Pure Heart Attack: Are Cardiac Arrest Movie Scenes Different After You’ve Suffered One Yourself?

In August, I had a heart attack. Although middle-aged, the doctors assured me that I am a bit young for such a thing, but still there were so many good reasons for mine that my heart incident could hardly be called “unexplainable. “. In fact, none of the doctors or nurses I dealt with at the hospital – and there were many – ever told me exactly what they believed to be the cause. It was as if my life choice offered so many viable candidates that even the professionals could zero in on whoever was leading the troops.

But for my part, I can say that I did NOT expect to have a heart attack. To begin with, I realized I was having a heart attack in such a mundane way – I got up to go to the bathroom, and by the time I got there I was out of breath, my two arms felt what I can only describe as a painful numbness, and it felt like someone (and I’m guessing it was me) was slowly sliding a sharp knife into my chest. Ironically, if I had only felt the chest pains, excruciating as they were, I probably would have come to a different conclusion; it was the severe, weird arm discomfort that made me think “I think I’m having a heart attack” (cleaning up the language a bit here). So I called 9-1-1.

When I was approached to write this article, about movies that highlight heart attacks seen through the lens of having had one myself, I of course had to think hard about movies, good and bad. , which matched the parameters, and then which of those to include. But given the era I grew up in, one movie immediately came to mind, and that was Richard Donner’s 1978 blockbuster Superman, starring Christopher Reeve. At the start of this film, Jeff East plays Clark Kent as a teenager trying to come to terms with his superpowers. At one point, feeling giddy and energetic, he playfully challenges his adoptive father Jonathan Kent (Glenn Ford) to a race from Jonathan’s truck to their house. Laughing at first, the old man plays along a bit, but then stops on the dirt road, rubs his left arm with his right hand, mutters an “Oh no” in regret, then falls dead from a heart attack. This moment had a profound impact on me as a child. It wasn’t just emotionally devastating; it also taught me, or convinced me (not that it was Donner’s purpose) that heart attack symptoms were in the arms. This is exactly where I found one of the two symptoms I was experiencing.

Now, being alive and all, you’d think I’d bounce off that scene, yelling that that’s not what heart attacks look like at all. But what do I know? I only had one. Instead, I’m forced to conclude that every heart attack is different, with each joining hands with all the heart attacks that happened before and after because of their sucking. And I find myself linked to many cinematic heart attacks, including, in some ways, what has to be the most famous heart attack in cinematic history, the one who fell Don Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola The Godfather (1972).

In this one, Don Vito (Marlon Brando) plays in his huge garden with his grandson. Much of this scene is so natural, the little boy too young to give a real performance, and so the audience is forced to conclude that he and Brando are really frolicking among the orange trees. Brando, who was only 47 at the time of filming, is of course superb; he effortlessly projects the stumbling, stooping movements of a man several decades older. Then you can see the heart attack disorientation set in. I experienced some of that, but also had quick access to a phone to make an emergency call. But audiences can barely see Don Corleone struggle with the understanding that he has no such access, before he crumbles, blurry, into the background.

Activity and physical stress are often a feature of heart attacks in movies. Not with mine, though. I was looking Choppedand before that I watched a long movie (I will forever associate Everything everywhere all at once with the greatest physical pain I have ever felt, which I could have done even without the ensuing heart attack), and I had done nothing more strenuous than walk about forty feet back and forth. During this time at The Exorcist, Father Merrin’s (Max von Sydow) heart problem is triggered by shots of him taking nitroglycerin pills, but at the end of the film, the elderly priest’s heart is put to the test. For the second time, at least, in his life, he finds himself battling an evil demon, and his poor beleaguered heart cannot stand it, and Father Karras (Jason Miller) finds him lying dead on the bedroom floor. of the possessed girl.

