Dying Well

Legend has it that Walter Huston did not want to play George M. Cohan’s father in Yankee Doodle Dandy. James Cagney, the film’s star, wanted Huston for the part, so he met with the screenwriter and asked him to add a death scene for Huston’s character. Cagney told the writer that no actor could pass up a good death scene. He was right, and Huston said yes.

Death scenes have always been catnip for actors. Think of how many Shakespearean tragedies have the characters giving long drawn-out monologues before they die. There’s an inherent drama that comes from a man or woman knowing that the end is near. In a film, seeing a character you care about die can, if done right, pack an emotional wallop. The death can highlight the character’s nobility or show the tragedy of his life.

Ranking deaths, even fictional ones, is a little too macabre even for me. So let’s just say what follows are eleven of the cinematic deaths that most resonated for me. The death has to be of a key character in the movie, someone where there is a real audience connection. When a bad guy dies at the end of a Western or an action movie, we can say, “That’s cool” but there’s no connection there. The death has to mean something beyond the hero winning the fight. You have to feel like you knew the man, even if you didn’t always like him.

For the sake of clarity and variety, I limited myself to no more than one death per movie or series. This meant not including Don Corleone dying in the garden or Obi-Wan Kenobi sacrificing himself in the Death Star. I also did not use the same actor twice. With that, here are my picks (in chronological order):

James Cagney as Eddie Bartlett in The Roaring Twenties – Cagney had many terrific death scenes in his career, starting with The Public Enemy (his corpse delivered to his mother). Then there’s Angels with Dirty Faces (Cagney pretending to “go yellow” as he’s being led to the electric chair) and of course White Heat (“Made it Ma! Top of the world!”). But it’s The Roaring Twenties that’s the most touching. Bartlett was a gangster but was trying to go straight. Mortally wounded in a gunfight he tries desperately to flee, forcing himself to keep going. It’s as if he’s trying to run away from everything that he was. Finally he collapses on the steps of a church. Perhaps the church represents some sort of redemption. Anyway, Bartlett’s friend Panama ends the scene and the film with one of the great final lines, “He used to be a big shot.”

Herbert Marshall as Horace Giddens in The Little Foxes – Poor, doomed Horace. He knew his wife Regina was a schemer, but perhaps he should have suspected more. After all she was played by Bette Davis. Horace controls the family fortune and wants to stay away from a shady business deal. Unfortunately, he also has a bad heart and has to take medicine when it acts up. Regina wants to take the deal and needs Horace out of the way. Still, when Horace’s heart starts to go out he does not suspect that it will give Regina a perfect opportunity. Together with Horace we see the cold look in the Bette Davis eyes as she refuses to help him. We pity Horace as he realizes too late the truth about the woman he married.

Aldo Fabrizi as Don Pietro Pellgrini in Rome, Open City – A tough call over Anna Magnani’s agonizing death earlier in the film. I’m going with this one because throughout all of Rome, Open City, Don Pelligrini is the shining light amongst all the darkness. He helps everyone, especially the children, as his city suffers under Nazi oppression. At the end of the film the Nazis are about to execute him. But some of the neighborhood children whom he helped come to watch from a distance and offer silent support. Don Pelligrini sees them and dies in peace. The man is gone but the hope lives on. A truly touching moment.

Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker and Warren Beatty as Clyde Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde – It’s hard to believe how controversial Bonnie and Clyde became when it opened 40 years ago. Bonnie and Clyde’s death at the end, as their bodies are riddled with bullets, was particularly shocking. But the film’s cinematic violence now seems rather tame. Bonnie and Clyde has staying power because it’s a quality film. The striking part now about the death scene isn’t all the bullets, it’s the moment right before. Bonnie and Clyde stop their car to help their friend’s father. Clyde gets out of the car while Bonnie stays inside. Of course it’s all an ambush. As the father ducks underneath his truck, Bonnie and Clyde hear a car coming. They quickly realize their time has run out. Bonnie and Clyde look at each other as the film cuts back and forth rapidly between their faces. It’s the love in their faces, their love for each other, that gives the scene it’s staying power, not the gunfire.

James Caan as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather – It’s easy to compare Sonny’s death scene with the one in Bonnie and Clyde. Both feature a hail of bullets. Director Francis Ford Coppola has even admitted that he was trying to outdo Bonnie and Clyde. There’s a key difference though. The gunmen shoot Sonny several times, enough to kill most mortal men. But Sonny gets out of the car hollering. He keeps charging. It takes another whole round of bullets to put him down. There’s no peace or love in Sonny’s death. He fights at the end just as he had all his life.

