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Classic Ten – Memorable Death Scenes

It could be argued that some of the most emotional, shocking, and disgusting moments in the history of movies have come from death scenes — which perhaps calls into question why we “enjoy” these scenes so much, and what we get out of them… We’ll leave psychology to the professionals and bring you the greatest death scenes committed to celluloid:

Duel in the Sun.jpg10. Duel in the Sun (1946)
Though the explicitness of producer David O. Selznick’s expensively made and heavily hyped Duel in the Sun (nicknamed Lust in the Dust) had to be tempered to pass the Hays Code, enough passionate drama remained in the final version to inspire a generation of moviegoers: Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones killing each other with shotguns and then embracing in a last, doomed romantic kiss, possibly the most perversely over-the-top moment in film history.

The Third Man.jpg9. The Third Man (1949)
Orson Welles knew a thing or two about iconic death scenes — on a longer list Charles Foster Kane’s earthly departure would be represented — but when called upon to run through the Vienna sewer system for his character Harry Lime’s striking finish in Carol Reed’s The Third Man, he refused to be on set for more than a day. Body doubles were used instead, with Reed’s chiaroscuro lighting and canted camera angles framing Lime as a crucified crook.

Scanners.jpg8. Scanners (1981)
The history of cinema has no shortage of gruesome deaths, but none is as strange and unexpected as the one in David Cronenberg’s scifi thriller Scanners: One of the titular telepaths causes another’s head to explode in a superpower demonstration gone horribly awry. Possibly influenced by Brian de Palma’s The Fury — where villain John Cassavetes’ entire body is similarly destroyed — the infamous scene is the sensational combination of Cronenberg’s unique brand of body-pulverizing cinema and literally mindblowing special effects.

Thelma and Louise.jpg

7. Thelma & Louise (1991)
the outlaw heroines of Ridley Scott’s feminist road movie are never
shown actually dying, but we can certainly imagine what will become of
the best friends once they go airborne over the Grand Canyon. Instead
of showing that unglamorous scene, Scott suspends Thelma and Louise in
freeze frame as their convertible reaches the apex of its launch,
immortalizing the pair as martyrs who could briefly defy gravity and
truly claim to be free.

White Heat.jpg6. White Heat (1949)
White Heat‘s
notorious denouement, with gangster James Cagney going out in a blaze
of glory on top of a gigantic exploding gas tank as he shouts to a
battalion of policemen, “Made it, ma! Top of the world!” has been
imitated so many times it’s easy to forget how poignant and original it
is. Coming at the peak of Cagney’s electric performance and the movie’s
delirious assault of criminal violence, it’s an ecstatic and tragic
exclamation of one man’s desire to get his way at all costs, even if it
means going down in flames.

Bonnie and Clyde.jpg5. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Like Psycho , careful editing helped Arthur Penn’s immensely influential Bonnie and Clyde
depict the demise of its protagonists. As the title’s legendary bank
robber lovers (Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty) realize they’ve been
lured into a trap on a barren dusty road, they exchange a look in a
series of flash cuts and are promptly mowed down by FBI agents with
machine guns. The lightning quick montage alternates between normal and
slow speeds to express both the suddenness and surrealness of such a
brutal death.

Terms of Endearment.jpg4. Terms of Endearment (1983)
out the hankies: When Shirley MacLaine’s cancer-stricken daughter Debra
Winger succumbs to the disease’s final stages in James L. Brooks and
Larry McMurty’s Terms of Endearments, it’s nothing less than
the final word on emotional deathbed scenes. Preceded by Winger’s
tearful and tear-inducing goodbye to her young sons her passing and
MacLaine’s heart-wrenching response could move even the toughest of

King Kong Death.jpg3. King Kong (1933)
“It wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.” The last lines of King Kong
serve as a fitting epitaph for its eponymous ape who, after escaping
from his captors, rampages through New York City, kidnaps Fay Wray, and
climbs the Empire State Building, only to be brought down by an
unfeeling human race’s incomprehension of his love for a sympathetic
woman. Simultaneously poignant and horrific, Kong’s famous demise
perfectly sums up the film’s range of emotions.

Psycho Death.jpg2. Psycho (1960)
most shocking twist in movie history wouldn’t have been so disarming
and traumatic if it hadn’t been accompanied by what was at that point
one of the most violent death scenes ever witnessed: Janet Leigh’s
refreshing shower interrupted by a silhouetted figure. Master Alfred
Hitchcock made the brief moment excruciating by cutting Leigh up via a
rapid and jagged montage sequence in which, ironically, the knife is
never shown piercing her skin. The scene is all the more horrific for
being completed by our own imaginations.


1. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
If you ever find yourself accidentally riding a nuclear weapon on its
way toward its destination thousands of feet below, you might as well
do as Slim Pickens does in Stanley Kubrick’s classic apocalyptic black
comedy, Dr. Strangelove,
and live it up while you can — wave your hat in the air and, in true
American fashion, yeehaw until the very bitter end. Never has death —
both individual and massive — been so funny, absurd, and, perhaps most
chillingly, inevitable.

What do you think is the most memorable death scene?


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