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Not Like the Movies: Study Kills Myths About Hit Men

In the movies hit men are suave, sophisticated and cold blooded, but a new study has shown the reality is rather different.
Image: Jean Reno plays Léon in a scene from the 1994 film 'The Professional'.
Jean Reno plays an assassin in the 1994 film "Leon: The Professional."Columbia Pictures / Everett Collection

In movies they’re often suave, sophisticated, cold-blooded killers, professionals like John Cusack in "Grosse Pointe Blank" or Jean Reno’s Leon in "The Professional," but a new British study dispels the myths surrounding hit men.

"These images are Hollywood-ized," said Prof. David Wilson, who led a group of criminologists at Birmingham City University in the U.K. in the study. "The hit man seems like quite an attractive image that people are responding to. They are professional, very confident, hyper masculine."

While the hits in movies usually take place in smoky bars and casinos, the reality that Wilson studied was much more mundane, with hits taking place as people walked their dogs or made their way home from the store or the gym.

Image: John Cusack in "Grosse Pointe Blank"
John Cusack stars as professional hit man in the movie "Grosse Pointe Blank."Hollywood Pictures

"The hits were not in the underworld, they were in the overworld and usually with passers-by as witnesses looking on in abject horror," he said.

After poring over court case transcripts, interviewing cops, prison guards and convicted criminals, as well as reading newspaper reports, the group was able to make a number of findings.

Tuesday is the most common day of the week for a hit, while March, May and July were the common months for a hit to take place, it said. The average cost was just over $25,000, with the most paid out being $168,000.

The group was also able to categorize hit men into four unique types for the study, which was published in The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice (PDF). They are:

The Novice

Inexperienced and slightly immature, Colin Farrell’s Ray in the 2008 movie "In Bruges" is a good example of a novice - albeit a "Hollywood-ized" one - since he possesses none of the natural skill attributed to the profession.

Image: Colin Farrell in the movie "In Bruges"
Inexperienced and slightly immature, Colin Farrell’s Ray in the 2008 movie "In Bruges" is a good example of a novice hit man since he possesses none of the natural skill attributed to the profession.Focus Features

While the study does define a novice as a trainee or beginner killer, "this should not be interpreted as implying that the hit man was unable to plan the hit, or carry it out successfully," the study said.

"In short, novices - even very young novices – can make successful hit men," it added, citing the far more mundane example of a 16-year-old killer who was paid just over $300 to murder.

"According to the Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) attached to the case, it was viewed at the time as being the work of a 'professional,'" Wilson said, adding that the teen was only caught when he bragged about the murder to his friends.

The Dilettante

"This type of hit man does not necessarily come from an offending background and only seems to have decided to accept a contract as a way of resolving some form of personal crisis," the study read. "More often than not, this crisis was financial."

As a result, the dilettante dips into the culture of contract killing but "not necessarily with any enthusiasm or skill," it added.

Movie examples of this type of killer are sparse because these are the complete opposite of the slick, stylish killers most often portrayed on the silver screen.

Unlike the novice, dilettantes often don't come from a criminal background, meaning they use alternatives to firearms when carrying out their killings, Wilson said.

While they steel themselves for the job, they often can’t go through with it, he added, citing the example of Orville Wright, who accepted over $8,000 to kill Theresa Pitkin in 1996.

After speaking to his intended victim, Wright decided he couldn't go through with the murder and was dubbed "a hit man who lost his nerve" by the judge after he was caught.

The Journeyman

Like Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega in "Pulp Fiction," the journeyman is "someone who is capable, experienced and reliable,but not an especially exceptional performer," according to the study.

"This type of hit man will often have completed a greater number of contracts than any of the others," Wilson said. "However we do acknowledge that this sample we have developed is a sample based on failure; in other words, these are contract killers who have been captured."

Image: John Travolta, as Vincent, and Samuel L. Jackson, as Jules in Quentin Tarantino's 1994 film 'Pulp Fiction'.
John Travolta, as Vincent Vega, and Samuel L. Jackson, as Jules Winnfield in Quentin Tarantino's 1994 film "Pulp Fiction"Miramax / Everett Collection

"So successful hit men - masters, in other words - have never been captured, so the sample is skewed somewhat," he added.

The average journeyman will not have the snappy dialogue of the "Pulp Fiction" pairing, but he will have the guns.

"However it's their connection to a specific area's criminal underworld that leads to their downfall," Wilson said. "It is local intelligence that can be given to the police to bring them to justice."

The Master

"No women, no kids. That's the rules," says Leon in "The Professional," stating the quasi-moral ground that suits Hollywood so well. His strict training regime and under-the-radar lifestyle make him the ultimate contract killer.

"The master hit man would not likely be easily caught and therefore they are incredibly difficult to study," Wilson said. "It’s not like you can interview these people, but unlike the journeyman they will not be identified locally. They will go into an area, carry out the job and then leave again.

"It is pretty clear that they have a paramilitary or military background, meaning they have access to weapons, are comfortable around them and they are able to dispose of any evidence linking them to the hit."

A glimpse of how the master operates in the real world is the brutal execution of Frank McPhee in Scotland in 2000, a man popularly described as a “gangland boss,” according to the study.

McPhee was killed outside his home with a single shot to the head from a .22 rifle with a telescopic sight. He was just 1,500 feet from a police station.

"It was widely believed that McPhee was killed by a hit man to prevent him from becoming involved with the sale of drugs," the study said, citing media reports.

Wilson is particularly intrigued by this type. "We’re hoping to gain a further insight into the masters in the future," he said.