This article is part of Tropes Week, in which we’re exploring our favorite tropes from cinema history. Read more here.
Picture this: The year is 1491. The location is Prague. A priest is leading a protest outside of a local town hall, demanding prisoners to be released from custody. A rock then emerges from the window of the building and hits the priest. Understandably, the holy man and his posse are pissed off, so they enter the town hall, grab the judge and members of the council, and throw them out of the windows.
Although there had been several incidences of defenestration before that riotous event, known as the Defenestration of Prague, coined the term. Centuries later, it’s also now a cinematic trope. From the days of silent films to modern blockbusters, scenes in which people are thrown out of windows have been commonplace in motion pictures, and they have been used for a variety of purposes.
Sometimes these scenes are the culmination of a brawl between a hero and a villain, with windows proving to be the deciding factor between a victory and a loss. Other times, they’re the result of a sudden act of aggression, usually carried out by an antagonist to establish their cruelty toward other human beings.
In some cases, defenestration is accidental because people are just clumsy and fall through windows sometimes. This is called self-defenestration, and it also applies to scenes depicting people purposely throw themselves out of windows — either as a means to escape from a perilous situation, or because they’ve had enough of life and want to end it on their own terms.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at some great defenestration scenes that are notable for unique reasons. This isn’t a “best of” or “coolest” list, per se; instead, the aim is to explore what makes these moments stand out from the pack when they’re put up against their counterparts. Enjoy.
Sherlock Jr. (1924)
No list about people falling out of windows would be complete without Buster Keaton. As one of cinema’s pioneering stunt performers, he was no stranger to crashing through glass, and he put his life on the line every single time.
In Sherlock Jr., Keaton comes flying off a motorcycle and straight through a window. This scene is a great example of a reverse-defenestration, which involves performers crashing through a window from the outside. It’s not defenestration in the common sense, but the scene deserves to be celebrated for paving the way for the abundance of window-smashing stunts that came after.
For a more traditional defenestration scene featuring the legendary performer, Three on a Limb sees him tossed out of a window onto a fire escape. Compared to some of Keaton’s other stunts, the scene is very tame. But that doesn’t make it any less commendable. Without Keaton putting himself through hell to entertain moviegoers, action cinema wouldn’t be the same today.
L’Age D’Or (1930)
While defenestration scenes tend to be violent, they rarely incite societal outrage. In this surrealist comedy from Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel, however, the trope was employed as a way to stick it to the Catholic Church and powerful people who oppose sexual freedom.
The scene features a bishop being tossed out of a window, which, in 1930, wasn’t exactly deemed acceptable and easy to overlook among good, God-fearing moral folk. That said, it’s one of many notable moments in the movie that resulted in it being trashed by the right-wing press and banned in several countries for decades.
The bishop doesn’t die after landing on the ground outside, nor is the scene one of the coolest in the grand pantheon of cinematic defenestrations. However, it made a bold statement about the destructive value systems that are inherent within religious institutions. Whether you agree with its message or not, there’s no denying that the scene got its point across.
The Exorcist (1973)
Of all the self-executed defenestrations in the history of cinema, this is by far the most powerful. Usually, suicide is depicted as the ultimate form of hopelessness, an escape from life’s torment when there’s no reason to go on. In the case of Damien Karras (Jason Miller), though, he takes his own life in order to save the soul of a child.
In the scene, the priest convinces the demon who’s possessing Regan (Linda Blair) to leave her body and enter his instead. When the hellspawn accepts his invitation, he hurls himself out of the nearest window and plummets to his death via a set of concrete stairs.
It’s a powerful ending, both tragic and uplifting. Self-sacrifice is an admirable trait in a human being. There’s an emotional weightiness to this scene that few other movie defenestrations have been able to capture since, which is why it’s one of the most memorable of the bunch.
Gremlins is the best horror-comedy of all time. Even if you disagree with this statement, you can at least admit that it’s a special movie. There are several scenes that make Joe Dante’s festive frightmare a classic, but the one in which the titular pint-sized creatures wire an old lady’s stairlift so that it launches her out of an upstairs window is quality cinema.
