Execution Style: 5 Memorable Death Sentences in Movies

When characters are sentenced to death in movies, it’s usually a big deal. Directors often shoot the scene with a lot of heart and feeling, and even if it’s a serial killer that’s being put out of his misery, it’s hard not to feel some sort of emotion. Here are five of my personal favourites, in no particular order:

NB: Spoilers Ahead!

1: John Coffey, The Green Mile (1999)

The culmination of three intense hours of spiritual revelation, lighthearted comedy and dark discoveries is a poignant, heartbreaking scene in which an innocent man is put to death for the murder of two girls. Paul Edgecomb’s narrated monologue which follows is equally as saddening as the scene in question itself:

2: Selma, Dancer in the Dark (2001)

In Lars von Trier’s Palme D’Or-winning film, we meet Selma (Björk), a naive woman who comes to America with hopes of starring in musicals and saving her son from blindness, but only ends up double-crossed, alone and sentenced to death. Her inevitable hanging at the end of the film is one of the saddest scenes in the history of film, and definitely the best on this list. Excuse me, I have something in my eye…

3: Gordon Northcott, Changeling (2008)

Okay, well this guy had it coming. A serial killer with a seed of murderous rage inside him, Northcott may just be a very sick man, but nevertheless, his confession to the murder of dozens of children is as chilling as his eventual hanging. While the hanging scene itself might be a tad overdone, it’s certainly memorable and worthy of this list.

4: Matthew Poncelet, Dead Man Walking (1995)

Poncelet may or may not be a killer, but you can’t deny that he did not deserve death. The long-awaited sequence in which he is given the lethal injection, is one of the most chilling sequences of death I’ve ever seen. When it’s over, we don’t feel sad or overcome with grief, no, it is more like disbelief that such a thing has just happened so slowly, yet subtly.

5: The Scapegoats, Paths of Glory (1957)

The inevitable execution scene in Stanley Kubrick’s war masterpiece is incredibly brief. It lasts probably only a second, and that is not because the director quickly cuts away from it. We are shown the brutal murder of three innocent soldiers by firing squad. They are shot dozens of times within seconds and their screaming lasts such a small time that we can’t believe it has actually happened. This is an incredibly wise choice by Kubrick, as it punctuates the haunting reality of just how common and careless murders were in those times.

A video of the scene, which is worth watching, can be found here.

So there, those are my top five picks. Anything you’d like to add? Any comments you’d like to make on my choices? Leave a comment below.


About Tyler

Patient observer of all things film and music, from Béla Tarr to Boards of Canada. Foul mouthed and clinging to the edge of sanity.

Posted on July 18, 2011, in Lists, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. I goes it is no surprise that I have only seen 2 on this list. I am a shocker. I thought I knew films but I am constantly reminded that my vision is so tunnelled that I hardly notice other stuff around me.

    I love the Green Mile. I am feeling the tears welling up now just thinking about it!!

    Great post my friend!!

  2. I know this is going to be a bit cliche, but the murder of Luca Brazzi in The Godfather, Part I still resonated after all these years. And the murders at the end of the film during the baptism scene were also brilliant.

    • You have a point there, but for this particular post I wanted to just have ‘legal’ murders, aka murders committed by law. If I had just murders in general, the list would be endless and pointless.

      • Yo Tyler!

        My apologies. Just went back and re-read the title of your post and realized my mistake. All I can say is… Woops!


  3. Hi, Tyler and company:

    I’m kind of old school when it comes to cinematic executions. I usually fall back to Robert Blake’s reflected tears off a rainy window wind-up to his trip to the gallows and being hanged in ‘In Cold Blood’.

    The scene where James Cagney is being taken to the Electric Chair in ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’ is also not to be missed.

    I also like Marv’s first failed attempt at electrocution in ‘Sin City’. Quickly followed by another that works.

    For all you fans of Sam Peckinpah’s slow-motion violence. There’s a scene in ‘The Killer Elite’ with Robert Duvall, a silenced .22 Colt Woodsman and the side of an unsuspecting defector, Helmut Dantine’s head that looks just a bit too real for film.

    • Thanks for your suggestions, Jack.

      I desperately need to see Angels with Dirty Faces. And The Killer Elite. But I’m sure the scenes in question are brilliant.

  4. Green Mile always hits hard. And the execution in Breaker Morant always gets me, too–“shoot straight you bastards, don’t make a mess of it.”

  5. “The Executioners Song” starring Tommy Lee Jones. I’ll always remember his last words before being shot by the firing squad….”let’s do it” also cannot forget Mel Gibson as William Wallace with the courage to remain sober during his execution in “Braveheart”

    • Will definitely check that first one out. Braveheart is a movie I’ve always shied away from, I really need to give it another shot. Thanks for commenting, Markus.

  6. I went nuts for “Dead Man Walking” when I was 19. I even wrote a paper about it for a “Perceptions of Death” course I had in college- the way that all of the individual characters were dealing with the issues at play.

    There’s a great movie starring Timothy Spall called “Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman”. There’s not really any one memorable execution scene but there are definitely a lot of execution scenes.

  7. There really are a heap of movies with execution scenes when you think about it. Any western worth it’s salt has a good ol’ fashion hangin’ scene but few are truly memorable with the exception of the recent True Grit which differs from the original film. I never read the book despite my desire to so I don’t know how it is depicted there, but I can only imagine the abrupt and uncerimonious execution of the native cut short of his last words is purely Coen magic. (I laughed out loud in a quiet cinema)

    Um… Braveheart. “FREEDOOOOOOOOOOOOOM” ring any bells? (Sorry forgot you havn’t seen one of the most reference scenes in modern cinematic history.)

    The most memorable attempted execution – Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

    • The True Grit scene is still fresh in my memory, and you’re right about the native… only Joel and Ethan would dare to do that in the swarm of political correctness that’s invading Hollywood.

      I’m planning on seeing Braveheart next week. I’m sure the scene is brilliant.

      Hahaha, seriously? Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Well, maybe…

      • I know it’s maudlin but it’s pretty grim when the only innocent woman in prison is the one that gets the noose in ‘Chicago.’ It’s nicely executed (pun intended) with the vanishing act.

        I never joke about Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It is (in my opinion of course) Zemeckis’ best film and the best live action/animation mix to date. I would hope you have seen it, if not…well…sad face.

    • I have seen WFRR many times, and it’s a childhood favorite of mine. “Damn ‘toons.”

  8. You left out one of my favorites, one of the grittiest, greatest performances in one of the most gripping (and best-titled!) movies ever–Susan Hayward in I Want to Live! It’s an indisputable high point of 1950s American cinema (and based on a true story). Perhaps the most understated and chilling scene is when the prison guards calmly undertake the preparation of the gas chamber, like they were merely part of a surreal nature documentary. It’s hard to believe that the director is the same guy (Robert Wise) who went on to make The Sound of Music a decade later.

  9. Also: The final white-out scene (Ed Crane’s execution) in The Man Who Wasn’t There is handled with typical Coen originality and brilliance.

    • Japecake, you put me to shame with your intelligence. I have not seen I Want to Live (or The Sound of Music, for that matter) but now it’s high up on my watchlist. I have, however, seen The Man Who Wasn’t There, and agree with you on that one.

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