Depicting death has been a part of cinema since that cowboy in THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903) pointed his gun at the audience and fired. These days, we’re so inured to death in film that we had to create an entire series (FINAL DESTINATION) dedicated to increasingly extravagant death tableau, not to mention the once-feared series of video tapes, FACES OF DEATH, which I have never watched.
Still, movies are still capable of giving us a death scene that will brutally remind us how unexpectedly yet inevitably death will grab us all. This short list (SPOILER ALERT) was inspired by the long list of 100 Great Cinematic Deaths curated by the great web site The Pink Smoke, which you can find here http://www.thepinksmoke.com/deaths.htm. These are not included there (neither is anything from THE OMEN, oddly enough) and as I type this I realize I should have included the gruesome end to Tom Powers in THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931).
But the headline says five, so here they are:
THE REAL GLORY (1939)
Poor Lieut. Larson, good-natured lug ready to do anything for handsome superiors Gary Cooper and David Niven. Director Henry Hathaway has always had a mean streak (see: KISS OF DEATH) and it doesn’t get much meaner than the cheap-shot death of Broderick Crawford’s Lieut. Larson. It’s unclear whether he was killed by the ants, or whether the unfriendly Philippinos killed him before burying up to his neck and pouring honey all over his head. But that’s how his friends find him, and for a grade-school kid watching this on television, it was a real punch in the gut. I recently saw this on TCM and can swear this death scene was edited almost completely out.
SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION (1970)
Paul Newman was an accomplished director, good with actors, obviously, but particularly skilled at creating the verisimilitude that marks the best of 1970s cinema (see: THE EFFECT OF GAMMA RAYS ON MAN-IN-THE-MOON MARIGOLDS). That’s what makes Richard Jaekel’s death scene in Newman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s epic novel so devastating. The freak accident that has Jaekel — playing Newman’s half-brother — pinned beneath a log in shallow water is terrifyingly random; and the length of his death, while Newman (by himself in a great wilderness) tries to extricate him is nearly unbearable. In an otherwise unsatisfying movie, the denouement is one of the great depictions of man’s fragility in a world that will, in one way or another, kill us all.
BORDER INCIDENT (1949)
Good guy and second-billed George Murphy is dispatched relatively early in Anthony Mann’s overlooked film noir, and it’s the kind of death that tells the audience anything is possible, ratcheting the tension for the rest of what has already been an uncomfortable ride. Henry DeSilva might be the nastiest villains on a long list of nasty film noir villains, and henchman Charles McGraw carries out his death sentence on Murphy’s earnest immigration agent with extreme prejudice, running the injured man down with a tractor as he tries to crawl away through a farm field. Mann, director of photography John Alton and a panicked Murphy make it unforgettable.
THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK (1974)
This guileless piece of agit-prop culminates in perhaps the most comically tasteless cheap shot death in screen history. A sweet, young boy with a prosthetic arm tries to save a rabbit from the indiscriminate shooting of the National Guard when a soldier with a conscience resists his better instincts and shoots blindly into the crowd. The young lad, of course, gets it in the back. This likely plays as comedy now, but it really messed up a certain 8-year-old seeing this in the theater (no, my parents did not take me).
TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (1985)
I still have a hard time watching this, even on its own. For those who saw this cold, the rapidity and brutality of William Peterson’s death is stunning and it sticks with you even after William Friedkin’s ne plus ultra ’80s thriller wraps with an ending that should cleanly clip the narrative.