Perhaps the most notorious heart attack in the movie world is tied to a famous comedy, but isn’t actually in the movie. In short, in A fish called Wanda, Michael Palin’s incompetent, kind-hearted, animal-loving assassin slowly wears his elderly target’s heart and natural, albeit age-weakened, defenses to a knot by systematically, even accidentally, killing, one of his beloved dogs every time he tries to kill her until, finally, her heart gives out and she collapses dead in the street. So far, so good. However, one day in real life, an audience member, Ole Bentzen, collapsed in the movie theater while watching the film and died of his own heart attack. This happened, the doctors eventually deduced, because the man’s laughter during the hysterical comedy was so intense that the shaking of his body (along with, no doubt, other factors deemed less noteworthy ) drove his heart crazy, and that was it. Star writer John Cleese even considered using the incident in an ad campaign, betraying a sort of mercenary vapidity that Cleese eventually managed to rein in, as the campaign never materialized.

But if I’m looking for the most striking and powerful heart attacks in cinema, there are two films beyond which I need not look. First, in 1979, the film by writer-director Bob Fosse And all that has been freed. The film is a kind of autobiographical phantasmagoria, bouncing back in time and out of real, material life and the dreams and fantasies haunted by the death of superstar choreographer Joe Gideon (a jaw-dropping Roy Scheider). Apart from any shots of Gideon working and dancing, tirelessly, or drinking pills and booze, the most vital part of And all that comes when Gideon actually has his inevitable heart attack. At first, we see him unconscious in the hospital, with a jungle of tubes slipping from his arms, and ominously crouching medical machines beeping relentlessly. Soon, however, the phantasmagoria returns, and the film’s final minutes depict Gideon and Ben Vereen as O’Connor Flood performing a version of The Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” that’s both thrilling and chilling (the chorus eventually changes to “Goodbye life”). This musical number is performed in front of an audience of people from Gideon’s life, and seems almost overseen by Fosse’s version of the Angel of Death (Jessica Lange). As I said, thrilling and chilling, the final shot being of Gideon having a body bag zipper pulled mercilessly across his dead gray face.


Seen from my current point of view, the end of And all that makes my blood run colder than it’s ever been before. I want to fight against what Fosse portrays (Fosse himself died of a heart attack eight years later). But And all that looks like the movie he had lived his whole life waiting to make, and how did that have to feel? Fosse embraces the ending, because he’s definitely not about to change. If you have to go, you might as well go with a song in your heart. What a dark miracle of a film.

For me, however, the pinnacle of Heart Attack Cinema is near the end of the Coen Brothers film. The great Lebowski. Not only does the heart attack death of poor confused Donny (Steve Buscemi) come out of nowhere, but through some kind of weird chemistry, thanks to his death, the Coens are able to successfully turn their silly, hilarious, totally unserious detective films. in, briefly, a meditation on aging and the tenuous forces that separate life from death. Not only that, but when The Dude (Jeff Bridges) and Walter (John Goodman) realize Donny collapsed in the bowling alley parking lot, Donny’s physical condition now reminds me, quite uncomfortably, of mine . Buscemi’s arms are curled above his chest, his face a mask of pain, as if someone were slowly stabbing him in the heart. His breath is jerky, he can’t move. He is afraid. His friends tell him to hang on, they call an ambulance, but Donny just can’t. His heart cannot. The force of what drives Donny’s body to rebel like this has quietly built and grown, and now looms above and within him, unbeatable. Unstoppable. So much for Donny.

Of course, the heart attacks in each of these films end in the death of the character. It’s not the fate of those who have cardiac episodes in real life – I’m still here, after all – or even in the movies. But when you experience one, death seems to be the only possible end in sight. It felt almost unbelievable when I came out the other side, feeling, actually, not too bad. If you’re able to keep your head straight, you might realize that you don’t have to be Joe Gideon (or Bob Fosse, for that matter). You don’t need to start saying goodbye.

Photo: Courtesy of Bill Ryan

Bill Ryan has also written for The Bulwark, RogerEbert.com and the Oscilloscope Laboratories Musings blog. You can read his extensive archive of film and literary reviews on his blog The kind of face you hateand you can find him on Twitter: @faceyouhate

Andrea G. Henderson