So, actually the topic as presented to me (taken from a list that I had originally suggested) was “Suicide Fake-Outs”, though my friend wasn’t sure what that actually meant. I’ll explain that in a moment, but since I could only think of two examples, I thought I’d expand the topic to just “fake deaths” in films in general.
(Incidentally, this is #12 in a series of 47 posts about movies, with topics selected by my friend, each given to me after the previous one is written. For more information, check out #1 here.)
So there’s a number of different specific types of “fake death” that could be talked about. I’ve thought of three, with two examples of each. Obviously, with a topic like this, their are likely to be spoilers. In fact, one or more of the films I list are on my “Go and see without being spoiled” list, which I’ve just created and which you can see here. So if you don’t want some great cinema moment spoiled for you, go see those films before you read onward. Indeed, do this before you see even which film from that list is listed here, because just knowing the type of spoiler will be like knowing the spoiler itself.
Anyway, now that that’s over with, let’s move on. We’ll go through these fake deaths category by category…
Category 1: Where a Character has Purposely Faked His Own Death
The Third Man (1949) – Directed by Carol Reed
Character: Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles
Apparently Died: Run over by a truck, either as an accident or as part of foul play
Revelation: A shadowy figure is unexpectedly lit up in one of the most amazing moments in cinema history
The brilliant thing about The Third Man is that we all saw it knowing that Orson Welles was going to be in it, not as the lead but as an important character. But then you get a long way into the movie, wondering when he’ll appear. And during the film, the main character spends his time trying to figure out how his friend Harry Lime was killed, who apparently died before the movie started. And then, suddenly, a neighbor’s light shines upon a shadowy figure and we see Welles’ impish grin, and instantly we know that this is Harry Lime. The recognition in the main character’s mind is perfectly mirrored by that of the audience to the famous actor. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the movie around all this is also really good.
Sleuth (1972) – Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Character: Milo Tindle, played by Michael Caine
Apparently Died: Murdered by Andrew Wyke, as far as the audience is concerned, but as far as Wyke is concerned, he simply disappeared for reasons unknown
Revelation: To both Wyke and the audience, by slow removal of some awesome make up.
Sleuth is an outstanding piece of work starring two first rate actors, Michael Caine and Lawrence Olivier. Unfortunately, I’ve already blown this huge surprise by including the movie on this list, but I couldn’t very well do this category without it. Hmm, maybe I should make a list of films that I recommend strongly to watch with as few spoilers as possible, and then link any article which includes one of those movies to that list at the start.
(It’s interesting that both of the examples in this first category end with the character who was “fake dead” eventually being “real dead”.)
Category 2: Where a Character is accidentally thought to have been killed
Laura (1944) – Directed by Otto Preminger
Character: Laura Hunt, played by Gene Tierney
Apparently Died: Shotgun blast to the face
Revelation: She just comes home one day
Laura is one of the best known film noir projects from back in the hay day of such work. The story is about a mesmerizing woman who is apparently found murdered by an identity-obscuring gunshot to the face, and how the detective investigating the case begins to fall in love with the idea of the woman that he is hearing about from all of the witnesses and suspects. When she turns out to still be alive, things obviously turn in a new direction.
From Noon Till Three (1976) – Directed by Frank D. Gilroy
Character: Graham Dorsey, played by Charles Bronson
Apparently Died: Gunned down by a posse
Revelation: Returns to meet his lover after being released from prison a year later, but to tragic results
I’ve written about this film extensively before, and I can’t really recommend it on any level, but I do recall it as one of the stranger pieces of fiction that I’ve ever seen, and it has it’s own version of this “fake death” trope. In this case, the audience is never fooled, but it’s the widow Amanda Starbuck who comes to believe that her outlaw-turned-lover Graham Dorsey has been killed, when in truth he’s been imprisoned for the crimes of a charlatan dentist whose identity he’d co-opted. When he returns to her a year later, she at first doesn’t believe it’s him, as the story of their brief romance has become a local and international legend, and she has come to believe in the legend more than the truth. The reality of the situation is too much for her to bear, and she ends up taking her own life. In the end, Dorsey has lost his lover as well as his identity, as the world is convinced that he is dead. Only his fellow inmates at the insane asylum where he eventually finds himself believe the truth.
