Assassination has reared its ugly head throughout history. In the United States, four Presidents have died at the hands of an assassin: Abraham Lincoln (1865), James Garfield (1881), William McKinley (1901) and John F. Kennedy (1963).
Here are ten memorable movie thrillers that deal with political assassination. We begin in France...
The Day of the Jackal (Universal, 1973)
Edward Fox plays an international assassin hired by the ultra-nationalist OAS to take out President Charles de Gaulle in this classic thriller based on the 1971 novel by Frederick Forsyth. Demanding $500,000 for the job, the British hit man operates under the code name "The Jackal," methodically gathering forged documents and a specially modified lightweight rifle with telescopic sight. French authorities are on to the Jackal, who opts to complete his mission despite a nationwide manhunt, deftly penetrating heavy security on Liberation Day and setting up his sniper's nest in a Paris hotel room, patiently waiting for President de Gaulle to arrive.
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Review: "Edward Fox is a very natty-looking assassin...In the supporting cast are some of the best actors in England and France, including Michel Lonsdale as a French supercop and Delphine Seyrig as a bossy baroness whom the assassin encounters en route to his date with destiny." - Vincent Canby, The New York Times (5/17/73)
On DVD: The Day of the Jackal (Universal, 1998)
Belgian movie poster: Edward Fox in The Day of the Jackal (1973)
JFK (Warner Bros., 1991)
Conspiracy is the order of the day in this highly controversial movie dramatizing the events surrounding the November 22, 1963, assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. Kevin Costner plays New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison on whose book, On the Trail of the Assassins, the film derives much of its material. Garrison conducts his own investigation into the "crime of the century," later charging New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) as one of the conspirators in the Kennedy assassination. The Vietnam War, the military-industrial complex, the CIA, the Secret Service, the FBI, organized crime and even Vice President Lyndon Johnson are trotted out in this conspiracy movie lover's paradise as possible key players in the JFK assassination. The infamous Dealey Plaza in Dallas, sight of the actual murder, was used by producers to great effect.
Director: Oliver Stone
Review: "Stone's film is hypnotically watchable. Leaving aside all of its drama and emotion, it is a masterpiece of film assembly. The writing, the editing, the music, the photography, are all used here in a film of enormous complexity, to weave a persuasive tapestry out of an overwhelming mountain of evidence and testimony." Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (12/20/91)
On DVD: JFK Director's Cut (Warner, 2003)
Executive Action (National General, 1973)
Three wealthy businessmen (Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Will Geer) launch an intricate plot to assassinate President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. Their reason: Kennedy plans to withdraw troops from Vietnam, sign a nuclear test-ban treaty with the Soviet Union and eliminate the oil depletion allowance. Writer Dalton Trumbo has crafted an absorbing screenplay, with archival footage of such real-life players as Texas Governor John Connally, Dallas strip club owner Jack Ruby, accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, Dallas police chief Jesse Curry and Jack and Jackie Kennedy deftly interwoven throughout the film. Two separate sniper teams carry out the hit in the movie, pinning the murder on "patsy" Lee Harvey Oswald, a Cuban sympathizer and an employee of the Texas School Book Depository. Robert Ryan as Foster nabs one of the best lines in the film, telling co-conspirator Burt Lancaster: "In the last two years, the Secret Service has established 149 threats against Kennedy's life from Texas alone, yet they send him into hostile territory with no more protection than you and I would arrange for a favorite dog."
Director: David Miller
Review: "...A tactful, low-key blend of fact and invention [resulting in] a cool, skillful, occasionally confusing argument for conspiracy." - Nora Sayre, The New York Times (11/8/73)
On DVD: Executive Action (Warner, 2007)
The Manchurian Candidate (United Artists, 1962)
Based on the 1959 novel by Richard Condon, The Manchurian Candidate is a Cold War cinematic treasure. During the Korean War a platoon of American soldiers is captured by the enemy, who brainwash the men in a Manchurian prison. One of the soldiers, Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), has been programmed as a sleeper agent and cold-blooded assassin. Shaw is directed to kill his targets and any witnesses upon glimpsing his psychological trigger, the Queen of Diamonds playing card. Shaw's actions are intended to create chaos in the United States, resulting in the elevation to the presidency of Senator John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory), a Joseph McCarthy-type politician and vice presidential candidate who along with his wife are actually Communist agents. Along with Laurence Harvey and James Gregory, Frank Sinatra, Janet Leigh and Angela Lansbury turn in outstanding performances.
