Angle up through the water from the bottom of the pool, as the body floats face downwards. It is a well-dressed young man. A timeless tale of ambition and faded glory, “Sunset Boulevard” begins with a screenwriter bobbing lifelessly in a Hollywood swimming pool, a death shrouded in questionable circumstances. Starting with a floating corpse, the opening shot sets the grisly and noir tone for a tale about the darker side of fame in Tinseltown. The movie goes on to show how aspiring author Joe Gillis (William Holden) met his demise at the hands of silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and her eerie butler (Erich von Stroheim). In Gillis, we see hope, however jaded, ultimately shot down by greed and jealousy. His body’s suspension in the water reflects our own suspension of disbelief at this anti-hero’s death and downfall. Funnily enough, this iconic moment almost wasn’t, as it was not in the film’s original edit. Joe Gillis was still dead, but he had been dead for a while before the opening shot. An early version, shown to a preview audience in Illinois, began in a morgue. As each of the corpses explained how they ended up there through voice-overs, the audience members roared with laughter. Clearly, it wasn’t working. Director-screenwriter Billy Wilder and producer-screenwriter Charles Brackett went back to the drawing board. Lucky for us, the opening shot we all know and slightly shudder at was added and well-received by another preview audience in Poughkeepsie, New York.
Those turning up to Paul Thomas Anderson's Great American Novel of a masterpiece inspired by its name, reminiscent of a horror movie tagline, and hoping for some gore would likely have been bitterly disappointed. Still, Anderson's true to his word, come the film's conclusion. The epilogue, set many years after much of the film, sees Daniel Day-Lewis' Daniel Plainview, now wealthy and drunk, finally reject his son H.W, who's off to marry his sweetheart. Now with nothing left to keep him human (if he ever was), he's visited by his old adversary Eli (Paul Dano), who's in need of money, and offers to broker a deal for the last piece of land that Plainview needs. But the older man, after humiliating his nemesis by forcing him to call God a superstition, reveals that he's actually long since drained the oil from the property in question, and then attacks Eli. It's pretty funny, at least at first, as Day-Lewis chases Dano around his private bowling alley like a pair of children, flinging a bowling ball at him ineffectually. But then he catches him, and it's not so funny anymore: grabbing a wooden pin, he then beats Eli to death with it. As the oil-like plasma bleeds from the preacher's head, Plainview simply sits down, and tells his butler, "I'm finished."
In the classic film, James Cagney stars as criminal gang leader Cody Jarrett. The character is cruel and ruthless, but still has a soft spot, albeit an over-attachment, for his mother. We discover that Jarrett suffers from debilitating headaches and what does good ol’ Ma do to help him? Get him some Tylenol and a cold compress? Maybe seek some psychiatric help considering the family history of insanity? Nah, she slings him a shot of whiskey and toasts “Top of the World”. This was a ticking time bomb. While in jail, Garrett finds out Ma has died and flips his lid. After being dragged to the prison infirmary, he takes hostages and manages to escape. Eventually, the police catch up with him as he attempts to rob a California chemical plant. The place is surrounded. The police call him to surrender. His henchmen are dropping down like flies, being shot at by both sides. Jarrett flees, only to end up at the top of a gas tank. After being shot a few times, Jarrett takes his death into his own hands and shoots at the gas tank. His last words are "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" And then Jarrett leaves this world in an explosion of flame that could have come from the depths of hell -- where he is undoubtedly heading.
Firstly, a giant wicker spoiler alert for those who have not seen the movie that is frequently cited as being "the 'Citizen Kane' of horror movies," one that has influenced things that are incredibly great (like Ben Wheatley's indescribable and terrifying "Kill List") and things that are not (the painful Nic Cage remake). "The Wicker Man" concerns a faithfully religious policeman (Edward Woodward) who goes to investigate a missing young girl on an island. It’s an island run by a charismatic cult leader (British horror icon Christopher Lee), who leads a pagan group with an ideology even more out-of-step with modern society than most religions. Eventually, his investigation leads him to the conclusion that the cult is dangerous and even deadly. Of course, the clues add up a little too late – and in one of the most shocking deaths (and endings) in movie history, the policeman is locked inside the titular, sculptural wicker man, where he is promptly burned alive. It's an incredibly bold (and amazingly bleak) conclusion – and one that is totally, utterly unforgettable. And all without a single drop of blood.
Thoughts? Your favorites? Ones that are conspicuously missing? Annoyed that Hans Gruber's slo-mo, free-fall death in "Die Hard" isn't included? Maybe Marvin in the back of the car in "Pulp Fiction"? Sound off below.