Archive for August, 2011

The Top 13 Most Important Death Scenes In Cinema

              “The appeal of cinema lies in the fear of death.” — Jim Morrison

As Professor Tom Gunning notes, in the documentary The American Nightmare, “When cinema was first invented, people received it…by saying ‘This is immortality. Death will no longer be total.’ What first seemed to promise immortality ultimately delivers ghosts.” Death is an integral aspect of what elevated movies from mere entertainment to the level of spiritual art. Listed below are 13 of the most important death scenes in the history of film. Why 13? It’s the death number. Are there any you feel should be added to the list?


Death of an Era

Death of the American Frontier ~ McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Drunken pioneer dreamer McCabe faces the tragic truth that the West is no longer free when a group of corporate bounty hunters leave him to die in the snow.

Death of the Roaring ’20s ~ Pandora’s Box

Louise Brooks embodied the flapper spirit of the Jazz Age in her hypnotic and seductive portrayal of dance girl, and later prostitute, Lulu whose murder at the hands of Jack the Ripper spells the end of the sexual innocence of those days.

Death of the ’60s ~ Easy Rider

As the movie poster’s tagline said, “A man went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere.” Fonda and Hopper’s countercultural motorcycle ride ends in fiery destruction when they pass by two rednecks with shotguns in a pickup truck.

Death By The System

Witness To The Corruption Of  the Rich/Police ~ Chinatown

“Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.” The bleakest ending in Hollywood history occurs when private detective Gittes (Jack Nicholson) witnesses the brutal shooting of Evelyn Mulwray.

Witness Against The Corruption Of Politics/The Media ~ Network

Paddy Chayefsky’s satire on the malevolent influence of television in public life is one of the greatest screenplays ever written. “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Once Howard Beale reveals the insidious connections between the network, Washington, and the oil industry, he is assassinated on live TV.


Witness To The Cruelty Of War ~ Apocalypse Now

Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) goes back to the primitive and declares doomsday in response to the hypocrisy of war. He himself is witness to his own cruelty when the army officer sent to exterminate his command sacrificially kills him.

Death As Social Education

What Is Most Important In An Individual’s Life? ~ Citizen Kane

The entire narrative structure hinges on Kane’s, the richest and most powerful man in the world, dying last word “Rosebud.” Throughout the story, the press thinks this word refers to a woman or an ideal. It is simply a sled from the memories of his lost childhood.

What Will You Leave Behind For Future Generations? ~ Ikiru

Old man dying of cancer realizes his life has been empty and wasted, and he decides to regenerate the decaying neighborhood by building a public park for the children. He dies in the snow while singing on the swing.

Who Really Knows You? ~ The Passenger 

Antonioni’s existential meditation on identity, or the lack thereof, culminates with an abstract tracking shot which perhaps is from the point-of-view of Nicholson’s departing soul. When shown his corpse, his wife responds that she never knew him, while the girl (Maria Schneider) he met in his wandering replies that she does recognize him.

Death As Rite of Passage

Reunion With Beloved ~ Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

In this mythical, ancient tale, Ivan loses the love of his life when she tragically drowns. The woman he marries betrays him and her lover mortally wounds him (the same way his father died when he was a young child.) In the dark, poetic ending, he is reunited with Marichka in death.

Tribal Initiation ~ Dead Man

The aptly named William Blake (Johnny Depp) is befriended by a Native American named Nobody, who treats his wounds and gives him wisdom. It is not until his death, however, that he is initiated into the tribe as he is dressed in traditional costume and sent away on a totem canoe.

Death As The Ultimate Artistic Statement

The Code of the Samurai ~ Le Samourai

Jef Costello (Alain Delon) is the quintessential hitman, who abides by a code of honor that gangsters and crooks simply cannot. So, in the end, when he is on contract to kill the one woman who seems to understand him, he follows through, knowing it will be his own demise, not hers.

The Song That Echoes On ~ The Double Life of Veronique

Weronika (Irene Jacob) was born to sing, and her art is also her death.


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Bernard Herrmann’s stabbing strings (Psycho), Mike Oldfield’s tingling Tubular Bells (The Exorcist), John Williams’ lurking menace (Jaws), Jerry Goldsmith’s diabolic opera (The Omen), John Carpenter’s suspenseful synth–these are usually considered the greatest horror film scores.

However, these scores are so imprinted on the cultural consciousness that the vestiges of fear once present in them have faded due to insistent repetition, parody, and their often over-the-top quality.

In contrast, the rather unheralded trio of horror scores below are subtler and, therefore, much more sinister. Oddly enough, these soundtracks have still not been officially released.

3.  The Legend of Hell House ~ Composer: Delia Derbyshire

Delia Derbyshire was so ahead of her time in her grasp of the deep effects of sound upon the subconscious brain and her innovations in electronic music (dig up the Dreams and Amor Dei albums to hear her intriguing electronic sounds in the background while British citizens of the ’60s are interviewed about dreams and God; listen to her best track “Blue Veils and Golden Sands”, her own personal favorite, and become lost in the nocturnal landscapes.)

In 1973, her musical career came to a stop (she left the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which had been her experimental laboratory for over a decade.) Right before this, she composed (with Brian Hodgson) her one and only movie soundtrack–for the haunted house story The Legend of Hell House.

Tribal beats, what sounds like ghosts murmuring in the cobwebbed remains of an old pipe organ, moans, and otherworldly echoes elevate this score much higher than its source material and certainly contributed to The Legend of Hell House being memorable rather than forgettable. Defines the term “atmospheric.”

2.  Black Christmas ~ Carl Zittrer 

Not only did Black Christmas predate Halloween by 4 years, which arguably makes it the first slasher film, its music score is far more frighteningly effective. It sets into motion the tense feelings which pervade the story, as well as perfectly capturing the dichotomy between the dark wintry ambiance of the serial killer in the attic’s mind and the holiday seasonal setting. Shivering strings and dissonant piano create a cold, brooding mood. Defines the term “chilling.”

#1.  The Texas Chainsaw Massacre ~ Wayne Bell & Tobe Hooper

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains the greatest horror film of all time for a number of reasons (its equal parts grainy/cinema verite/documentary-style & textured/hallucinatory cinematography; its grimy and gritty on-location shooting in the scorched summertime landscape of Texas; its deranged and anarchic, bordering on insane, performances; its visceral and primitive dissection of the beast within and the dank underbelly of the American frontier mentality, etc. etc.) But let’s not forget maybe the most significant dimension of its terror–the wild and strange avant-garde noises which permeate the soundtrack. Wayne Bell & director Tobe Hooper took what were ostensibly non-musical instruments and used them to evoke the grinding, crashing, clanging, rumbling, and altogether LOONY sounds which constantly assault the audience. This is the creepiest horror film score of all time–disturbing in the extreme.

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