Director: John Frankenheimer
Review: "Seen today, 'The Manchurian Candidate' feels astonishingly contemporary; its astringent political satire still bites, and its story has uncanny contemporary echoes. The villains plan to exploit a terrorist act, 'rallying a nation of viewers to hysteria, to sweep us up into the White House with powers that will make martial law seem like anarchy.'" - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (12/7/03)
On DVD: The Manchurian Candidate Special Edition (MGM, 2004)
Lobby card: Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Suddenly (United Artists, 1954)
Frank Sinatra plays gangland assassin John Baron in this gripping thriller from the Red Scare era. Posing as FBI agents, Baron along with two of his henchmen commandeer the Benson home in the town of Suddenly, California, where they plan to assassinate the President of the United States at the nearby train station. Sheriff Tod Shaw (Sterling Hayden) also becomes a captive in the Benson home where he learns of Baron's cold-blooded plans. Frank Sinatra delivers an excellent performance as the apolitical hit man, who tells his hostages: "Tonight at five o'clock I kill the President. One second after five there's a new President. What changes? Nothing!"
Director: Lewis Allen
Review: "This slick exploitation feature twirls about a fantastic plot to assassinate the President of the US. Robert Bassler's first indie chore since ankling 20th-Fox comes through as a well-worked-out meller...Frank Sinatra, as a professional gunman hired to kill the President as he debarks from his special train for a few days' fishing in neighboring mountains, is an offbeat piece of casting which pays off in lively interest." - Variety
On DVD: Suddenly (Image, 2004)
Six sheet movie poster: Frank Sinatra in Suddenly (1954)
Shooter (Paramount, 2007)
Mark Wahlberg stars as Bob Lee Swagger in this tense political thriller based on the Stephen Hunter novel Point of Impact. Swagger is a retired Marine Corps sniper who is coaxed out of retirement following a botched mission in Ethiopia. Swagger is told that his assistance is needed in scouting out potential sniper sites in three American cities in order to prevent a planned assassination of the President of the United States. In Philadelphia, Swagger is on hand when he spots the assassin in a nearby church tower. Both the President and the Archbishop of Ethiopia are present, with the latter taking a bullet to the head. Events quickly spiral out of control, with Swagger's handlers turning on him. Now the fall guy for the murder, Swagger goes on the lam and tries to clear his name.
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Review: "Director Antoine Fuqua keeps the testosterone flowing in this framed-man-on-the-run thriller, and the always reliable Wahlberg comes one step closer to making everyone forget about the Marky Mark years." - Peter Hartlaub, San Francisco Chronicle (3/23/07)
On DVD: Shooter (Paramount, 2007)
In the Line of Fire (Columbia, 1993)
Clint Eastwood stars as Secret Service Agent Frank Horrigan, a haunted man who was guarding President John F. Kennedy when the latter was gunned down in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Horrigan's latest quarry is renegade CIA contract killer Mitch Leary (John Malkovich), who has taunted the agent in his bid to assassinate the current President. An extremely taut thriller, with the long ago JFK assassination casting a long shadow over the film. Rene Russo, Dylan McDermott and Gary Cole play Eastwood's Secret Service colleagues. "There's no cause left worth fighting for, Frank. All we have is the game. I'm on offense, you're on defense," Leary tells Horrigan.
