When the Flicker Goes Out

One of the great Hollywood stories airs today, A Star is Born from 1937.  Starring Frederic March and Janet Gaynor, it tells the story of a hugely successful actor, Norman Maine (March), on his way down while his own discovery, and now wife, Vicki Lester (Gaynor), is on her way up.  By the end, in full despair and knowing of no other escape, Maine drowns himself by walking into the waves against a setting sun.  An early example of three-strip technicolor, it’s a beautifully shot scene and takes the long view of Maine’s demise, not actually following him to his death.  But an earlier film, one that may or may not have inspired A Star is Born (there was some talk of lawsuits that eventually fizzled out), contained a far more extraordinary death scene, one that has stayed with me all these years.  The film is What Price Hollywood and it reminds me that classic Hollywood, long before the ratings system came into play and grisly death scenes became a dime a dozen, had the ability to remove a character from this mortal coil in some of the most memorable and powerful ways the cinema has ever known.


If you’ve never seen What Price Hollywood, DVR it today and watch it because it’s just terrific.  And, as I said up above, its death scene is quite amazing.  I suppose I should warn everyone, at this point, that spoiler alerts will follow for the whole post.  In What Price Hollywood, the characters aren’t an actor and actress but a director and actress.  The director is Maximilian “Max” Carey (Lowell Sherman) and the actress is Mary Evans (Constance Bennett).  When Carey reaches his ultimate moment of despair, he finishes himself off with a gun he finds in his dresser drawer.  That may not seem too extraordinary but what follows is.  As Carey aims the gun at his chest and pulls the trigger, the movie switches to a hyper fast edit of multiple images of his life, from scenes in the movie we’ve just watched, before switching back to his body collapsing, in slow motion.  Honestly, the idea of illustrating a man’s life passing before his eyes as he leaves this world and then, in 1932, decades before slow motion was used widely, to have his lifeless body collapse in such a lingering way, is pretty amazing.  The life seems but a glimpse, the final collapse an eternity.

Now, at the top of the piece, I mention Norman Maine, both Fredric March and later James Mason, walking into the ocean.  Well, there are two other death scenes (or should I say “dead scenes”) in which two characters, both already dead, lay and sit motionless in the water, dead stare and all.  The first is William Holden in Sunset Boulevard.  The images of him floating in Norma Desmond’s pool is still one of the most haunting shots of a dead person from the classic era.  At the start of the film, we get a glimpse of what will become of Holden and this only makes the inevitable more painful.  However, there is another image that’s a close cousin to this one and it’s not only more haunting, it’s maybe the most haunting corpse shot ever for my money: Shelley Winters at the bottom of a lake, sitting in her car, as the water gently strokes her hair, in Charles Laughton’s 1955 masterpiece, Night of the Hunter.  Her death happens off screen but her lifeless body is the centerpiece of one of the cinema’so most haunting shots.


Those examples above reflect how haunting classic Hollywood could be showing a character die, as in What Price Hollywood, or the already dead and now peaceful corpse, as in Sunset Boulevard or Night of the Hunter.  But another thing the great classics excelled at was the silent death scene, the camera pulling away or fading out or even holding it as the character’s life bleeds away.  One of the most memorable comes with someone simply going to bed, and her housekeeper pulling a blanket over her to keep her warm.  You probably can guess what I’m talking about already: Bette Davis in the final moments of Dark Victory.  It’s not only peaceful and beautiful but almost as haunting as anything described above.  That image of Davis, laying across the bed, on her side, staring ahead, as you know she is going completely blind and sinking into her final moments.  For me, it’s a death scene more powerful than any out there involving lots of crying and moaning and other sundry histrionics.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with crying and sadness and emotion in a death scene.  Certainly not if it’s Walter Huston doing the dying in Yankee Doodle Dandy and James Cagney doing the crying.  Or how about Stephen Boyd’s death scene in Ben-Hur?  Now there’s a death scene that’s filled with acting!  Maybe a little too much but it still works.  And for truly over the top dying, as in top of the world, nothing can beat James Cagney going out in ball of fire in White Heat.  And then there’s Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train which beats even Ben-Hur‘s Mesala for dying out of spite.  I mean, here he is, heading out the door for all eternity and he still won’t clear Farley Granger.  That’s a death!

It’s true that grisly deaths started early in the movies, from Cagney’s bandaged corpse falling through his mom’s doorway in Public Enemy all the way up to Janet Leigh getting hacked to death in the shower in Psycho in what may still be the most famous murder scene in movie history.  But when classic Hollywood wanted to send someone out poetically, it came up aces a lot more often than it didn’t.  I’ve mentioned so few here that they don’t even qualify as a handful but that’s because this isn’t meant as a “greatest of” list of the death scenes.  It’s meant to reveal in some small part the moments when the movies sent someone out in such a haunting (I keep using that word) way, that’s it’s never left me.  I’m sure everyone has a list of their own.  A list of those memorable moments in the dark when the flicker goes out.



15 Responses When the Flicker Goes Out
Posted By Autist : September 4, 2015 2:30 pm

“grizzly death scenes”: Is that a scene where a grizzly bear mauls a person to death?

Posted By gregferrara : September 4, 2015 2:31 pm

Oops! Corrected.

Posted By Emgee : September 4, 2015 7:25 pm

Karloff pulling the lever after murmuring “we belong dead” in Bride Of Frankenstein immediately comes to mind.
And what about James Cagney being dragged kicking and screaming to the electric chair in Angels with Dirty Faces? Pretty impressive.
Almost poetic is Sterling Haydens death scene in Asphalt Jungle, dying in the meadow amidst the horses he dreamed of buying with his part of the loot.

