Sunday, July 19, 2009

Best Movie Death Scenes

John Cassavettes in THE FURY (1978)

Some men just make you want to get to the point, big-time. Cassavettes is of course legendary as the man who, some say, created the independent American film movement -- but he earned his rent as an actor in other people's movies, and as an actor, he made his strongest impact in man-you-love-to-hate roles. The one that everyone probably remembers best is Guy, the hungry New York actor who pimped his wife out to Satan, a gesture that his character here -- Childress, a top-secret government operative with a dead arm and deader eyes -- would sniff at as the move of a rank amateur. Childress lays waste to most of the cast of Brian De Palma's visually lush horror thriller, only to meet his match in a telekinetic teenager who must share her director's movie-geek interests and black sense of humor, since what she has planned for him is actually a choice parody of the ending of Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point. (PN)

Jean-Paul Belmondo in BREATHLESS (1960) & PIERROT LE FOU (1965)

If you ever sit down to a compile a list of memorable death scenes from the movies -- an activity that I recommend, by the way -- you may find that they divide neatly into two categories, the quiet and reflective (typified at one end of the scale by the end of McCabe & Mrs. Miller) and the wild and flashy (summed up at the other end by James Cagney in, well, anything). In the films that bookend their period of collaboration, Jean-Luc Godard and his star Belmondo hit both extremes. In their breakthrough hit, Breathless, Belmondo, lying in the street with a bullet in his hide, came to terms with his happily misspent existence and enjoyed telling off his girlfriend one last time. Five years later, in Pierrot le Fou, the older and wiser man bids farewell to this cruel world (and to Godard's universe) by breaking out the boom sticks. (PN)

Nick Nolte in WHO'LL STOP THE RAIN? (1978)

You could argue that this isn't technically a death scene, since Nolte's character doesn't die on-camera; in his last scene as Hicks, the Marine turned heroin courier, he's walking along the train tracks in the desert heat, determined to hold up his end of the agreement to meet his partners somewhere down the line, despite the fact that he's bullet-riddled and bleeding to death. He staggers along, alternately wincing in pain and performing old basic-training drill session games like a man fighting off sleep, and the next time we see him, he's dead. But seldom has an actor thrown himself with greater conviction and physical force into the act of dying. Nolte was in the best shape of his life -- Veronica Geng wrote that his body "was burned down to pure will" -- and especially well-equipped to seem alive enough to fully communicate the cost of a man's death. When he finally goes down, it's as if a whole species had been wiped out for good.

Sean Connery in THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975)

John Huston's long-delayed version of the Kipling story -- he'd originally planned to use Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable in the roles played here, magnificently, by Michael Caine and Sean Connery -- has a childlike desire to believe in adventure-book heroism that is shaded by an old man's wry awareness that violence and conquest are never purely heroic, and that while futile gestures can seem stirring and beautiful, they're also, well, futile. Connery goes out in glory here, as he would a dozen years later in The Untouchables, and a word should be said for his and Caine's sidekick, Saeed Jaffrey, whose last scene would bring Gunga Din out of the grave, saluting. (PN)

James Caan in THE GODFATHER (1972) & John Cazale in THE GODFATHER, PART II (1974)

Once upon a time, Michael Corleone had two brothers. A small army took one away from him. The other one he had to take care of himself. Here again we have the dichotomy between quiet death scenes and big, loud ones, and it's no surprise that Sonny, who for all his faults is the white-hot life force in The Godfather, an uncontainable live wire surrounded by people older or meeker or more icily calculating, goes out big. Perhaps more haunting is the death of John Cazale's Fredo, who goes out like an already flickering candle hit by the breeze, or like an afterthought. Sitting in a little boat and about to feel his brains emerging from the front of his head, he bows his head to pray -- and while it could be that he senses what's coming, it would be totally in character if he just wanted to catch a fish. (PN)

Slim Pickens in PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (1973)

