Death Becomes Him: A Movie Hitman History

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George Clooney Photo by Giles KeyteGeorge Clooney in The American

In anticipation of the release of The American, Scott Macaulay considers the genre of hitman movies.

Whether depicted as a cold-hearted agent of death or a low-level henchman executing his boss's grand designs, the character of the hitman is one of cinema's great fascinations. But why? Amoral, often emotionless, and without the empathy that binds people – and movie characters – together, the hitman, lacking even the ghoulishly riveting psychopathology of the serial killer, would seem to be an especially grim formulation of the modern man. Unlike cinema's many other killers, who murder for love, a cause or, most disturbingly, for fun, the hitman kills for a baser reason: money. When the father of his high-school sweetheart asks John Cusack what his line of work is in the hitman comedy Grosse Point Blank, Cusack answers, without much pride, "Hired killer." Replies the dad, "Good for you it's a growth industry."

The hired killer's lack of affect, his almost existential displacement from mainstream society, however, is what finally makes the character so intriguing and full of cinematic possibilities. When the steely cool of the hitman is entangled with the messiness and emotional complications of everyday life, a stark drama is created.

Today’s hitman is the modern version of the assassin, but there are differences between the two. The word "assassin" comes from the name of a militant Muslim sect, the "Hashashshin," found in the Middle East from the eighth to the 14th centuries. The sect, many believed, used soldiers drugged by opium and hashish to kill opposing rulers. As these scenarios would suggest, the earliest conception of the assassin was someone who killed for political and ideological reasons — to advance the goals of a nation state. Assassins were notorious during the politics of the Renaissance era – Henry III and IV of France were both killed in assassinations – as well as in Renaissance drama, appearing as major characters in Jacobean tragedies. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "assassination" first appeared in literature in Shakespeare's Macbeth.

This Gun For Hire

This Gun For Hire

But while the hired killer dates back hundreds of years, our contemporary dramatic conception of the hitman is indebted to the two defining "isms" of the modern era: capitalism and Freudianism. Post Freud, the hitman's cool exterior was often seen as a mask hiding a turbulent subconscious. More importantly, in most hitman movies, the contemporary hitman can be seen as the product of the Industrial Revolution and its division of labor. The art of killing became then just another specialization, a job requiring a skilled worker integrated into a larger workforce. This business-like attitude is reflected in the names given the hitman ("contract killer") and his crime ("a job"). The hitman, with his orderly handling of murder, nicely illustrates the theories of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who believed that crime fulfilled specific functions in smoothly operating industrial societies, and that by personifying what is "wrong" criminals defined for the rest of a population the limits of the normal.

The cool élan of the contemporary contract killer was a relatively late cinematic invention. Alan Ladd appeared as one of film's first contract killers in Alan Tuttle's 1942 thriller This Gun for Hire, but working under the Hays Code, which forbid glamorous depictions of killing and killers, Ladd's hitman, Raven, is a violent, traumatized psycho who, after being double-crossed by his employer, goes on revenge-fueled killing spree accompanied by a nightclub magician played by Veronica Lake. Beating up a hotel maid, shooting a woman, and being creepily kind to children and small animals, Ladd's Raven wasn't intended as a hero — Ladd was actually billed fourth in the credits, and the film climaxes with Raven's death and Lake's reunion with her boyfriend. But the role captured the public imagination and made Ladd a star.

One of the greatest – and least recognized – hitman movies took the concept of the hitman as social pariah to the deepest realms of existential disgust. Alan Barron's 1961 feature Blast of Silence is a low-budget B-movie about Frank Bono, a hitman who experiences a full-on meltdown after he travels to New York City to carry out a hit during Christmas week. The conflicts in the film have less to do with the wiliness of Bono's prey and more with his increasing feelings of alienation from the surrounding, holiday-celebrating world. The film's stark location shooting and a relentless second-person voiceover underscoring every beat of Bono's internal psychodrama are clear influences on films like Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and Gaspar Noé's I Stand Alone. Here is the film's opening narration:

“You were born with hate and anger built in. Took a slap in the backside to blast out the scream. Then you knew you were alive. 8 lbs, 5 oz Baby Boy Frankie Bono. Father doing well. Later you learned to hold back the screams and let out the hate and anger in other ways.”

Blast of Silence

Blast of Silence

Like Raven in This Gun for Hire, the hitman in Blast of Silence is ultimately a tragic figure whose demise occurs when he gets too close to the world of normal people. The simple dilemma of how to be human dramatized in these films would provide the template for a host of other films in which the hitman's attempts to make a human connection leads to his downfall. For Tom Cruise, the hitman anti-hero of Collateral (2004) was both a career-changeup as well as a role that calculatedly exploited our fascination of what must lie beneath the star's typically smiling demeanor. In Michael Mann's film, a taxicab becomes the stage for a two-hander in which Cruise's top-of-his-game hitman is challenged by the greater humanity of a lowly cabbie. In Robert Duvall's Assassination Tango (2002), Robert Duvall's contract killer immerses himself in the tango culture of Buenos Aires as he realizes that his professional skills are diminishing, whereas in Mark Malone's underrated Bulletproof Heart (1994), starring Anthony LaPaglia and Mimi Rogers, a hitman is thrown for a loop when his employer and his assignment turn out to be the same person – and he falls in love with her. In order to find a hitman completely immune to the seductions of the common man, we must journey into the realms of science fiction – specifically, the world of the Terminator movies (1984, 1991, 2003), in which the hitman has been recast as an unstoppable cyborg.

