (see number 8, below), a few even have their hands up. Pike and his gang look at each other. Could they actually get away with this? Could they just back out and leave? Could this film end with them all riding off into the sunset? “Well, what an adventure that was!” No, no, no! That can't happen! We don't want that to happen. Peckinpah has found out our dirty little secret: We want the shoot out. We want the orgy of killing. Peckinpah was always the filthiest of great directors; he understood that cinema could be its most sublime when it catered to our basest and most vicious desires. He was unafraid to toy with what was darkest in the viewer.
7. Kane (John Hurt) - Alien (1979) Still frightening, still disturbing (human used as incubators) - this scene achieved classic status so quickly that John Hurt managed to parody it himself in Mel Brook's Spaceballs (1987). As with so many other scenes on this list, it's the performer who makes it unique. There are very few actors who could do frailty as well as John Hurt. Scrawny and pale, there was always something slight about his appearance. And from the moment his face drops and he spits out his food in this scene, he's all vulnerability. If this were happening to Tom Skerritt or Yaphet Kotto you'd imagine it would play out differently. You can picture them fighting back in some way, no matter how futile. But not Hurt. His body writhes, his limbs flail, he yells, groans, shrieks. Hurt had a magnificent voice (as anyone who recalls his death as the emperor Caligula in I, Claudius (1976) can attest to) and he uses it to full effect in this scene. His entire performance sets us up for the bloody entrance of the film's true star - the alien. Ian Holm also has a good death (and post-death) in this film as the evil cyborg Ash. I've always felt that it would have been nice had he and Hurt switched roles. It wouldn't have changed the film substantially, but they're both fantastic actors and it would have interesting to see.
8. The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) - The Wizard of Oz (1939)
We all grew up with this death so we tend to minimize how great it is. And, besides, we ask ourselves cynically, can a G-rated movie really have a great death in it? Of course it can (FYI-2001 was rated G). Consider how dramatically tricky it is to kill the Wicked Witch. We're in the world of fairy tale and myth in The Wizard of Oz so certain requirements are unavoidable. Dorothy has to kill the Wicked Witch. No one else can do it. But she can't do it intentionally - this is a children's story, after all. So the Wicked Witch has to die by accident, but it can't seem contrived. These difficulties are deftly solved by having the Wicked Witch set the Scarecrow on fire and making Dorothy's intervention with the conveniently present pail of water seem inevitable and even altruistic. By the way, when I was a kid this scene of setting the Scarecrow on fire scared the crap out of me. Up this point in the movie the Wicked Witch has only threatened our heroes; this is the first time she actually harms one of them. It takes her evil to a whole new and more intense level. The fatal water itself serves the crucial fairy tale function of giving young spectators a reassuring message: no matter how big and bad someone seems they always have a weak spot. And of course Margaret Hamilton's over-the-top performance makes this classic. She's ironic, funny, and ends it all with a drawn-out whimper. It's perfect. Finally, I also like the fact that as the Wicked Witch is melting her minions just stand around and watch, but no one does anything. No one tries to help her. No one intervenes. No one says "Quick! Someone get a towel!" Nothing.
9. Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) - The Roaring Twenties (1939)
Most "Best movie deaths" lists include James Cagney's death as Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949). "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" he screams from the summit of a gas tank the second before it explodes. When I finally saw that scene in the context of the film it struck me as contrived and silly. There are far better deaths in White Heat ("Oh, stuffy, huh? I'll give you a little air!"). Cagney's death as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1931) is also remarkable; and I would include it in any "Top Fifty Deaths" list - along with an exegesis about its moving use in the "Proshai, Livushka" episode of The Sopranos (that's the one in which Livia dies). But for me his death in The Roaring Twenties is the one that I always return to. Cagney was a very physical actor (at heart he was a dancer), and Eddie's death - running down the street, lumbering with each bullet he takes, knocking over a mailbox, etc. - is a bravura performance. And it was a risky move to stage Eddie's final collapse on the steps of a church; it could've pushed the film into camp. But it didn't. The risk paid off, the scene is unforgettable. In addition, the end of The Roaring Twenties is a two-fer because we also get the death of Humphrey Bogart who plays George, Eddie's loathsome criminal competitor. His final sniveling moments ("Eddie! Crazy!") are delicious. (This may be Bogart's best screen death, too.) And of course the film's ending is justly celebrated. "He used to be a big shot," Gladys George mournfully says as director Raoul Walsh pulls back the camera for the final shot.
10. Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens) - Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)
Slim Pickens could claim two spots on this list: the first for his death in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and the second for his A-Bomb bronco ride to atomization in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964), but I'm going to give his death in Pat Garrett precedence. Why? Because it's absolutely unique in its simplicity and directness. One day Sheriff Baker and Pat Garrett (James Coburn) go to make an arrest. There is a brief and chaotic gunfight. During it Baker is shot in the belly. As the shooting winds down, he wanders off. The wound is worse than he thought. It's fatal, in fact. His wife, who has followed him on this outing, also knows something is wrong and trails after him. Suddenly we hear Bob Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door" softly start to play in the background. "Mama, take this badge off of me. I can't use it anymore..." Pickens sits on a rock by the river. He's going to die and he knows it. He's seen his last morning; this will be the other date on the tombstone. He and his wife (beautifully played by Katy Jurado) exchange glances but they know nothing can be done. This is the only scene on this list which is actually about death. All the other deaths I've mentioned are dramatic, they all have something to prove, they're show-offs. But this one is mundane and real. This is how you and I will die - with that helpless and confused look on our face. And that the actor doing this is Slim Pickens is even better. He's an ordinary guy, an everyman. His death is our death. All the other directors, writers, and actors on this list are on some level evading the brutal finality of what it means to die. But not Peckinpah, in this scene he walks right up to it and stares it in the face. It's a testament to his genius that he's responsible for this list's most overwrought deaths (The Wild Bunch) and yet its most simple, honest, and profound.