So yeah, pretty strange stuff.
Category 3: Where someone briefly thinks that a Character has committed suicide, but it’s not remotely true
(This is the category that I was originally talking about, as mentioned at the start of this post)
The Apartment (1960) – Directed by Billy Wilder
Character: C.C. Baxter, played by Jack Lemmon
Apparently Died: Shooting himself
Revelation: He answers the door, fine and dandy
One of my all-time favorites, The Apartment ends with a bit where Shirley MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik briefly fears that the man she’s realized truly loves her, C.C. Baxter, has shot himself in despair. Turns out, nothing was further from the truth, and the gunshot she thought she heard was actually him popping the cork on a bottle of champagne
(This is the category that I was originally thinking about with the “Suicide Fake Out” thing at the start)
Birdy (1984) – Directed by Alan Parker
Character: Birdy, played by Matthew Modine
Apparently Died: Jumping off a building in a delusional attempt to fly
Revelation: Turns out to be standing on another building just a few feet below
Birdy is not necessarily a great movie, but it’s got an outstanding last moment. Wounded Vietnam vet Al has spent the entire film trying to prove that his shell-shocked fellow veteran, a childhood friend nicknamed “Birdy”, is not beyond help. Birdy has always been obsessed with the idea of flight, nearly killing himself in the process. When orderlies come to take Birdy away forever, even after Birdy has seemingly recovered, he and Al flee to the rooftop of the hospital they are in. While Al barricades the door, Birdy is seen going to the end of the building, waving his arms as if to fly, and jumping off. Incredulous, Al screams and runs to the edge and looks down…
…only to find Birdy standing on another neighboring rooftop, just a few feet below. “What?” Birdy asks him, confused.
Boom! Affirmation of life and sanity! Cut to credits!
Category 4: Where a Character’s alien physiology allows for the appearance of death for the primary purpose of provoking powerful emotions from the audience
ET, the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) – Directed by Steven Spielberg
Character: ET, an alien, played by a lot of special effects, and voiced by Pat Welsh, Debra Winger, and a bunch of other people and animals
Apparently Died: After an illness after prolonged separation from home
Revelation: A dead chrysanthemum begins to revive…
It’s never really clear why ET gets so sick and seems to die, and so it’s not clear what brings him back to life, but it doesn’t really matter. We accept it because he’s an alien, and because it’s powerful film making that gripped our hearts when we were twelve, and continues to do so today in spite of whatever flaws the movie has.
The Iron Giant (1999) – Directed by Brad Bird
Character: The Iron Giant, voiced by Vin Diesel
Apparently Died: Blown up by a missile, while saving his friend Hogarth and their town, emulating his hero, Superman.
Revelation: The pieces of the robot begin to pull themselves back together, months later…
There are lots of kid’s movies that end with fake-outs about the death of someone that you like, which don’t really try too hard to make you believe it. The Iron Giant is a cut above most because the death of the robot is something that actually makes sense with the type of story that is being told. When it happens, it’s kind of plausible. That of course makes the eventual happy ending even more uplifting.
Considered and Rejected: Captain American: The Winter Soldier (Nick Fury), Goldeneye (the guy that Sean Bean plays), Lord of the Rings (Gandalf), You Only Live Twice (James Bond), Raiders of the Lost Ark (Marion Ravenwood), Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Holmes), The Dark Knight (Commissioner Gordon), a million stupid horror movies (the murderer / monster), or The Lady and the Tramp (that big dog that got hurt at the end).
Full Disclosure: I’ve never seen Saw, and barring some very bizarre changes in my personality, I’m not ever going to.