Top 10 Great Movie Deaths

Photo: Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Top 10 Great Movie Deaths

Movies love to kill people, and actors love to die (preferably slowly and with a great close-up). Yet, more often than not, film fatalities are an accountant’s errand. Just another tally mark in the body count. This isn’t a list celebrating the art of ludicrous squibs and exploding craniums. The following movie deaths deliver more oomph than henchmen #4 getting steamrolled by the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile.

These are the death scenes we remember long after the actors have screamed, slobbered, cried, coughed, wheezed, or drawn out to William Shatner-esque lengths their final words. They are a perfect combination of acting, writing, filmmaking, image and idea. Some are shocking. Some are sad or bittersweet. Others funny. Some deaths you cheer on. All are memorable.

Let’s begin to experience ten (technically eleven) great ends, and considering the nature of this list, yes, there are spoilers, and if you haven’t seen some of these movies you have some NetFlixing to do.

David Carradine walks it out in Kill Bill Vol. 2

When the film’s name is Kill Bill, it’s likely Bill won’t be standing come end credits. And when it takes two films to reach the promised death, it damn well better be memorable.

Quentin Tarantino’s ultimate achievement in Kill Bill isn’t the fantastic sword play, but how he twists a straightforward revenge tale into a subversive, poignant love story during the movie’s final scenes. We expect an action-packed finale between Uma Thurman’s Bride and David Carradine’s Bill. However, Tarantino delivers a climax pivoting on emotional conflict in lieu of bloody, drawn-out combat. Yes, we know Bill must die. He had it coming. Yet, Carradine saunters Bill out to his death with such dignity and warmth, we can’t help but feel for the murderous SOB.

Henry Fonda eats a harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West

So your movie depicts a particularly nasty villain. Guess what? That bastard needs to die (hard). But for the hero to simply kill the baddie isn’t good enough. A quick sucker death for a film’s main evildoer never satisfies an audience’s bloodlust, and I am thirsty. Before the villain departs (hopefully in agonizing pain), he needs to realize the hero has bested him.

Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West pulls off this ego-crushing deathblow to perfection. Not only does Henry Fonda’s family-snuffing villain suffer a slow, gut-oozing demise after losing a duel to Charles Bronson’s Man with No Name, Bronson finalizes his revenge with a symbolic gesture that shuffles Fonda off his mortal coil in utter humiliation.

Slim Pickens gets nuked in Dr. Strangelove and Bob Dylan-ized in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

This is my two-for-one cheat. We all know the scene from Dr. Strangelove in which Slim Pickens cheerfully bull-rides a nuke to the apocalypse. It’s iconic. And it’d be a major mistake to leave it off this list. Yet, as far as I’m concerned Slim Pickens owns two brilliant death scenes in cinematic history.

The second and more obscure one (not to mention, the death that inspired me to compile this list) comes from Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Slim Pickens has a minor role as a sheriff helping Garrett search for the Kid. During a shootout he takes a bullet to the stomach. Yeah so what’s the big deal? Cue Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” drop in the eerie setting sun, and the subtle range of emotion Pickens displays as he sits on a river bank dying while his wife mourns in the background. Peckinpah made a career off killing characters in violent, yet visually beautiful ways. Few were as haunting as this scene.

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