(Originally published May 28, 2010; dead links excised)
The main thing about death in the movies versus death in real life is that death in movies is usually incredibly quick — take any longer than a minute or so to die once you’ve started and you’re taking far too long. On the other hand, death in films can’t be too quick (that is to say unannounced or instantaneous) or else no one has time to say or do anything except react to the death.
People who are shot or stabbed or upon whom some large rock falls or who stumble from a flaming airplane wreck or who are buggered by an outsize alien monster — all have time for a pithy line or two, something to resonate with viewers, before they close their eyes one last time and are silent. The exception to this is the person dying in a horror film or war film, someone whose death often needs no dialogue because it is by its visual nature entertaining enough without words.
If a character is dying of a disease on the other hand, they may spend much of the film dispensing wit and wisdom (if they’re not too busy telling jokes) or ‘just’ visibly suffering, something particularly difficult to depict onscreen. Regardless, before their curtain closes, they too will normally have ample time for some ultimate gesture or speech (or both). Everything in film is dictated by visual economics, and death is no different.
If film puts limits on death in one way (duration), it also removes limits from death in other ways (notably circumstance but also finality). People die in films in ways that no real person has ever died or likely ever will die. People in films die making the grandest gestures and saying the most perfect things. Their deaths, which almost never come suddenly and unannounced, serve to bring dramas together, seal (or break) contracts and to move the plot forward. They look great dying and they sound great too. Film appears to transcend death itself and indeed will allow the viewer of a film to transcend death as they watch.
Like disturbing scenes, deaths in film have generated a great deal of lists on the internet: what were the best deaths? best kills? best falling deaths? best violent deaths? most sadistic? most gruesome? sexiest? and so on and so on. Perusing a few of these recently, I was surprised at how good many of these lists were. Better than I would have expected anyways, lots of good picks, excellent grounds for discussion for cine-morgue nerds.
A few things come to mind I didn’t see covered, a few deaths that seem stuck in my own cranium for whatever reason. Spoilers ahead, obviously.
1. Best Seller (1987). At the end of this flick, Cleve (James Woods) is an assassin breaking into the home of a former employer who now wants him dead. The security guards Cleve encounters are all-too-easily disposed of; finally, Cleve forces one of these guys to lie down on a bed and then starts berating him, his lousy skills, how easily he was caught out… The guy very nonchalantly says “enough with the insults, just do it” (or something like that) and Cleve shoots him.
2. License To Kill (1989). In this Bond film, JB flips a henchman onto a large open shelf unit full of live maggots, shuts the shelf (which presumably locks), quips “bon appetit” — and that’s the last we ever see of this poor sod. Was he in fact eaten alive by maggots? Would he have asphyxiated first? Perhaps gone mad? I couldn’t stop thinking about this mysterious henchman after the film was over; he could have lasted a week or more in there, possibly.
3. Ta paidia tou Diavolou / Island of Death (1975). There’s a whole lot of crazy deaths in this nutty Greek movie, but of these I would highlight the one where our happy protagonists Christopher and Celia nail a guy’s hands to the concrete patio beneath him and then force a can of white paint down his throat until he dead.
4. Ai no korîda / In the realm of the senses (1976). Kichizo falls in love with Sada and theirs is an obsessive affair, all-consuming and frenzied, with increasing forays into auto-erotic asphyxiation during which Sada strangles Kichizo while he is inside her. These sequences used a lot of red onscreen and something about the way it was shot managed to make me feel light-headed in the rep theatres I’d watch it in. When Kichizo finally dies onscreen, it’s almost too much to take.
5. The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Eh, call me a big softie if you will, but the ending of this great movie, wherein Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) has been shot and he knows he’s looking at the end of everything and that he’s dying and now he just wants to get to the horse-farm of his dreams and he stops the car at that pretty field and opens the gate and he’s running through the field and then he falls down there and the horses come over and smell him… *sniff*