Posted By Autist : September 4, 2015 7:50 pm

Best death scene of all time: Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove: “Whaaaaaaaaa-Hoooooooo!”

Posted By Wendy Merckel : September 4, 2015 8:50 pm

The young artist’s death in Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris is so realistic, is such a waste that it is hard to forget.

In William Wellman’s Westward the Women, there’s a scene in a desert canyon where the names of the dead are called out, echoing for miles. It’s always stuck with me. Wellman had a knack for portraying moving or creepy death scenes, like in the Ox Bow Incident or Beau Geste.

One of my favorite deaths in the movies is George Sanders’ demise in Death of a Scoundrel – His lifeless body is seen under the opening credit scroll, eyes wide open facing the camera! You have to watch the whole, very entertaining movie to find out how he got that way. An homage to Sunset Boulevard?

Posted By Randy : September 4, 2015 11:43 pm

Joel McCrea in Ride the High Country. (Brings tears to my eyes every time.)

James Cagney in White Heat. (Top of the World, Ma! Top of the World!)

Posted By gregferrara : September 5, 2015 1:54 am

All good choices but, yes, Sterling Hayden in Asphalt Jungle. I’ve always loved that one! Didn’t even think of it.

Posted By George : September 5, 2015 2:50 am


Thomas Mitchell in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS.

Posted By George : September 5, 2015 2:57 am

Ron Leibman in SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE. The suddenness of his death, and the lack of ceremony involved, still make it shocking.

Posted By philip yates : September 5, 2015 3:10 pm

My favorite of all time–All Quiet om the Westerm Fromt. You don’t even see the young german’s soldier’s body–just his hand reaching out for the butterfly.

Posted By JLewis : September 7, 2015 6:23 pm

I know we shouldn’t make lists here, especially the kind I make that go “off topic”, but a couple of memorable ones…

KING KONG getting dramatic holding his neck before he falls off the Empire State. Curiously HE was rather quiet against Max Steiner’s score, while all the human deaths (brontosaurus “lunching”, natives getting stepped on and guys falling of the log) have a lot of yells involved.

I thought it was a nice touch that Scarlet in GONE WITH THE WIND predicted at the last moment that Little Bonnie would get killed on a horse “just like pa”. The scenes resembled each other in their staging.

BAMBI… we hear the shot and the fawn say “we made it mother”…

So many characters get bumped off in the 007 actioners (and THUNDERBALL predated JAWS with shark-attacks “bloodying” the water), but I thought FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE’s Rosa Klebb gasping for breath at Ramonova’s bullet and scrambling up against the wall was the most dramatic. Yeah, Bond cracks that “she got her kicks”, but the poor gal received no love in her life.

Hitchcock sure came up with creative ways of bumping folks off, but seemed obsessed too much on falls from high places (i.e. SABOTEUR, VERTIGO, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, etc.). That strangling in TORN CURTAIN was pretty intense since it lasts longer than PSYCHO’s shower stabbing.

There are so many “death scenes” each year in movies, but you do notice an increase in such scenes during certain periods. Apparently FDR and Hollywood got sick of American citizens complaining about war rations, so there were quite a few war films in the later 1943-45 period that showed heroes getting shot dramatically and in great pain with alarming frequency.

Another interesting “hot spot” for such scenes… The completely unexpected (and quickly repeated) success of BONNIE & CLYDE ending with bullets a-flyin’, was followed by the news coverage of Vietnam and the King-Kennedy assassinations. This resulted in a curious “cluster” of famous flicks filmed in 1968-69 that ended with deaths. Aside from THE WILD BUNCH’s repeat of B&C’s bloodbath, EASY RIDER red-neck shootings, MIDNIGHT COWBOY “Do you mind closing his eyes?”, the freeze frame of BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and the British school gun-fest of IF…, I thought MEDIUM COOL had the most interesting approach: the two leads hear on a car radio the news story detailing the accident with their car… he apparently survives but she doesn’t. And, of course, a cameraman shooting the wrecked station-wagon as “the whole world is watching”…

Posted By Stephen White : September 8, 2015 7:10 am

How about Kirk Douglas falling toward the camera in the final seconds of THE BIG CARNIVAL and landing perfectly so that his eyes are planted about a half-inch from the lens, “staring” right at us? I have no idea how they filmed that. Looks like Douglas could have seriously banged his head against the camera if he was off by just an inch.

Posted By swac44 : September 8, 2015 10:59 am

That scene in The Public Enemy still gets to me, when I first watched it as a 12-year-old, I had no idea old movies could be so creepy.

Posted By CitizenKing : September 8, 2015 8:00 pm

One of the most poignant death scenes I recall is from The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. When Nan is shot it is bad enough, but the utter despair when Alec just gives up is heartbreaking.

Posted By robbushblog : October 5, 2015 5:04 pm

The scene in THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, where Redford’s office get shot up while he’s out getting lunch is loaded with great, little details. One person is seen smoking before being shot and you see the smoking cigarette in their hand afterwards, and the boss’s toupee is shown half hanging off of his head as he lies dead and motionless on the stairs. Those little things made their deaths seem more real than most movie murders.

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

As of November 1, 2017 FilmStruck’s blog, StreamLine, has moved to Tumblr.

Please visit us there!


 Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.