While watching a movie, you want the filmmakers to genuinely surprise you and there aren’t many bigger ways to do that than by establishing a main character, letting the audience become involved with their story for awhile, and then suddenly killing them off long before the film is over! It’s definitely a great way for film to truly shock its audience, but it’s also incredibly ballsy and could easily backfire. The viewer may feel betrayed by having the rug pulled out from under them like that, making it impossible to enjoy the rest of the film. If you’re going to kill off your main character well before the end credits have rolled, you better make sure that your other characters are interesting enough to carry the story along to its conclusion. Anyway, I have selected ten movies that decided to make this daring narrative decision. Some of these films killed off their protagonist in a very unexpected fashion during the last act, while some of them even went so far as to do it before the story’s halfway point. Whatever the circumstances, these deaths were all genuinely surprising. So, without any further ado, here are my picks for the “Robin’s Top 10 Most Surprising Deaths of a Movie’s Main Character”.
Warning: Obviously, this column is going to reveal some pretty major spoilers from certain films. However, the most recent film on this list is already four years old, so I feel that the statute of limitations for discussing this has expired and that most of the deaths on this list are fairly common knowledge by now…
10. Marion Crane – Psycho (1960):
This is the one that started it all and the only reason I placed it down at #10 on my list is because the scene in question has become so iconic that it’s impossible to be genuinely surprised by it any more. However, let’s journey all the way back to 1960 and place this sequence in its original context to explain how shocking it really was. As I’m sure you all know, for the first half of Psycho, Marion Crane is established as the main character until she makes an ill-fated stay at the Bates Motel and takes the “Shower of Doom”. Keep in mind that up until this point, Psycho has give very little indication that it’s a horror film. It’s pretty much been a character study of a woman who decides to go on the run after stealing some money and just as Marion reaches a crucial turning point where she decides to go back and turn herself in to make things right, Sir Alfred Hitchcock suddenly decides that he wants to kill her off and make the mentally unstable Norman Bates the central character in the film’s second half. Now, you have to remember that fifty years ago, audiences had NEVER seen anything like that before, so watching the heroine get killed off in such a violent fashion at the halfway point of the film was genuinely terrifying to a lot of people. After that, they had NO IDEA where the story was going to go! Watching Psycho today, you’ll probably pick up on the one thing that pretty much telegraphs Marion Crane’s death right from the outset: the dreaded “And” credit! Anthony Perkins is the actor who gets top billing in Psycho’s opening titles, which also displays the credit: “And Janet Leigh as Marion Crane”. I’m sure audiences in 1960 were very curious about why the supposed main character didn’t get top billing, but it would become obvious to them pretty soon. Nowadays, if a big-name star seems to be playing an important character at the outset of the movie but has only been billed with the “And” credit in the opening titles, don’t expect them to have a very long shelf life.
9. Lt. Colonel Austin Travis – Executive Decision (1996):
While we’re the subject of the dreaded “And” credit, you immediately sense something might be amiss at the beginning of Executive Decision when Kurt Russell gets top billing and then you later read: “And Steven Seagal as Lt. Colonel Austin Travis”. Now, while Kurt Russell’s character is definitely the main protagonist in Executive Decision, you wouldn’t have guessed that from watching the original advertising for the film. As laughable as this may sound now, Steven Seagal still had some credibility back in 1996 and was just as big (if not a bigger) star than Kurt Russell, so you would think they’d have about equal screen time in this movie. The plot involves Russell and Seagal’s Colonel Travis teaming up on a mission to board a hijacked 747 in mid-flight, but about 40 minutes in, the film completely pulls the rug out from under you by killing off Travis killed while in the midst of trying to board the plane and having him plunge to a horrible death several thousand feet below. Now, I’m sure no sane person would object to the idea of killing Steven Seagal off early on in order to spend the rest of the film with Kurt Russell, but that doesn’t mean his death wasn’t pretty shocking at the time. Not only did Seagal never get killed in his movies, he was never allowed to show any weakness or look anything less than invincible at any point. You want proof: just go back and watch any Steven Seagal fight scene and try to find a moment where he sells one offensive maneuver from his opponent. What’s funny is that if you watch the film’s original trailer, they pretty much give away Seagal’s death and imply that he is going to heroically sacrifice himself for the mission at some point. But you just didn’t expect it to happen so damn EARLY!