There's a sort of fractal logic to the hitman movie – each carries within it the characteristics of all the others. Nonetheless, there is another strand of the genre in which the principal conflicts are not found on the outside but rather within, and it is in these films that we most often find the cool, capable, and morally undisturbed figure that we most associate with the modern hitman. With American studios too concerned with ensuring that audiences know that hitmen are bad, it was left to the French – and, specifically, to Jean-Pierre Melville – to create the character's most enduring cinematic archetype. In Melville’s 1967 film Le Samouraï, Alain Delon plays a fedora-and-trenchcoat-clad professional, Costello, whose job is inextricably entwined with his ascetic, removed lifestyle and his unblinking attention to precision and detail. Like many other hitman heroes, a girl — in this case, a nightclub singer — has something to do with his downfall, but for the most part his demise is precipitated by his failure to maintain his own high standards, a rigor symbolized by Melville's impeccably art-directed, almost unreal universe. Writing in Senses of Cinema, the critic Adrian Danks observes:

“These types of stoic, often joyless and strangely sacred rituals are for Melville's characters a way of distancing themselves from the world, of maintaining an impossible purity or of simulating a rigorous professionalism. It is in the moment when this ritual, professionalism or purity breaks apart that the characters' demise is prefigured or marked. In Le Samouraï, for example, it is when the protagonist breaks from his routine and swerves minutely toward some kind of personal involvement, that his fate is sealed. Despite the blank amorality and explicit anti-humanism of his murderous actions it is the "purity" of his existence and work that enables his character to survive.”

Le Samouraï

Le Samouraï

Melville's Le Samouraï is the most influential of hitman movies, directly inspiring films as different as John Woo's The Killer (1989), Luc Besson's Léon (or, The Professional, 1994) and Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999). All three of these films pay homage to Melville's film while adding their own accents. In Woo's film, a hitman played by Chow Yun Fat bungles a hit, blinding a girl – this time, a nightclub pianist – in the process. Distraught, he takes on another job to pay for her corneal transplant, a plot twist that yoked the existential cool of Melville's film with the grand melodrama of Douglas Sirk's Magnificent Obsession. Forrest Whitaker's urban nomad in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is also clearly based on Melville's character. In both films, the characters subscribe to the code of the samurai, or bushido, and both filmmakers juxtapose the ethics of the modern world with the "purity" of these ancient philosophies. In Jarmusch's hands, however, the world of the samurai is of a particular post-punk variant, and the Japanese code of the samurai is not only referenced in the on-screen quotes from Yamamoto Tsunetomo's book of sayings, Hagakure, but also in the samples found in RZA's soundtrack. The hitman in Luc Besson's Léon too seems modeled on Melville's Costello, except while Costello cares for a pet bird, Léon's "best friend" is a potted plant. As in Le Samouraï, The Killer, and Ghost Dog, Besson's contract killer dies in the end, although not before forging a bond with a young girl, played by Natalie Portman, who he's able to induct into the world of the hired killer, an ending echoed by Jarmusch's film as well. And in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1999), Melville is a clear influence too, except that the precision practiced by his contract killer is transmuted by Tarantino and his two low-level hitmen, played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, into equally ritualistic fascinations with McDonald's Quarter Pounders and sensual foot rubs. Transplanted to Belgium, where one can actually order a "Royale with Cheese," two more killers-on-the-payroll, played by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, are themselves life-threatened in Martin McDonagh's In Bruges (2008) when one kills a priest, which is perfectly acceptable in McDonagh's morally scrambled universe, but accidentally shoots a small boy in the process, which is not.

Just as Melville's film inspired so many others, Woo's films have been part of a wholesale reinvention of the crime film genres taking place in the Asian cinema of the '80s and '90s. In a series of films, Woo and compatriots Ringo Lam and Johnny To, among others, have brought slickly choreographed violence and an operatic emotional intensity to their tales of murder for sale. A different sensibility permeates such tales from Japan, a country where the hitman is also, finally, just a salary man. In the bizarrely serene Sonatine (1993), by Takeshi Kitano, a low-level yakuza wrestles with the late-in-life depression that afflicts anyone who has been at a job for too long. But perhaps the definitive portrait of the hitman in repose is Rokuro Mochizuki's 1995 film, Another Lonely Hitman. In the movie, a hitman, Tachibana, goes to prison following a job in which he killed his target but also paralyzed an innocent bystander. Ten years later he's released into a world in which yakuza traditions have changed, with his former gangster colleagues now more like corporate businessmen than criminals. He struggles to adjust, leave yakuza life, care for his junkie prostitute girlfriend, and reconnect with his daughter in a film that is much a mournful look at middle age as it is a crime drama.

