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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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The Hit" (1984)
Stephen Frears' 1984 crime drama meets on-the-road-morality-play, one of the director's earlier big-screen works, is instantly engaging -- the film boasts a hypnotic opening guitar instrumental by Eric Clapton that help sets the hazy mood, a score by Paco de Lucia, and striking icy photography by Mike Molloy (neither of whom have worked as solidly as they should have since. The thriller, which follows a gangster turncoat (Terence Stamp), kidnapped by a pair of hitmen working for those he testified against ten years earlier, is perhaps now best known as our feature-film introduction to the great Tim Roth, who was only a tender 21 years of age, and green as hell. The trio (completed by a terrific performance from John Hurt as the elder of the assassins), while at odds, begin a strange dynamic: Hurt holds onto an ominous and cool demeanor, while the carefree and mortality-aware Stamp rambles on about how he knew this day was coming. His nonchalant attitude and fearlessness infuriates Roth, who takes it as psychological mind-fuckery, unable to fathom why he's not trembling in fear over his imminent demise. It's one of the more existential picks on this list, for sure, and Frears shows why, nearly thirty years on, and even after the likes of "Cheri" and "Tamara Drewe," we're still excited every time he's making a movie. [A]

Honorable Mentions: Just as the idea of someone receiving money in return for taking a life is presumably as old as the concept of money, the hitman genre was around well before "Le Samourai" -- Frank Tuttle's noir classic "This Gun For Hire," with Veronica Lake and a chilling Alan Ladd, being one of the earlier examples, along with the Paris-set "Gunman on the Streets" (from the same director, Frank Tuttle).

1969's "Machine Gun McCain," a sort of spaghetti noir from director Giuliano Montaldo, is mostly forgotten, but the central performance from John Cassavettes more than makes it worth checking out. "The Day of the Jackal," based on Frederick Forsythe's best-seller, still grips, which is much more than can be said for the remake "The Jackal," with Bruce Willis. "The Marseille Contract" is the kind of hard-boiled British thriller that Michael Caine specialized in in the 1970s, but it doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as, say "The Ipcress File" or "Get Carter."

"Prizzi's Honor," one of John Huston's last films, is terrific, and one that only time and space prevented us from covering, while "Cohen and Tate," the directorial debut from "The Hitcher" writer Eric Red, at least has a good central performance from Roy Scheider, and a very young Adam Baldwin ("Firefly"). "Nikita" was the film that made Luc Besson's name internationally, and while it's certainly better than the Bridget Fonda-starring remake, it hasn't aged well, and certainly pales next to "Leon." Also worth avoiding: "Smokin' Aces," "Assassins" and anything with Nicolas Cage in it.

- Mark Zhuravsky, Rodrigo Perez, Cory Everett, Gabe Toro, Oli Lyttelton, Kimber Myers, Drew Taylor, Christopher Bell

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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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