8. Dallas – Alien (1979):
I’m sure you’re thinking: “Hey, wait a minute, what’s Alien doing on the list? Ripley never died!”. Well, next time you watch Alien, take note of the fact that the first name listed in the opening credits is not Sigourney Weaver, but Tom Skerritt. Of course, we all now know that Ellen Ripley is the main character of the Alien franchise, but put yourself in the shoes someone watching the original film for the first time in 1979. Tom Skerritt gets top billing for his role as Captain Dallas and for the film’s first half, he is treated as the main character. And as famous as Sigourney Weaver is now, go look at her filmography and notice just how few credits she had to her name before appeared in Alien. The rest of the actors in Alien were all pretty established by that point and Weaver was definitely the least well-known member of the cast by a long shot. If you went to see Alien during its original theatrical release, I doubt you would have put down on any money on her being the film’s sole survivor. Anyway, Dallas’ death, which involves him being attacked by the alien while trying to track it down in the ship’s vents, is definitely one of the most tense sequences in the film and it’s hard not to jump when the alien makes it sudden appearance. Added to that, you never even really get to find out what happens to Dallas! While the director’s cut of Alien has restored a scene which reveals that Dallas got cocooned by the alien, the original version of the film never revealed this and many viewers probably assumed that he was going to return before the film was over. Of course, he never did, so Ellen Ripley would wind up taking the reins and become of the most famous screen heroines of all time.
7. Kate Miller – Dressed to Kill (1980):
Brian De Palma is one of the most heavily debated directors of all time as some people consider his films to be very loving and stylish homages to the works of Sir Alfred Hitchcock while others consider him to be nothing more than a copycat artist. Personally, I’m a huge fan of the guy and think that he’s a master of building upon other filmmakers’ ideas and improving them in his own unique way. Anyway, De Palma’s 1980 film, Dressed to Kill, is considered to be his personal homage to Psycho, so it’s only natural that he would pull off the same narrative trick of killing off his main heroine 45 minutes into the movie. The first act of the story follows Angie Dickinson as Kate Miller, a middle-aged housewife who has become very bored by her marriage and decides to embark on an adventure where she winds up having an affair with a stranger she meets at a museum. However, while leaving his apartment, she is brutally slashed to death by a straight razor in the elevator. Given some of the story’s similarities to Psycho, Kate’s death scene might almost inevitable, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t take you by surprise. Kate’s death is also shocking simply because you’ve spent the entire first third with virtually no one else but her. Yes, you’ve been introduced to other characters, such as her son and her psychiatrist, but there hasn’t been enough time for them to be developed much. In fact, Nancy Allen’s Liz Blake, the character who becomes the heroine for the last two-thirds of the story, isn’t even introduced at all until she finds Kate’s body in the elevator and then the rest of the film is suddenly told from her point-of-view. The experience of watching Dressed to Kill almost feels like sitting through a 45-minute short film, which is then followed up by a entirely different story that occupies the rest of the movie’s running time, and not many directors would have the storytelling skill to pull that off.