Defenestration is often used for comedic effect in movies, but this scene is the only example where tiny monsters — dressed in adorable winter scarves and holiday hats — cause an old-age pensioner to go flying with a device that’s supposed to help her move around. Not only is it hilarious, but it’s also one of the most original window-shattering scenes you’re ever likely to see.
Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
Throwing people out of windows is frowned upon by the law. If any of us had to do this to someone in real life, the police would at least ask us a few questions about the incident. In Beverly Hills Cop, however, Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) is arrested after being thrown out of a window by some office security guards.
The best part of the scene is that the goons could have opened the doors next to the window and tossed him onto the street without damaging any property. They wanted to rough him up, though, and hurling a human being through a glass surface is a powerful method of accomplishing that.
Of course, the funniest part of the scene is when the cops show up and accuse Foley of disturbing the peace. He responds by saying: “Disturbing the peace? I got thrown out of a window! What’s the fucking charge for getting pushed out of a moving car, huh? Jaywalking?” The whole scene is gold, but Murphy’s comedic timing makes it special.
One popular method of sending someone out of a window doesn’t even require physically grabbing them. Sometimes all it takes is a loaded gun. In RoboCop, the titular law enforcement machine decides to relieve the corrupt corporate figurehead Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) of his duties by blasting him out of a skyscraper window, causing him to fall to his demise with a loud scream.
This was a common trope in ‘80s action blockbusters. For example, Die Hard’s Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) is disposed of in a similar fashion. John McTiernan’s classic features the more iconic defenestration scene, but RoboCop makes the cut because this moment is a big middle finger to corporate corruption. On top of that, Murphy/RoboCop (Peter Weller) earns his revenge after being murdered and brought back as a slave to the man.
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Joel and Ethan Coen’s tale of corporate mobility revolves around a nobody (played by Tim Robbins) who suddenly becomes the president of a massive company. His appointment comes after the previous president, Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning), steps down from his position — by jumping out of a 44-story window during a board meeting.
This defenestration scene is noteworthy because it completely skews corporate power structures. Furthermore, Durning running across a table and leaping out of a window is a memorable sight. The best part comes after his character’s death, however, when the other board members immediately get on with the business of replacing him with someone they can control. They barely even react to the tragedy that just took place before their eyes.
These suits only care about staying on top, and when their time is up, jumping out of a window is more appealing than a life without power.
Villains often throw their own people out of windows whenever those people let their side down. These scenes are effective because they highlight just how easy it is for the bad guy to take a human life while also declaring that failure and disagreements will not be tolerated.
The cruelest example of one of these scenes happens in Braveheart, when King Edward Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan) grabs his son’s friend — and implied lover — and throws him out of a castle window. Why? Because he spoke to the king while His Highness was on the verge of snapping.
The scene is also effective because it shows that the king is ashamed of his son and doesn’t care about his feelings. Victory and power are the only things that matter. No other defenestration scene out there exemplifies authoritarian cruelty as brilliantly as this savagery.
The Night Comes for Us (2018)
If you want to see the art of defenestration at its most insane and brutal, then Indonesian action movies have you covered. In The Raid: Redemption, the hero, Rama (Iko Uwais), pulls a criminal goon out of an apartment window and uses his body to break his fall on a balcony below. That scene merits a mention, but there’s an even better one from a similar movie that deserves your attention.
In The Night Comes For Us (which also stars Uwais), a character named Bobby (Zack Lee) slits an assassin’s throat on the shards of a broken window during an apartment brawl. Afterward, he thwarts an incoming attacker by flipping him over his shoulder, causing him to fall on a concrete block below and most certainly die a physically broken man.
The Night Comes for Us boasts the ugliest and nastiest defenestration scene out there, and I mean that as a compliment. The brawl in question is the epitome of cinematic chaos, and the window drop is merely one small moment in a riot that just keeps going until no one is left standing.