No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men

Anton Corbijn’s The American is also a portrait of a hitman at the end of his career. Here, however, the end of his career, captured in the film’s “one last job,” occurs in the assassin’s mid-life. Many years await Jack, played by George Clooney, and the film asks whether it’s possible for him to still find the redemption he requires to actually live them as a human being and not as a professional killer. One of the film’s producers, Jill Greene, summed up both the character’s dilemma as well as the appeal of the novel, A Very Private Gentleman, upon which the story was based. “What also attracted us to the book was the insight into this character as a solitary figure who wants to find romance and redemption, despite his escalating inner turmoil,” she said. Producer Ann Carey compared the violence of Jack’s murder-for-hire existence to that of the Wild West. “There is a man who has lived by the violence of the gun,” she says, “and the violence that he has lived by threatens to infect the peace that he’s tried to find in a place that he thinks he can live in.” Producer Grant Heslov boils it down further, commenting on both the character’s dilemma as well as the implicit drama in all such films within this genre: will a character find resolution through fulfillment of his own goals, or will a higher form of destiny take over? He comments, “Jack is someone who is only now finding moments of beauty in his life. Even if he now makes the right choices, does fate have a different idea for him?”

With the black-and-white world of the hitman having been filled in by directors with so many shades of grey, it was inevitable that the contract killer would eventually become a comic figure. In these post-modern formulations of the hitman, films in which our knowledge of the genre generates an ironic humor, the same dilemmas found in older hitman films are just played for laughs. In the aforementioned Grosse Point Blank (1997), echoing Blast of Silence, John Cusack's killer simply wants to reconnect with a high-school sweetheart; in the 2000 comedy The Whole Nine Yards, hilarity ensues when a witness-protected hitman befriends his next-door neighbor, a dentist; similarly, in Richard Shephard's The Matador (2005), a buddy comedy develops when a beleaguered ad executive befriends a over-the-hill contract killer. Pierce Brosnan plays the hitman in the latter film, casting a sardonic backwards glance at the James Bond character that made him an international star. Finally, in John Dahl's recent You Kill Me (2007), the higher power of Alcoholics Anonymous helps Ben Kingsley's character regain the precision and life-management skills needed to make it in the killing business.

Ultimately, the hitman movie has survived for so many years because the character is so resonant and speaks to so many fears both ancient and modern. One of the best hitman scenes in all of movies is found in Sydney Pollack's 1975 thriller, Three Days of the Condor, and it perfectly addresses the contemporary anxiety that our democratic institutions have run amok. Whereas the assassins of old represented national purpose, Pollack's Watergate-era killer represents only the anti-democratic deceptions of a government unaccountable to its citizens.

In Three Days of the Condor (1975), Robert Redford plays Joe Turner, a CIA worker whose job it is to sift through works of fiction, looking for ideas that can inform agency operations. When he returns to his office from lunch one day and finds all his co-workers murdered, he goes on the run, realizing that his own bosses are out to get him and determined to save himself by finding out why. After eluding a garden variety killer – dressed as a postman – sent to terminate him, Turner encounters a higher breed of hitman, Joubert (played by Max Von Sydow), brought in for those cases that require expert handling. Except in their one face-to-face encounter, Joubert doesn't kill Turner because, he explains, while he has been hired to kill him, he wasn't hired to kill him that particular night. There's a tender bond between these two survivors that is beautifully expressed in Lorenzo Semple, Jr.'s screenplay. Explaining his job, Joubert says:

"I don't interest myself in why. I think more often in terms of when, sometimes where, always how much... What I do is not a bad occupation. Someone is always willing to pay... It's almost peaceful. No need to believe in either side or any side. There is no cause. There's only your self. The belief is in your own precision.”

Joubert then explains to Turner how it must eventually end for him:

“It will happen this way. You may be walking. Maybe the first sunny day of the spring, and a car will slow beside you, and the door will open, and someone you know, maybe even trust, will get out of the car. And he will smile, a becoming smile. But he will leave open the door of the car and offer to give you a lift.”

Von Sydow's world-weary, ethically blasé character of Joubert is inverted in the Bourne trilogy (2002, 2004, 2007), in which Matt Damon plays Jason Bourne, a government-trained killing machine. Only rather than feeling "peaceful," Bourne is tormented by his inability to remember how he got to be the man he is, adding classic existential uncertainty to the realpolitik thriller.

Finally, playing a hitman in the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning thriller No Country for Old Men (2007), Javier Bardem takes the character back to its basics. With no discernible psychological back story, no anxieties over his own abilities, no employer issues or moral qualms, Bardem's character of Anton Chigurh is really just about one thing: death. Clinging to a near nonsensical code of honor and determining many of his killings with just a coin toss, Chigurh seems more akin to the black-robed figure of Death in The Seventh Seal than to the cool yet still recognizably human hitmen of Melville, Woo, Besson and others. In No Country for Old Men, Bardem's killer lays bare the awful truth behind every cinematic hitman – that despite how collected, fashionable or funny he may appear, a hitman is there to remind us of the sheer randomness and brutal incomprehensibility of death itself.

N.B. The above article appeared was first published on this site in a what different form in 2008 to coincide with the release of In Bruges.