6. Eddie Flemming – 15 Minutes (2001):
Now, here’s one that genuinely surprised me when I initially watched the film because neither the trailer nor the buzz surrounding the movie gave any indication it would happen. In 15 Minutes, Robert De Niro plays a renowned New York detective named Eddie Flemming who is subdued by two European villains who want to videotape their murder of him and sell it to the media in order to garner their fifteen minutes of fame. This sequence happens about an hour into the film, so of course, you expect that Eddie is going to escape from their clutches. He does make an attempt at it, but then they stop them. The scene suddenly fades to black and they cut to another scene where a news broadcast airs the announcement of Eddie Flemming’s death. WTF?! Not only did this movie have the nerve to kill off Robert friggin’ De Niro at the halfway point, but they keep actual act of violence off-screen, so that in the back of your mind, you’re somehow expecting him to come back. But, of course, he never does. 15 Minutes received a bit of a critical drubbing when it was originally released, but I personally think it’s a much better film than they give it credit for. Yes, I think the movie does suffer a little bit after De Niro is killed off and they decide of tell the story from the point-of-view of Edward Burns’ far less interesting character, but I do give them a lot props for having the nerve to do it in the first place.
5. Llewelyn Moss – No Country for Men (2007):
This is the moment where viewers either decide that No Country for Old Men is one of the ballsiest movies in Hollywood history and praise it to death, or declare that they’d like Anton Chigurh to use his captive bolt pistol on the foreheads of the Coen brothers. It’s one thing to kill off your main character long before the movie’s over, but to do it OFF-SCREEN?! Most of the movie is a cat-and-mouse game between the hero, Llewelyn Moss and the villainous Anton Chigurh and you think that they’re eventually going to build to a big climactic confrontation between the two. However, Moss doesn’t even get a spectacular death scene at the hands of Chigurh, but is quietly gets killed off-screen by… a bunch of random Mexican drug dealers?! That’s right, the hero gets the most undramatic death scene possible as the whole incident is seen entirely from the point-of-view of Sheriff Ed Bell, who drives up to a motel room and finds Moss lying dead on the floor with a bullet in his head. You’d expect Bell to take over the hero role and spend the rest of the move tracking Chigurh down to give him the comeuppance he deserves, but nah, he just quietly retires and the film ends. Understandably, this plot turn angered some viewers, but what they needed to remember was that No Country From Old Men was originally based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, and the central message in his work is often “Life really sucks and just ain’t fuckin’ fair sometimes!”. I guess that can also translate to: “Sometimes screen heroes will die very unspectacular anticlimactic off-screen deaths at the hands of characters who have barely anything to do with the main plot”.
4. Richard Chance – To Live and Die in L.A. (1985):
This death happens fairly late in the film, but the truly surprising element is not so much that it happens, but THE WAY in which it happens! I’ve written a “Robin’s Underrated Gems” column on William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A., which I think is one of the more underappreciated crime thrillers of all time. William L. Petersen plays the protagonist, Secret Service Agent Richard Chance, who is established as an incredibly reckless individual that seems to think he is invincible and will do whatever it takes to bust his nemesis, counterfeiter Eric Masters. Given Chance’s reckless nature, it’s probably not too surprising that he would be killed off, but this is pretty much the antithesis of a character going out in a blaze of glory. While attempting to make a bust, Chance is killed when Masters’ henchman suddenly picks up a shotgun and shoots Chance in the face. BAM! In one split second, it is all over for the protagonist and the audience barely has any time to register what happens. As a result, the film is forced to spend the last fifteen minutes with Chance’s partner as he finally brings Masters down. As shocking as Chance’s death is, it perfectly suits the theme of the story. Since Chance leads such a dangerous lifestyle, it’s likely that even if he had survived his encounter with Masters, he probably wouldn’t have had lived that much longer anyway. Just like it often happens in real life, Chance comes to an end in a very quick, messy fashion when no one is expecting it. As an amusing aside, the studio wasn’t entirely comfortable with the film’s main character dying in that fashion, so they made William Friedkin shoot this very stupid alternate ending where Chance is punished by being transferred to Alaska… after surviving his SHOTGUN BLAST TO THE FACE!
