“It is the manner of death that reveals the importance of a man. Ordinary people are murdered while extraordinary people are assassinated.” - Ashwin Sanghi, author
The concept of assassination is not a recent one. It would be nearly as old as civilization itself. For the deliberate killing, often of those in power, but also of individuals who are obstacles to those in power, is an essential part of politics, and the politics of life itself.
Black’s Law Dictionary (the most trusted law dictionary in the U.S.A.) defines assassination as, “Murder committed for hire, without provocation or cause of resentment given to the murderer by the person upon whom the crime is committed.”
The word is most likeliest to have been derived from 'Hashshashin', a lethal and feared suicide squad founded by a Persian missionary Hassan-i Sabbah (1050s-1124). It was rumoured that the warriors were indoctrinated using hashish (from the cannabis plant) but this appears to be just that, a rumour.
The earliest documented use of the term in literature is assumed to be by William Shakespeare in Macbeth: “If it were done, when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly. If th' assassination could trammel up the consequence, and catch with his surcease, success: that but this blow might be the be-all and the end-all—here, but here, upon this bank and shoal of time, we'd jump the life to come.”
No matter what the etymology, it is not as interesting as an assassin's emotional ability to kill another human in cold-blood, in a non combat situation, especially when it is with a pure financial motive. After all, humans are not hard wired to take a life, unless under provocation, in duress, for a higher cause or in a war.
Studies done have shown that the most successful assassins are the ones who depersonalize the killing by treating it as just a job and dehumanize the victim as a target. They are thus able to effectively conceal their feelings. A difference can be made here from serial killers who are mostly motivated by the high that they get from the killings and may not be as bothered by the possible risks. Whereas a contracted killer is in it for the money and so will minimize the risk and thus maximize profit. Like a businessman. Yes, man. It is rare, though not impossible, to find female assassins, though you might not believe it after watching Quentin Tarantino's “Kill Bill” (2003-2004).
It is also a life of solitude. Professional assassins, the ones who would contract killings for a living, and do nothing else, would have to be highly skilled, organized, experienced, intelligent and careful. Only a government would be able to afford them, and not just monetarily. And so it would be a profession that could ill-afford to be tied down by relations. A good cinematic example is “The American” (2010) by Anton Corbijn, where George Clooney plays one such assassin who kills his lover without blinking an eye when he realizes that his identity is in endangered.
That brings us to the fascination that we have with assassins, especially from an art point of view. Most of us would have wanted or wished to kill at least one person, and would have wondered what would it be like to do so, or to hire someone for a hit. And while we would hopefully never bring those thoughts to fruition, such fiction perhaps helps to satiate this dark side. And there are some fantastic films for just that.
One of the earliest successes was “The Patriot” (1928). A silent, it was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and based on two plays: Paul I by Dmitry Merezhkovsky and The Patriot by Ashley Dukes (which in turn was from the novel Der Patriot by Alfred Neumann). The story is about an 18th-Century Russian Czar who is assassinated by his trusted Count and who in turns is then killed. It won the Academy Award for Screenplay and was nominated for Best Picture, Director and Actor.
But perhaps one of the finest and most influential films of this genre is “Le Samouraï” (The Samurai, 1967), a French-Italian film by Jean-Pierre Melville. The opening shot starts with the title: There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle... Perhaps... Bushido (Book of the Samurai). This cult classic is considered amongst the The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema, with a 100% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes, and has inspired many film-makers, including John Woo, who acknowledged the same in an essay for a DVD release of his film, “The Killer” (1989), as well as Jim Jarmusch, who's iconic “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” (1999) stares Forest Whitaker as a Samurai-Code following lone-wolf.
Another brilliant film of that era is “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962) by John Frankenheimer. Starring Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh, the story is about the brainwashing of the son from an influential US political family in order to assassinate the presidential nominee. Critically and commercially successful, it was nominated for two Academy Awards, was selected in 1994 for preservation as being 'culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant' and has a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
And “The Day of the Jackal” (1973) by Fred Zinnemann, based on the novel by the same name, and about a professional assassin who's contracted to kill the French president. Extremely well received at the box office, it also got wide critical acclaim with six BAFTA nominations, two Golden Globe nominations, and one nomination at the Oscars.
And one last but not the least in any way, is the cult “Pulp Fiction” (1994) by Quentin Tarantino, and written by Tarantino and Roger Avary. Starring John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as hit-men, along with Uma Thurman and Bruce Willis, the film picked up seven Academy nominations, winning Original Screenplay, as well as the Palme d'Or at Cannes. It was also listed in the top 10 films of all times by Empire Magazine and has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
There are of course a couple more must watch films, some of which are: Luc Besson's “Léon: The Professional” (1994), Sam Mendes' “Road to Perdition” (2002), Michael Mann's “Collateral” (2004), the Coen brother's “No Country for Old Men (2007) and Martin McDonagh's “In Bruges” (2008).
Which is your favourite assassin film? Tell us in the comments below...