Sam Peckinpah's elegy for the West is also an elegy for a disappearing generation of character actors. When James Coburn requests that old sheriff Slim Pickens accompany him to a shoot-out with outlaw L. Q. Jones, Pickens replies that he's gotten to a place where he doesn't do much of anything "unless there's a piece of gold attached." He then loads his gun and returns the money that Coburn's just thrown to him, thus establishing himself as one of those Peckinpah characters who mainly talks so that he can have the thrill of contradicting himself. (Jones, who goes out with shaving cream on his face, shot down while executing a comic heartbreaker of a wobbly-legged attempt at a heroic last charge, is another: "Us old boys oughtn't to be doin' this to each other," he complains to Coburn, while the two of them enthusiastically go about doing it to each other.) Fatally ventilated, Pickens, followed by his no-nonsense wife and deputy (Katy Jurado), staggers to the side of the river to die. His head slowly moves from side to side, so that it isn't clear what he's looking at, but from the expression on his face, you'd pay a lot to see whatever he's seeing. (PN)

HAL 9000 in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1967)

Kubrick has a reputation as a cold bastard, but it's a terrible, moving moment when the only character in 2001 who seems to have a past, some intellect, and an emotional life bites the dust, out there in the iciness of space where there's no one he can turn to for help. You will be remembered, HAL 9000. (PN)

Kevin Spacey in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997)

The murder of Spacey's Jack Vincennes in Curtis Hanson's adaptation of James Ellroy's '50s-set police procedural is designed to be the single greatest shock in a movie full of them, and a low point in the audience's capacity to hope for a bearable outcome: if a guy this smart could walk right into his killer's kitchen with his guard down, what hope is there that the lugs he leaves behind will be able to crack the case? Spacey does it full justice, running the gamut from dismay to despair to dark-humored self-amusement at having been played, all in about half a minute, while letting the light drain from his eyes as if he'd been able to borrow God's personal dimmer. If Spacey has done little since he won the Academy Award for Best Actor, at least in terms of his choice of movie roles (except give audiences reason to think that he might be far less smart than advertised), let no one doubt that the man has chops. (PN)

Jeff Daniels in SPEED (1994) & Denis Leary in GUNMEN (1994)

Speed is as nifty as high concept gets, a pretty much perfect wind-up toy movie, but it does have one, almost jarring moment of pure, deep feeling: the moment when Daniels, the best actor in the cast by a fair margin, triggers the explosive device that he immediately realizes is going to kill him, and just stands there, trying to be ready for what he knows is coming and can't prevent. Amusingly, the noisy, rolling junkyard that is the Mario Van Peebles-Christopher Lambert flick Gunmen, which came out a few months earlier, includes a scene that, while kind of dandy on its own, gains weight when seen as a pre-emptive parody of the Jeff Daniels scene. Gunmen's chief villain, played by Denis Leary, whose constant flow of exasperated, blustering complaints and insults makes it seem as if he's throwing peanut shells at the screen even as he himself is in the movie, barges into a cabin, throws open the door, and eyeballs the bomb that's set to go off in a second. "Well," he says, choosing his famous last words carefully, "fuck me!" (PN)

Paul Reubens in BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (1992)

Words fail me. (PN)

Jimmy Durante in IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD, WORLD (1963)

Stanley Kramer's "ultimate" slapstick comedy attempts to compensate for its director's lack of any sense of humor with sheer tonnage of comic performers. And what better way to set the tone for what follows than with a series of close-ups of a beloved old man looking very uncomfortable as he lies against some rocks coughing and raving while dying in pain? Judgement at Nuremburg was funnier. (PN)

Some poor bit player in RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD, PART II (1985)

Nothing sums up Sylvester Stallone's distinctive brand of cheeseball heroism like the scene from this movie in which Rambo encounters a Vietnamese soldier who reacts to the sight of the leathery white war god by staring at him in gaping awe, patiently waiting for John Boy to take aim with his bow and exploding arrow and blow the fellow to bits. One theory holds that the guy had reached the point of welcoming the chance to get out of the movie and couldn't find a good, hard rock to beat his head against.

No comments:

Post a Comment