Warren Beatty's new film "Bulworth" represents a fascinating combination of the old and the new. While the image of a rap-spouting white politician may be fresh, in both senses of the word, the plot is largely carried by a device that's almost as old as the movies. With hundreds of crime fiction writers engaged in a constant struggle to come up with a new variation on the old formulas, it was inevitable that someone would eventually hit upon the idea of a character committing suicide by hiring a paid assassin and identifying himself as the target. Moviemakers rapidly picked up on the conceit and have been ringing the changes on it ever since. If you want to see how earlier films made use of the premise, look for these titles on home video.
"Flirting With Fate" (1916). The pedigree of this venerable plot device extends all the way back to the early silent film era, providing the storyline for this Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., vehicle. The elder Fairbanks is best remembered today as the originator of the swashbuckler genre - playing everything from a pirate to a musketeer to Zorro - but before that breakthrough he was a pretty fair comedian. Here he plays Augy Ainsworth, a starving artist who has the ill luck to be smitten by the charms of a daughter of the upper class. A friend with society connections arranges an introduction, but Augy realizes that his cause is hopeless. The young woman's family won't hear of her marrying beneath her station. Despondent, Augy hires a hit man to do him in. In the meantime, however, he learns that the woman of his dreams does fancy him after all. On top of that, it seems that a rich relative has passed away, leaving him a tidy fortune. All is well, except that now Augy has to find a way to elude the man who's trying to conclude the contract by concluding Augy's newly revitalized life. You're not likely to find this title sitting on the shelf down at the corner video store, but it is available from the Facets Video mail order catalog (1-800-331-6197).
"The Odd Job" (1978). Graham Chapman of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" plays the luckless protagonist in this variation on the suicide by proxy theme. Chapman also co-wrote the script, which recasts the old Fairbanks premise as the sort of dark comedy that seems to be a specialty of English comics. Chapman's character is Arthur Harris, an insurance executive bent on suicide but lacking the nerve. He hires a fellow who does odd jobs to take on the task of ending his life, cautioning the man that he should pay no attention to any last minute pleas for mercy. He is to carry out the assignment no matter what Arthur might say to him later. Inevitably, Arthur subsequently changes his mind. Knowing that he will never be able to convince his hit man that the job is off, the only remaining option is to get away from him.
"Grace Quigley" (1985). The Brits may be the traditional masters of black comedy, but this American variation on the rent-a-suicide theme goes Chapman one better. Katharine Hepburn stars as an old woman who persuades a professional hit man (Nick Nolte) to put her out of the misery of being elderly and alone in the world. She has no money with which to hire him, but by catching him in the act of killing her landlord she is able to blackmail him into taking her on as both client and victim. But before the contract is carried out, she decides that this service ought to be made available to some of her elderly acquaintances as well. Soon, Nolte's character finds himself agreeing to end the lives of a whole string of lonely and destitute senior citizens. Director Anthony Harvey and screenwriter A. Martin Zweiback use the suicide by proxy premise as the basis for a sardonic commentary on the plight of the elderly in our increasingly uncaring society.
It seems that the progression of this theme from "Flirting With Fate" to "Bulworth" has been an evolution from lighthearted comedy to increasingly dark comedy. In Fairbanks's time, such a notion was still silly enough to inspire belly laughs. Now, in the age of Kevorkian, the best we can manage is a rueful, ironic chuckle.