3. Russell Franklin – Deep Blue Sea (1999):
Yes, Deep Blue Sea is a pretty damn silly movie, but I personally think it’s a lot of fun and consider it to be a guilty pleasure of mine. Of course, it also helps that it contains one of the delightfully unexpected death scenes of all time. Samuel L. Jackson gets top billing in the film as corporate executive Russell Franklin, and even though the characters played by Thomas Jane and Saffron Burrows seem to have more importance to the story, you consider Franklin is the main protagonist because… well, he’s played by Samuel L. Jackson. Halfway through the film, when the characters are under attack by super-intelligent sharks and are on the verge of breaking down, Franklin makes an attempt to bring them all together with a dramatic monologue. Franklin’s motivational speech could probably be considered incredibly hokey and insipid… if not for the fact that a shark leaps out of the water and eats him before he has the chance to finish it! When I originally saw this film in theaters, the scene was so unexpected and perfectly timed that it actually got cheers from the audience. Being an admitted B-movie geek himself (hence his enthusiasm for appearing in Snakes on a Plane), you just know that Samuel L. Jackson probably took great delight in being killed off in this fashion. His death is so awesome that you can ignore just how horrible the CGI effects for the shark are, and can pretty much overlook most of the other flaws in the film. In fact, even if the rest of Deep Blue Sea was a complete pile of steaming dung, Samuel L. Jackson’ death would have redeemed the whole thing. It’s THAT awesome!
2. Billy Costigan – The Departed (2006):
This one is particularly special because not only did it succeed at shocking casual viewers, but it also managed surprise to those viewers who’d seen the original film that The Departed is based on. Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning film is a remake of the acclaimed Hong Kong crime thriller, Infernal Affairs, and both of them feature the same climax where our hero finally captures the undercover mole who has infiltrated his police department, but is shot and killed in an elevator before he has the chance to turn him in. The difference is that in Infernal Affairs, the hero’s death is filmed in a very stylish fashion with slow motion and multiple camera angles which provide a long build-up to his demise before it actually happens. In The Departed, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan is standing in the elevator with his nemesis when it arrives at the ground floor and Billy is instantly met with a bullet to the head. Like Richard Chance in To Live and Die in L.A., the protagonist is killed off in a split second and you know there is no way he could possibly survive this. Having seen Infernal Affairs before I saw The Departed, I had a feeling that Billy would probably be killed off in that elevator, but I had no idea it would be like THAT! I mean, you just don’t kill off a big-name star like Leonardo DiCaprio in such an abrupt fashion and deprive his character of an opportunity for closure, but The Departed had the guts to do it and in doing so, managed to shock the hell out of everybody.
1. Jack Vincennes – L.A. Confidential (1997):
Technically, Jack Vincennes is one of three main characters in L.A. Confidential, but to understand why this death is so shocking and warrants the #1 spot on this list, you have to look at the context of the whole thing. The three protagonists in this story are Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) and Bud White (Russell Crowe), but keep in mind that when the film was originally released back in 1997, Kevin Spacey was easily the most established actor of that bunch as Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe were just beginning to make their mark in Hollywood. Naturally, you wouldn’t expect the character played by Spacey to be killed off two-thirds of the way through the movie while these relatively unknown Australian actors carried the story through to the end. Jack Vincennes’ death is so brilliant because it comes completely out nowhere in the middle of a mundane conversation, as Captain Dudley Smith has just finished making Jack a cup of coffee before he suddenly turns around with a gun in his hand and shoots him. When I originally saw this scene in a theatre, the entire audience jumped and nearly suffered a collective heart attack. What really elevates this death scene is that it’s doubly shocking if you’ve read James Ellroy’s original novel. In the book, Jack Vincennes is not killed off until the climactic shootout at the end. In fact, the idea of Jack uttering the name “Rollo Tomassi” before his death as a subtle way of sending a warning to Exley was not in the original novel at all and was completely invented from scratch by screenwriter Brian Helgeland! So a special kudos must go to the filmmakers for not only shocking fans of the novel by killing off one of the main characters early, but for actually dreaming up a clever way to use it to further the plot.