10 great hitman films

As new films from David Fincher and Richard Linklater centre the work of a paid assassin, we track the history of hitmen on screen.

Hit Man (2023)

In cinema, the dirty business of killing for cash can seem almost glamorous. As far back as 1942’s This Gun for Hire, in which Alan Ladd’s button man uncovers a conspiracy involving the sale of secrets to Imperial Japan, the hitman at the movies has more often than not been a cool, calculating and very capable figure who – in exchange for merely his soul – operates free of society’s rules.

Movie assassins have more or less continued in the same vein up to the present day. More recently, George Clooney’s smooth continental operator Jack, in The American (2010), and Brad Pitt’s Boston heavy Jackie Cogan, in Killing Them Softly (2012), were both inscrutable yet highly skilled devils made all the more seductive by their having been played by charismatic movie stars. And 2023 brings a spate of such characters, including Michael Fassbender’s nameless hired gun in David Fincher’s upcoming The Killer and Glen Powell’s turn as an undercover cop posing as an assassin in Richard Linklater’s Hit Man. Other 21st century examples, including franchise-leaders Jason Bourne and John Wick, have been so skilled as to border on the superheroic.

Though cinema’s assassins are almost invariably male, there are notable exceptions. Female killers can be found in Prizzi’s Honor (1985), Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin (2015) and various works by Luc Besson, who, as both director (Nikita, 1990; Leon, 1994; Anna, 2019) and producer (Colombiana, 2011), has made the hitwoman central to his filmography.

For decades, however, cinema’s idea of the assassin has remained reasonably fixed, as a chilly, determined (and male) type of loner antihero. Here are 10 great films where the hitman made his mark.

The Killer and Hit Man both screen at the 67th BFI London Film Festival.

The Killer is in UK cinemas from 27 October.

Murder by Contract (1958)

Director: Irving Lerner

Murder by Contract (1958)

Released at the bitter end of the classic film noir era, when a relaxation of the Hays Code was opening the door to such morally indifferent noirs as Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and Touch of Evil (1958), Irving Lerner’s Murder by Contract presented a crime story without any moral guidance. Like sociopathic contract killer Claude (Vince Edwards), Murder by Contract views its (under)world with cold detachment, the protagonist’s hits – and, in the latter half of the film, his repeated failed attempts to assassinate a woman – playing out with almost a jaunty sadism.

Following a Bressonian opening act, in which Claude trains for then clinically carries out his first hits, Murder by Contract becomes a blackly comic portrait of a maladjusted male loner, one who ultimately finds himself out of his depth with a life of crime. You can see, then, why Murder by Contract so inspired Martin Scorsese, who once called it “the film that has influenced me most”.

Blast of Silence (1961)

Director: Allen Baron

Blast of Silence (1961)

Shot on location on the grubby fringes of wintry New York, and with a socially anxious, sexually frustrated misanthrope as the lead, Blast of Silence is about as unvarnished as a cinematic portrayal of contract killer life gets. It’s Christmastime, and Frankie Bono (played by the film’s writer-director, Allen Baron) is in town to carry out his latest hit when, threatened with extortion and unexpectedly reacquainted with an old friend, he begins to contemplate abandoning the killing game altogether.

In a Big Apple populated by lowlife creeps and loners, Baron’s assassin seems like the most isolated and dysfunctional of all, shrinking into the furniture at a party in one scene and forcing himself on a woman the next. Frankie’s bitter inner monologue is the clearest reminder that the character hails from the noir tradition – “Second-string syndicate boss with too much ambition and a moustache to hide the fact he has lips like a woman. The kind of face you hate,” is how the voiceover describes Frankie’s latest target – but otherwise we’re far from any cool, hardboiled antihero here.

The Killers (1964)

Director: Don Siegel

The Killers (1964)

Where Robert Siodmak’s 1946 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s short story ‘The Killers’ has an upright insurance investigator unspool the central mystery of why a former sports ace in hiding wouldn’t run when confronted by two assassins, Don Siegel’s gnarlier 1964 spin hands the investigation to the assassins themselves. After they bump Johnny North (John Cassavetes) in the opening scene, Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager get curious enough to trace North’s journey from pro racer to getaway driver to a phantom who seemingly welcomed his own hit.

Originally made for US television but shifted to a theatrical release when NBC execs decided it was too violent for TV, Siegel’s The Killers exists in a morally dubious space where justice is sought by two men who dole out sadistic punishments to get their answers. The film’s most shocking act however is reserved for none other than Ronald Reagan, the future president oozing in his final screen performance as the kingpin who, in one flashback, slaps squeeze Angie Dickinson to the ground just for making eyes at North.

Le Samouraï (1967) 

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

Le Samouraï (1967)

Jean-Pierre Melville opens his drum-tight 1967 neo-noir with a quote that positions the hitman – or the hitman at the movies, at least – as a modern-day samurai. Cinema’s assassins are frequently characterised by remarkable self-control, and Le Samouraï’s Jef Costello (Alain Delon) might be the most controlled of them all: he lives frugally, with his bare Paris apartment ready to be abandoned at a moment’s notice; he carries a comically large ring of keys, so he might steal any car that takes his fancy; and he plans his hits, like that of a nightclub owner, in the film’s first act, down to the last detail.

The film around Jef is just as deliberate, shot and told with Melville’s typical minimalist exactitude. Such discipline from both protagonist and filmmaker makes the sudden collapse of Jef’s life into disarray – following a simple oversight on the nightclub job, Jef’s former bosses make him a target, and the modern samurai is forced to seek honourable revenge – all the more disorienting.