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Review: "Watching Agent Frank Horrigan (Eastwood) and his clutch of Keystone Federal Kops as they attempt – against what seem to be easily surmountable odds – to track down a brilliant but deranged assassin named Leary (played with spooky delicacy by John Malkovich) is like watching Barney Fife try to pull his revolver on the old 'Andy Griffith Show.' A dumber, more hapless group of incompetents is hard to imagine. And leading the bunch is Agent Horrigan, dinosaur and living legend." - Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (7/9/93)
On DVD: In the Line of Fire Special Edition (Columbia/TriStar, 2001)
Belgian movie poster: In the Line of Fire (1993)
Guns of Zangara (Desilu Productions, 1960)
Guns of Zangara began life as "The Unhired Assassin," a two-part episode of ABC-TV's The Untouchables first telecast on February 25 and March 3, 1960. Mobster Frank Nitti (Bruce Gordon) and his gang plan to assassinate Chicago Mayor Anton J. Cermak (Robert Middleton) in Miami, hiring a hit man named Fred "Caddy" Croner (Robert Gist) whose weapon of choice is a high-powered rifle with telescopic sight. Eliot Ness (Robert Stack) and his Untouchables head to Florida to prevent the murder, where they also discover that a deranged Giuseppe "Joe" Zangara (Joe Mantell) plans to assassinate President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. William Spier authored the riveting screenplay, proving once again that the Golden Age of Television was just that. Guns of Zanagara, which was released theatrically in Europe, deftly blends fact and fiction. Regarding the former, Mayor Anton Cermak was mortally wounded by Zangara while shaking hands with FDR at Miami's Bayfront Park on February 15, 1933. Cermak later died of his wounds on March 6, 1933.
Director: Howard W. Koch
Review: "Guns of Zangara betrays its TV origins only in its limited budget and built-in 'action breaks' that had formerly accommodated commercials." - Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide
On DVD: The Untouchables - Season 1 Volume 1 (Paramount, 2007)
The Day of the Dolphin (Avco Embassy, 1973)
George C. Scott and Trish Van Devere play husband and wife scientific team Jake and Maggie Terrell, who are conducting research into dolphin communication. Financial backer Harold DeMilo (Fritz Weaver) and his shadowy Franklin Foundation confiscate the two dolphins, Alpha and Beta. Government agent Curtis Mahoney (Paul Sorvino) later learns that DeMilo and his organization plan to use the dolphins to assassinate the President of the United States. One of the dolphins will be armed with a limpet mine, delivering its deadly cargo to the Presidential yacht while the leader of the free world is on board. Way, way far out...
Director: Mike Nichols
Review: "This absurdly earnest Hollywood freakazoid is never mentioned when the '70s are hallowed, and for good reason: What is it? Post-hippie eco-thriller, ludicrous sci-fi camp-out, or irrational, sunburnt dream parody of espionage narratives? Now we can decide how we feel about George C. Scott grimly exchanging dialogue with squeakily dubbed yapping dolphins about love and loyalty." - Michael Atkinson, The Village Voice (8/12/03)
On DVD: The Day of the Dolphin (Image, 2006)
One sheet movie poster style D: The Day of the Dolphin (1973)
The Assassination Bureau (Paramount, 1969)
Based on an unfinished novel by Jack London, The Assassination Bureau stars Oliver Reed as Ivan Dragomiloff, the head of an organization that will eliminate deserving victims for a price. Journalist Sonya Winter (Diana Rigg) investigates Dragomiloff's outfit, later arranging for a hit on Dragomiloff himself. That pits the chairman against his own assassination bureau, with a wild chase ensuing in pre-World War I Europe. An odd, quirky but entertaining film from the psychedelic '60s.
Director: Basil Dearden
Review: "Directed with a very heavy hand by Basil Dearden, The Assassination Bureau is something of a missed opportunity. With its stellar cast, intriguing premise and high class production values, the ingredients are present for a fine slice of British satire, but Dearden clumsily alternates between 'cute' farce and bombastic slapstick." - Troy Howarth, Eccentric Cinema (8/7/04)
On DVD: The Assassination Bureau (Paramount, 2004)
Ten More Assassination Movie and Film Favorites
- The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
- Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005)
- The Night of the Generals (1967)
- Collateral (2004)
- Assassins (1995)
- The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
- Valkyrie (2008)
- The Parallax View (1974)
- Blade Runner (1982)
- The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
One sheet movie poster: The Parallax View (1974)
- All images courtesy Heritage Auctions, Dallas, Texas
Copyright © 2013 William J. Felchner. All rights reserved.