The Top 10 Best Movie Deaths

By Martin Keady · November 13, 2014

Perhaps it is because movies are supposed to confer immortality (movie “stars” are so-called because, like the heavenly spheres themselves, they’re supposed to live forever) that death in the movies is so shocking.

Here are my top 10 movie deaths, encompassing everything from the death of animals (of vastly varying dimensions) to the death of a spaceman.

10. George Clooney, Gravity

For me, the most shocking death in recent movies is that of George Clooney in Gravity, because he effectively dies twice. First, he nobly cuts himself loose from Sandra Bullock’s fellow astronaut when they are trapped in space, so at least one of them has a chance of making it to another space station. That is troubling enough, but then director Alfonso Cuarón brilliantly plays with our expectations as an audience (“Surely, he can’t kill off George Clooney…”) by apparently having Cloo miraculously make it back to the station from the depths of outer space, only for us to slowly realize that he is just a projection of Bullock’s tortured imagination. Nevertheless, before he fades away completely, this “ghost” of George somehow gives her the inspiration to find a way to survive.

9. Jimmy Stewart, It’s a Wonderful Life

George Clooney dies twice in Gravity; Jimmy Stewart doesn’t even die once in It’s A Wonderful Life, which would seem to preclude his inclusion in this list. But the true magic of movies is that they make anything possible, even a man witnessing his own death and the terrible consequences of it. If only all would-be suicides could be granted the remarkable gift that Jimmy is given, at least some of them would think twice. That is why this “pretend-death,” or “ghost-death” (ironically, a death that does not produce a ghost), is still one of the great “death” scenes in all of cinema.

8. Captain Quint, JAWS

Quint (played by the irrepressible and irreplaceable Robert Shaw) survives everything, even, as he tells us in perhaps the finest scene in Jaws (and certainly the scene with the greatest dialogue), the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the ship that “delivered the bomb…the Hiroshima bomb,” and the subsequent consumption of most of its crew by an entire sea-full of sharks. But in the end, a single and truly Great White Shark does for him. The scene where he slides helplessly down the deck of his sinking boat into that huge, dagger-toothed mouth is genuinely terrifying. Jaws gave birth to the blockbuster, but there has never been as powerful a death scene in any blockbuster since.

7. Vivienne Leigh’s Daughter, Gone with the Wind

Amid all the other deaths in Gone With The Wind (especially those in the burning of Atlanta), it is easy to forget the death of Scarlett O’Hara’s daughter, Bonnie. Like many of the worst tragedies, it is banal, as Bonnie falls off her horse while show jumping, and under the gaze of her adoring father, Rhett. For Rhett, Bonnie is the only girl he loves more than Scarlett (as Shakespeare’s Aaron, another great rogue, says of his own child: “My mistress is my mistress, this myself”) and with her death goes any chance of reconciliation with Scarlett. The famous last line, “Tomorrow’s another day”, may seem uplifting, but the truth is that “tomorrow” Bonnie will still be dead and Rhett will never be able to forget her, or forgive Scarlett.

6. The Hero of Le Feu Follet

Le Feu Follet (which translates into English loosely as “The Fire Within”) may be the least well-known classic of the fabled French new wave. Directed by Louis Malle, it is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, which was itself based on the real suicide of his friend and fellow author, Jacques Rigaut. What is most shocking about this death is that it is so unshocking. From the start, it appears almost inevitable, as the hero, Alain, having seemingly survived drug addiction (alcoholism in the movie, heroin addiction in the book), struggles to re-engage with life and ultimately gives up. Incidentally, no other movie uses the uniquely haunting music of Erik Satie so well (and many have tried); it is the perfect soundtrack to Alain’s slow withdrawal from existence.

5. Donnie Darko

Another suicide, but unlike that of Alain in Le Feu Follet, Donnie Darko’s self-destruction is not depressing, but strangely, even shockingly, uplifting. In the bewildering, inimitable world of the movie (which is as bewildering and inimitable as the mindset of the average adolescent, let alone a troubled one like Donnie), the titular hero is perpetually haunted by apocalyptic visions, embodied in the form of a terrifying rabbit-man, but in the end, when the visions (and the movie) sorta make sense, he somehow substitutes himself for his beloved girlfriend, Gretchen, to save her from a senseless death. This is the most remarkable kind of suicide (like that of Clooney in Gravity) – suicide as sacrifice.

4. Harry Lime

Harry Lime is a rat (a black marketeer who sells watered-down penicillin to hospitals, thus crippling and killing defenceless children) and, fittingly, he dies like one, shot in the back in the sewers of Vienna, the same sewers that he had used to criss-cross the divided post-war city to ply his evil trade and evade his old friend, Holly Martins. But even a dying rat will fight for life. The image of Harry’s fingers scrambling at the sewer grate, desperately trying to pull himself to freedom, always brings to my mind the great Robert Browning line: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or else what’s Heaven for?” Harry’s grasp exceeds his reach, right to the end, and in that sense at least the rat is truly, wondrously human.

3. King Kong

It’s ironic that two of my top three movie deaths are the deaths of animals, for I am no animal-lover myself. Nevertheless, there is something about the death of an animal (even as fantastical an animal as Kong) that even I will concede is intrinsically tragic: the death of an innocent in a world of evil (in particular, evil men). Kong is arguably the greatest movie creation, and certainly the greatest movie animal, and the story of his life and death is so remarkable, so poignant, that, more than 80 years on, it still haunts us (The original, that is: the remakes, like most remakes, are entirely superfluous.). Beauty may have killed this beast, but like all the victims of a great movie death, he lives on in our memory, and imagination, forever.

2. Janet Leigh, Psycho

It is impossible for a modern movie-goer (or DVD-viewer, or streamer) to appreciate how utterly shocking the death of Janet Leigh in Psycho was for its original audiences in 1960. For us now, it is Bernard Herrmann’s serrated soundtrack to the shower scene (truly, the perfect soundtrack to such a violent death) that is most unsettling, but for original viewers it was the death of the movie’s star – and supposed heroine – that was most…well, unbelievable. And in a sense, with her death Hitchcock killed not just one movie star, but the entire star system: the happy and certain American universe, in which an audience could confidently expect that a star would conquer all. From that point onwards, all bets were off and anyone – even a star – could be brutally slain.

1. Bambi’s Mother

There was only ever going to be one Number One at the head of this list. Yep, you guessed it: Bambi’s Mammy. Her shooting by the callous hunter is the cinematic equivalent of Eve biting into the apple – the original end of innocence. For generations of children (even today, and I speak from bitter personal experience, both my own and that of my children), this death is the first death they ever experience and as such it is utterly unforgettable.


That’s All Folks

So, that’s my top 10 movie deaths. Perhaps on another occasion, I’ll look at the times that actors and even entire movies have “died” (as in flopped) on screen (Ishtar, anyone?), and that truly is a fate worse than death.