Branded to Kill (1967)

Director: Seijun Suzuki

Branded to Kill (1967)

Nominally a B action picture about a hitman (Joe Shishido) who becomes himself targeted following a botched job, Branded to Kill was attacked with such outrageous individuality by Seijun Suzuki that the results got him fired by the production company. Nikkatsu president Kyūsaku Hori dismissed the director’s work as “incomprehensible”, and Branded to Kill is often that; following to the letter the Hitchcock maxim that great drama is life with the dull bits cut out, Suzuki elides what’s mundane and even sensical to leave only a series of ecstatic scenes and images.

In high-contrast 60s monochrome, a man flees a burning concrete bunker, the skin already melted from his face; an optometrist looks down a plughole and gets a bullet through the eye; an aggressive seduction scene unfolds in a house wallpapered with butterflies. Before he was blacklisted from directing for a decade just for making Branded to Kill, Suzuki first left on the screen every arresting visual he could imagine.

The Day of the Jackal (1973)

Director: Fred Zinnemann

The Day of the Jackal (1973)

A thriller like so many of its period with the distinct flavour of political paranoia, The Day of the Jackal nonetheless finds director Fred Zinnemann chiefly intrigued by the more prosaic processes and practicalities involved in carrying out an assassination. Tasked with murdering President Charles de Gaulle, a killer codenamed Jackal (Edward Fox) must carefully figure every step he needs to make from quietly performing research in the British Museum Library to finally putting a bullet in the head of France’s most protected man.

It takes meticulous prep and exact material: forged documents for untraced border passage, a custom rifle built for smuggling, easy disguises for rapid identity change. As the Jackal, Fox is empty charm in a cravat, a hardened professional whose one weakness is his absolute certainty of success, so cocksure that he continues with the mission even after being told that coppers Michel Lonsdale and Derek Jacobi are on his tail.

The Killer (1989)

Director: John Woo

The Killer (1989)

The doves fly as freely as the bullets in The Killer, arguably the finest of action maestro John Woo’s gun operas and an explicit homage to the tough-guy cinema that inspired him. Chow Yun-fat stars as Ah Jong, a hitman of near-superhuman gunslinging abilities who accidentally blinds singer Jennie (Sally Yeh) in a shootout at a nightclub. Vowing to pay for surgery to restore Jennie’s sight, Ah Jong takes a high-fee ‘one last job’ that inevitably spirals out into bloody mayhem on the streets of Hong Kong.

Woo having embarked upon the shooting of the picture with only a treatment to hand, The Killer has the energy of a film made on instinct, a kinetic jumble of its director’s influences (Scorsese, Melville, spaghetti westerns) with a resident’s eye for dynamic Hong Kong locations. Picking one standout setpiece is tough, but the climax, in which Ah Jong, making his final stand in a church, fights back a horde of enemies in a Peckinpah-esque symphony of violence, is hard to top.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Pulp Fiction (1994)

To breathe new life into the crime genre as Pulp Fiction did in the 90s, Quentin Tarantino first borrowed from many other films. Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) are hired guns for the LA Mob and enjoy banal chit-chat that recalls Marvin and Gulager’s in The Killers. They pursue a mysterious glowing suitcase that’s pure Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and, respectively, lift their dance moves from Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part (1964) and a speech based on a nonexistent Bible passage from 1973 martial arts picture Karate Kiba.

Vincent and Jules helped to popularise postmodern cinematic criminals, characters not just conscious of movie history but themselves knowingly part of it (“Let’s get into character”, Jules tells Vincent at one point, before they proceed to slaughter a room full of people). Which isn’t to suggest that Pulp Fiction’s brotherly assassins are mere pastiche; Vincent and Jules are among Tarantino’s more complex and human creations, ruthless killers capable of finding love or having crises of faith, and who in their downtime just want to gossip and talk about all the ways McDonald’s is different in Europe.

Collateral (2004)

Director: Michael Mann

Collateral (2004)

Set over one night in the director’s favoured urban sprawl, Michael Mann’s Collateral – part high-concept thriller, part study in mid-2000s Los Angeles nightlife – sees LA cabbie Max (Jamie Foxx) forced at gunpoint to escort Vincent (Tom Cruise) throughout the city, with each stop another target on the killer’s list. Bathed in the fuzzy nocturnal ambience of digital-era Mann, Collateral’s LA teems with light and life, while also seeming so desolate and disconnected that a travelling hitman might feasibly slip in, commit a series of murders and slip out again unnoticed on a morning flight out of LAX.

Painting one of Mann’s hyper-professional existentialists in strange colours, Tom Cruise confirms he’s a once-in-a-generation movie star who’s paradoxically always at his best playing characters with a dash of villainy. His Hollywood glamour dimmed by a hair and suit combo coloured gun-metal grey, Cruise brings to Vincent the ironclad self-assurance, laser-focus and almost alien blankness of a man who’s successfully moulded himself into a walking weapon-for-hire.

Kill List (2011)

Director: Ben Wheatley

Kill List (2011)

Folk horror meets gritty crime flick in Kill List, Ben Wheatley’s altogether British hitman movie in which a vein of pagan evil is uncovered in austerity-era Britain. Though still haunted by an unspecified job in Kyiv eight months prior, family man and former soldier Jay (Neil Maskell) is convinced by partner Gal (Michael Smiley) to help him execute a list of three names. Leaving behind his wife and son, the emotionally unstable Jay joins Gal on the road for what both wrongly believe will be a straightforward assignment.

Tinged with the occult from the moment the client cuts Jay’s hand for an apparent blood contract, the job only becomes stranger as priests, snuff movies and a dead cat are all thrown into the mix. A film that begins as a kitchen sink drama throbbing with the promise of violence descends by its end into full-bore Wiccan horror, the nightmare in Jay’s mind having taken hold in his waking world as well.

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