Slim Pickens as Sheriff Colin Baker in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid – Director Sam Peckinpah was not known for sweetness, to put it mildly. That’s what makes this scene so remarkable. After a long, brutal gunfight, Sheriff Baker is mortally wounded. He leaves the posse and sits by himself. Baker’s wife, played by the terrific Katy Jurado, comes and sits next to him. They both know he is dying but don’t say it. Instead they just share this last moment together, conveying so much silently. Peckinpah made this even more poignant by having Bob Dylan on the soundtrack. A rare tender moment in a film, and a film career, filled with brutality.

Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty in Blade Runner – A rare death scene that changes the whole complexion of the film. After all Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is the hero and Batty is the bad guy, right? It certainly seems that way in the climactic fight. Then, instead of letting Deckard fall to his death, Batty saves him. As a stunned Deckard watches, Batty says, almost gently, “I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time... like tears in rain... Time to die.” As he says this the rain falls on Batty’s face, illustrating his words. All of a sudden Batty’s death is not the catharsis of a villain’s demise. He is a replicant (artificial life form) with a limited shelf life just trying to live a little longer, while Deckard is trying to wipe him and his brethren out. Whose side are we on here? At the end Batty simply wants to share himself with anyone, even his enemy. You can’t get more human than that.

Leonard Nimoy as Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – It’s hard for me to write about this one without becoming emotional. I was nine years old when I saw Star Trek II and could not believe that the beloved Spock had died. More than 25 years later, it still packs a punch. Spock exposes himself to deadly radiation in order to save the Enterprise. Kirk calls out to him from behind a plastic wall. Spock gathers himself and comes up against the wall. The conversation is brief but powerful. Spock tells Kirk not to grieve and that what he did was logical. He concludes with “I have been and always shall be your friend,” gives Kirk the Vulcan salute and, of course, “Long live and prosper.” The dialogue perfectly captures Spock’s two sides, Vulcan (logic) and human (friendship). Nimoy pulls it off with the strength and dignity that so exemplified his work as Spock. The underrated William Shatner is right there with him, as Kirk goes from sadness to shock and disbelief. The wall separates them so they are physically apart but emotionally together. That scene captured the best of Star Trek, with the emphasis on character and loyalty. To this day it remains pitch perfect.

James Earl Jones/David Prowse/Sebastian Shaw as Anakin Skywalker in Return of the Jedi – The amazing part here is that three actors had a part in the scene. As Luke carries the former Darth Vader, it’s David Prowse in the suit and James Earl Jones doing the voice. When Luke takes off the mask it's Sebastian Shaw as Anakin. Jones, whose voice is so imposing for the trilogy, dials it back as Anakin is dying. Then Shaw accomplishes so much with his mournful eyes. When Luke says “I’ve got to save you” Anakin replies “You already have.” Anakin has his redemption and is able to have that last moment with Luke simply as a father and a son. Faint echoes of John Williams’ “Imperial March” play in the background. Here was a man who was the ultimate villain and now we, along with Luke, mourn his passing. The journey is complete.

Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas – The late Gene Siskel used to rave about this scene and I understand why. Tommy is going to be “made” by his fellow gangsters. His escorts lead him to a house where the ceremony will take place. Finally, he enters an empty room. He says “Oh n –“ and is shot in the head before he can get out “no.” When he sees that empty room, only then does he briefly realize the price he will have to pay for the life he led. He’s dished it out and now he will have to take it. An empty room for an empty life.

Kevin Spacey as Jack Vincennes in L.A. Confidential – Like Tommy, Jack also has a sudden realization right before he dies. He’s informing his boss, Dudley Smith, about evidence he uncovered when, out of nowhere, Smith shoots him in the heart. Jack’s last words are “Rollo Tamasi.” Ed Exley, a fellow cop, had used that name to describe a criminal who gets away with it. Jack understands that Dudley Smith is the man behind the whole plot he was investigating. Spacey plays it beautifully, cracking a slight smile as Vincennes dies. Jack always took a cynical attitude toward life, and here he seems almost amused at the turn of events that led to his death. He at least gets to die in style.

Adam Spector
November 1, 2008

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