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The Existential Hitman

by John Hunter Duesing

Created 08/10/12

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The lone hitman has long been a subject that has fascinated filmmakers, the outlaw who kills for his own reasons and lives by his own code. Why do filmmakers often explore this? Why has Jim Jarmusch done two movies on the subject? And why is someone who kills for money so fascinating?

Are there any I'm forgetting from the collection? What's your favorite existential hitman movie?

  • Alain Delon's performance is the definitive strong, silent hitman, inspiring Chow Yun-Fat in "The Killer," Forrest Whitaker in "Ghost Dog," and Isaach de Bankolé in "Limits of Control" to name a few. Melville opens the film with some made-up Eastern mumbo-jumbo that is effective nonetheless in setting up Delon as a romantic assassin, mysterious and compelling.

  • John Woo took the basic yarn of Melville's "Le Samouraï," and added in a liberal dose of balletic gun battles, taking the heroic bloodshed defined by Chang Cheh and putting guns in the killer's hands instead of swords. Chow Yun-Fat's cornered hitman is even willing to risk it all for a beautiful nightclub singer, but Woo fills his motivational gas tank with guilt.

  • Unlike the other characters on this list, Ben Gazzara's nightclub owner isn't a professional hitman, but is given an assignment to do so in order to square a debt, and kills out of desperation in order to save his pitiful status quo.

  • A hitman with a rice fetish and hamster cheeks. I'm still swirling this one around.

  • John Hurt plays a killer for the British mob, sent to bring an old rat living under protection to face the justice of his former bosses. Said rat is played by Terence Stamp, who goes along with it smugly, saying that he is ready to face death. But Hurt's character reveals himself to be the true Existentialist, while Stamp's rat reverts back to his nature.

77 comments

  • By blough
    June 14, 2013
    05:35 PM

    Get Carter. Michael Caine at his best
    Reply
  • By A.J. Malouin, of A.J. MALOUIN'S IN BRUGES FILM CLUB @ Gayle's Chocolates
    June 14, 2013
    07:07 PM

    Other possible additions to this hit list that immediately come to mind are "You Kill Me" (John Dahl, 2007) and "Leon" ["Leon: The Professional" in American] (Luc Besson, 1994 "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" (Jim Jarmusch, 1999.)
    Reply
  • By Gil Matos-Sequí
    June 15, 2013
    10:18 AM

    The Conformist is missing from this list, but I guess it is not a Criterion title.
    Reply
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    • By Theo
      June 15, 2013
      11:58 AM

      If The Conformist were on Criterion, I think I would feint of happiness.
  • By Theo
    June 15, 2013
    11:59 AM

    Pretty much all of the suggested films are NOT ON CRITERION, which makes it impossible for them to be on this list.
    Reply
  • By Starlightspacelab
    June 15, 2013
    12:10 PM

    Le Samourai = no.1
    Reply
  • By birdturd94
    June 15, 2013
    01:59 PM

    Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men
    Reply
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    • By Slint_Berninger
      August 25, 2013
      06:56 AM

      Chigurh believes he is a tool of Fate so therefore, he is not an Existentialisr
    • By birdturd94
      September 02, 2013
      01:58 AM

      He still kills doesn't he and is paid to do so i believe.
  • By Kryshu
    June 15, 2013
    03:50 PM

    I have no idea why the hitman has such a grip on the psyche, but I suspect it has something to do with the general glamourization of violence. Is there some base instinct in us to remove those who are standing in the way of us controlling our world? Do we need to face the devil? I don't know. But personally, I don't like it. I admit to watching hitmen when they've been played by good actors because I like what good actors bring to the screen, but no more. Hired killers are psychopaths and I can't help thinking I am giving them a thumbs up some way by admiring them in films. Psychopaths have a very limited humanity which should be of interest only to psychiatrists and psychologists for the purposes of making sure their kind is removed from humanity's genetic stream.
    Reply
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    • By rrot
      June 18, 2013
      07:28 AM

      The thought that certain types can be "removed from humanity's genetic stream" has caused far more horror and grief in the world than all the hired hit men combined.
    • By apologia7
      July 02, 2013
      10:16 AM

      Don't we happily glorify - in film - the Navy Seals, Delta, CIA field ops, military snipers, who are ordered to kill in the name of American sovereignty, forgetting that this is a very real part of our everyday life? Same with adultery. I don't think that Criterion is the place to have those conversations. They do have their place, but Criterion isn't it.
    • By apologia7
      July 04, 2013
      06:39 PM

      I should have added that the Criterion platform isn't one of morality, it's one art, and that's what we should stick to at Criterion.com - the creative art of cinema.
  • By Film_Scholar
    June 18, 2013
    11:11 PM

    What about "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" even though its prilarily a heist gone wrong picture it turns into a hitman subplot within the last third of the film.
    Reply
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    • By apologia7
      July 02, 2013
      10:01 AM

      with an ending that....well...never mind.
  • By Glen
    June 21, 2013
    12:14 AM

    Three Days of the Condor. Max von Sydow as Joubert.
    Reply
  • By Sean
    June 21, 2013
    12:43 AM

    A few favs of mine that i think mostly fit in here (in addition to the already many great suggestions: William Devane in Rolling Thunder, Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter, Harrison Ford in Blade Runner
    Reply
  • By Zefe
    June 25, 2013
    05:22 PM

    Would Yojimbo qualify as a "hitman"? he is more hitman than "bodyguard"....
    Reply
  • By Nicolas Edelbach
    June 26, 2013
    01:25 AM

    This Gun For Hire (1942), a big influence on Melville's Le Samourai
    Reply
  • By Luiskagg
    June 26, 2013
    11:50 PM

    Michael Mann's Collateral, Takeshi Miike's Ichi the killer and Graveyard of honor
    Reply
  • By apologia7
    June 27, 2013
    08:43 PM

    Respectfully, my brother, Delon played a thief in Le Cercle Rouge, not a hitman.
    Reply
  • By apologia7
    June 27, 2013
    08:44 PM

    My apologies. You weren't referencing Le Cercle Rouge. The scene looked very similar.
    Reply
  • By Vlad
    June 29, 2013
    11:15 AM

    Ashes and Diamonds - Wajda’s masterpiece would suit this list as for me
    Reply
  • By Jefferson Martin
    July 05, 2013
    08:18 AM

    Did everyone forget this was a criterion list?
    Reply
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    • By Vlad
      July 18, 2013
      11:39 AM

      http://www.criterion.com/films/342-ashes-and-diamonds
  • By StarsiderSajun
    August 01, 2013
    06:07 PM

    My favourite hitman, and incidentally one of the films that is closest to my heart, is Luc Besson's "Léon". Sadly it's not a Criterion film just yet.
    Reply
  • By diego from argentina
    September 03, 2013
    08:20 PM

    Leon Lai , the killer in Wong Kar Wai " Fallen Angels " !!
    Reply
  • By Jack_D_Ripper
    September 23, 2013
    07:38 PM

    I love this list and it's subject. Plus a great job putting it together. Please check out my lists and tell me what you think. http://www.criterion.com/lists/157365-akira-kurosawa-s-favorite-movies http://www.criterion.com/lists/157548-beginning-a-career
    Reply

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