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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.

38 comments

  • By John Hunter Duesing
    September 02, 2012
    12:24 AM

    Thanks!
    Reply
  • By Brian J.
    June 14, 2013
    12:29 PM

    Not Criterion movies, I know, but "No Country for Old Men" and "Grosse Pointe Blank" come to mind as great hitman movies. Also "Terminator" if you think about it.
    Reply
    • By Brian J.
      June 14, 2013
      12:32 PM

      Note: they all have some existential quality to them as well.
    • By Brian J.
      June 14, 2013
      12:37 PM

      Huh. Blockbuster? Yes, but does it not fit the category? No need to insult people, sir.
  • By Liam Molenda
    June 14, 2013
    12:33 PM

    An incredible hitman film is The Proffesional
    Reply
  • By Steven_M
    June 14, 2013
    12:38 PM

    The Seventh Seal. If you think about, Death is the ultimate hitman.
    Reply
    • By Brian J.
      June 14, 2013
      12:40 PM

      That's a good one. You could argue that hitmen often represent Death, no? No arguing/negotiating out of it when the time comes.
  • By Life as Fiction
    June 14, 2013
    01:13 PM

    Hunter, I would highly recommend Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's Invisible Waves. Though not part of the Criterion Collection, it's got the combination of cool and existential feel that would be perfect for your list.
    Reply
  • By Leonard_Shelby
    June 14, 2013
    01:19 PM

    Let's represent the females too! La Femme Nikita. Haywire. Map of the Sounds of Tokyo
    Reply
  • By Austin DeRaedt
    June 14, 2013
    03:02 PM

    Ryan Gosling from Drive, and El Topo from El Topo
    Reply
    • By Robotocles
      June 26, 2013
      07:35 PM

      I thought Gosling was just autistic in Drive.
  • By D.j. West
    June 14, 2013
    03:47 PM

    The Hound from Miller's Crossing
    Reply
  • By Brian Loughrey
    June 14, 2013
    05:35 PM

    Get Carter. Michael Caine at his best
    Reply
  • 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 Alex Black
    June 15, 2013
    01:59 PM

    Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men
    Reply
    • By Alex Black
      September 02, 2013
      01:58 AM

      He still kills doesn't he and is paid to do so i believe.
  • 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
    • 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 Peter---
    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