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The Playlist's Guide To Assassins In The Movies

by The Playlist Staff
April 8, 2011 4:45 AM
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Saoirse Ronan Hanna

We often don't know where they come from, their real names or even why they do what they do. Yet, as an audience, we are frequently enamored with the glossy thrill of power offered to a hitman, a silent assassin disappearing into the night. Why hitmen have been such a genre staple isn’t hard to see - you put a gun into the hand of a major character, and boom! drama. The idea of a hired gun, someone whose line of work involves ending human lives without passion or emotion, is naturally fraught with tension and emotional weight.

We here at The Playlist love a good assassin flick as much as anyone, from Melville's classic underworld fables to modern-day reinventions like Joe Wright's "Hanna," which opens today. While Wright's film is laced with the kind of perverse humor native to the genre, its protagonist is far from the typical ilk - a young woman, albeit exceptionally well-trained in the deadly arts. The career choice that crosses gender and cultural lines, The Playlist is proud to present our take on the many hired killer movies that have crossed our path - and survived:

"Blast of Silence" (1961)
It’s the adoration of filmmakers like Martin Scorsese (and its inclusion as part of the illustrious Criterion Collection) that seems to have saved "Blast of Silence" from black-and-white B-movie obscurity. That’s not to say the movie isn’t great, because, well, it is, but the tale of a low-level leg breaker (Allen Baron) hired to execute a gangster isn’t, at least from the outset, all that unique. But what makes "Blast of Silence" so compelling, besides its amazingly gruff narration, is its singular bleakness and commitment to showcasing the day-to-day ugliness of being a working class sociopath. If you don't feel like taking a shower immediately after watching "Blast of Silence" (those rats!), then you probably weren't paying attention. [A]

"Branded to Kill" (1967)
Probably the best known, most widely seen film by singular director Seijun Suzuki, "Branded To Kill" has a lot to answer for – namely, how anyone, anywhere, could get away with directing a film this batshit insane for a major studio. The film that drove a stake between Nikkatsu Studios and Suzuki is a glorious free-association action thriller with a groovy bent that you just can’t quite get a handle on. Goro Hanada (frequent Suzuki colab Joe Shishido) is hitman Number Three. After a botched assassination, he is summarily stripped of rank and…branded to be killed! Also, he can only achieve full arousal when faced with a bowl of steaming rice. Suzuki is a madman fueled by improvisation with Shishido as his muse/puppet and "Branded To Kill" easily avoids classification, coasting on weirdness and visual trickery that feels brazenly fresh. Any further description would genuinely take away from the experience of puzzling out a frequently confusing but never dull feature, so Netflix away. [A-]

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  • Stephen M | April 10, 2011 5:18 AMReply

    I love that Fallen Angels, Grosse Point Blank, and The Killer are on here. They're all favorites.

    I can't agree with the assessment of Road to Perdition, though. It looks great, and the seeds of greatness are there, but it just never goes beyond the surface level to become really morally complex. If it had been made in the seventies by someone like Scorsese or DePalma or Coppola, it would have been a disturbing, intimate masterpiece. Instead it just feels too slick.

  • Christopher Bell | April 9, 2011 11:24 AMReply

    Ugh, good call on that Ashes and Diamonds. Saw that about five years ago.

  • simon | April 9, 2011 7:54 AMReply

    No "Killing of a Chinese Bookie"?

  • Mr. Arkadin from The Assassination Bureau | April 9, 2011 7:33 AMReply

    Essentially there are tons of great assassination/hitman-themed films (in all kinds of genres). Many of them more worthwhile of a description or mentioning than the lackluster "The Matador" (from "[b]A[/b]shes and Diamonds" to "[b]Z[/b]ero Woman: Red Handcuffs"). But one unknown jewel in particular should be pointed out:

    "The Age of Assassins" (aka Epoch of Murder Madness) by the brilliant and to western audiences unfortunately underrepresented Okamoto (mostly famed for "Samurai Assassin", "Sword of Doom" & "Kill!", but actually possesses a very impressive body of work, that is just waiting to be rediscovered). It's a satirical tour de force on the japanese pulp /noir / action cinema wave. Style-wise it's on par with Suzuki's "Branded to Kill" (both 1967 btw), but manages to take an even crazier route. It's the total blow your mind masterpiece package (King Nakadai and the hole shabang). It doesn't have an official english friendly release (yet), but it's out there...

    also... the likes of Lee Marvin (Prime Cut), Richard Conte (NY Confidential), James Coburn (Hard Contract), Gian Maria Volonté (Bullet for the General) or Anthony Dawson (Deadlock) would easily make the pussy-hitmans in this list (~1995 on up) shit their panties...

  • Juniper | April 9, 2011 6:48 AMReply

    Fulltime killer and Bittersweet life.

  • Higgs Boson | April 8, 2011 12:26 PMReply

    No Country for Old Men should be here ... Bardem is truly compelling as a hit man.

  • Helgi | April 8, 2011 9:44 AMReply

    Judging from your list MUNICH takes the cake. A pretty good list.

  • Edward Davis | April 8, 2011 8:25 AMReply

    Maybe i need re-see Confessions again, but the first time I saw it I thought it was really mediocre.

  • Alejandro Then | April 8, 2011 8:25 AMReply

    This is great stuff you guys.
    More than a few here that I've never heard of!


    (hope it's especially helpful to my own assassin -
    hitman movie.)

  • rotch | April 8, 2011 8:23 AMReply

    nice to see Confessions of a Dangerous Mind get some well earned love!

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