En garde!

A chain-mail grab bag of great movie blades

Screenwriter Steven DeSouza, who wrote the scripts for such action opuses as Commando and the Die Hard pictures, summarizes the lasting appeal of blade weapons in movies with the succinctness of a letter opener to the throat.

"Not many people have been shot or blown up," he says, "so when they see that kind of thing happen in a movie, they probably view it as spectacle and don't make an emotional connection. But knives are more personal. We've all cut ourselves at some point. So when somebody onscreen pulls a knife on the hero, you shudder, because you remember that nasty incident that happened to you in the kitchen that time."

Here, then, is a cutlery drawer full of beloved movie knives, as chosen by Observer critics, moviemakers, and other folks with too much trivia on the brain. Contributors were asked to name their favorite classic movie knife or knife-related scene, and their favorite modern one.

Steven DeSouza, screenwriter-filmmaker. Recent: The climactic knife fight in Commando. Classic: The 1968 historical horror film The Conqueror Worm, in which Vincent Price plays a sadistic and obsessive witch hunter scouring England during the time of Oliver Cromwell to exterminate supernatural enemies. Price's main henchman uses a dagger to test potential witches by jabbing them over and over to find the telltale spot on the body where witches feel no pain. "So of course, the henchman jabs and pokes possible wizards and witches until they're near death and can't scream anymore," DeSouza says, "and they finally poke him and he doesn't move, and they go: Aha! We found the spot!"

Rowdy Herrington, director of Roadhouse and Jack's Back. Recent: The knives designed by Jack Crain for use in Roadhouse. Classic: Alan Arkin's switchblade from Wait Until Dark. "That part where he's wounded, and he sticks the knife into the floor and uses it to drag himself along toward Audrey Hepburn," Herrington says. "Man!"

Joel Silver, action film impresario. Classic: "The scene in Chinatown when Roman Polanski slits Jack Nicholson's nostril with the switchblade. You know how they did that? They had a plastic tip on the end of the knife, and it was hollowed out and filled with fake blood, so that when Polanski moved the blade, the tip popped and the blood went all over Jack's face. That was a really jolting effect." Recent: Arnold pinning a soldier to a tree with his machete in Predator and telling him to 'stick around.' "That scene sort of defined everything that kind of action film was about," Silver says. "I loved it. It was a really '80s scene, and it was parodied later in a lot of other movies. My favorite is that scene in I'm Gonna Get You Sucka where Keenan Ivory Wayans beats the guy up with a piece of meat and says, 'Sorry to bust your chops!'"

Matt Zoller Seitz, Observer film critic. Classic: The carving knife in Psycho, for the panache with which the villain wields it. And, of course, for the kitchenware store full of cinematic knockoffs it inspired. Recent: The awesomely silly triple-bladed magic broadsword hefted by Lee Horsley in the little-seen low-budget exploitation fantasy The Sword and the Sorcerer. Distinguishing features include the ability to shatter the swords of punier, less manly opponents; a dagger hidden in the hilt; and the ability to fire off the side blades like rockets to impale fleeing foes.

Jimmy Fowler, Observer film critic. Recent: The straight razor toted by the psychopathic stalker in Dressed to Kill. Classic:From Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, the huge sword hired warrior Toshiro Mifune never goes anywhere without.

Bill Robinson, Observer copy editor. All-time favorite: The scene in The Long Riders where David Carradine puts the big Bowie knife into Belle Starr's boyfriend's quadriceps. The intense closeness of the fight--each man keeps one end of Belle's shawl clenched between his teeth; the flush of arousal on her now bare shoulders; the sound of the knife going in--not wet, but like a trowel jabbed into drying cement; the way the wound, though obviously not fatal, unequivocally stops the fight; the knife left standing in the man's thigh like some grotesque, misplaced penis; and the palpable, blossoming shock on the man's face as the camera, the action, and our attention move on have been indelibly etched into my psyche.

 
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