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Gene Siskel was fond of a movie cliche he called "The Climbing Killer Syndrome." This described the mysterious compulsion that forces killers to flee upwards instead of sideways. If you climb to the top of a building, scaffold, tower, mountain, etc., your escape options relentlessly narrow. In movies like this, you should avoid the roof at all costs, because the plot will inevitably have you clinging by your fingertips to a vertiginous perch above the street far below.

Included by Roger Ebert in his Book of Hollywood Clichés under the name Fallacy of the Climbing Villain.

A villain pursued by the good guys comes to a tall tower, steeple, stairwell or building. He starts to climb. This would clearly lead to his getting trapped at the top, like a cat treed by a dog. An occasional person in a state of panic may have done this on instinct, but for a criminal mastermind it is unlikely. To do this after one sees what happens to climbing villains is also a clear case of Genre Blindness.

Ebert could just as easily have called this one The Fallacy of the Following Hero, as when a villain trees himself at the top of a building or other high place, instead of just staking out the bottom and waiting for him to come down, the hero has to go up after him. If it's a dangerous climb, the hero will probably drop his gun on the way up and have to fight the villain with his bare hands. Even if that doesn't happen, it will be a long, scary showdown, probably with a Literal Cliff Hanger moment or two (see also Take My Hand). May involve Climbing the Cliffs of Insanity. Generally, the villain falls to his death, but occasionally the hero takes him alive, or even saves his life, and the villain agrees to come quietly.

A common subversion (that makes more practical sense) is for the villain to have a Black Helicopter revved up and ready to leave on top of whatever he is climbing. Alternatively, said helicopter can arrive Just in Time in a true Big Damn Gunship fashion and sweep him away.

During the 1980s, this trope was largely replaced by the Darkened Building Shootout.

Examples of Climbing Climax include:

Anime and Manga


  • One of the many villains to usurp the throne of The Trigan Empire was confronted by the Emperor Trigo, and actually attempted to escape by climbing his own Lady-Liberty-sized statue. Trigo followed, and only when standing on the upraised hand did the baddie think to pull a gun on him. The baddie then slipped, but Trigo caught him and brought him down to "use his genius for the good of the Empire." What a guy!
  • In Bookhunter, when library police swarm the apartment of their book thief, they find it's empty. Agent Bay realizes the apartment was only vacated a few minutes ago, and that the thief must have taken the window fire escape. Sure enough, the thief climbs up, rather than down; Bay follows, and a rooftop confrontation ensues.

Films — Live-Action

  • King Kong did this way back in 1933, treeing himself at the top of the Empire State Building, making this Older Than Television.
    • Justified in that Kong was not exactly a mastermind, and was likely operating more on jungle/mountain/island instinct than anything else.
  • Used at the climax of Tim Burton's Batman, when the Joker flees up the steps of (the surprisingly tall) Gotham Cathedral, taking Kim Basinger's Distressed Damsel (surprisingly so for a movie made in the last months of 1989 - it's like she was paid per scream) with him. Justified on the Joker's side, since he radios ahead for a helicopter pickup and thus knows he won't be trapped, and takes repeated measures to stop anyone from following. Batman's inevitable pursuit is also somewhat justified by his concern for the Joker's hostage (plus his professional familiarity with Building Swings).
  • Inverted in Blade Runner, where the hero (Deckard) flees to the roof of a building while being pursued by the replicant Roy Batty.
  • In Psycho Beach Party Chicklet flees from the murderer by climbing up a movie billboard, because they were in the middle of nowhere at night.
  • Angus in Seachd the Inaccessible Pinnacle.
  • Although it's not specifically preceded by a climb because the characters are already inside a skyscraper, Alan Rickman's character performs a rather memorable example (in slow motion no less) of this trope at the end of the Die Hard.
  • Used by a hero this time in the 2007 Transformers movie during the climactic battle at the end of the movie. Sam runs up a tall building (using an inside staircase) while carrying the Allspark, during which Megatron follows him by just bashing through the different floors. Justified because an Army Ranger radioed for a helicopter to meet him on the roof of said building. Said helicopter was then shot down by another bad guy seconds before it grabbed the Allspark from Sam.
  • Alfred Hitchcock liked this trope:
    • North by Northwest - On top of Mount Rushmore
    • The Saboteur - In the torch of the Statue of Liberty.
      • Parodied (and subverted) by The Wrong Guy - it was a miniature.
    • Vertigo - At the top of the same clock tower where the first pseudo climax occurs; justified in that the protagonist was attempting a Pull the Thread.
  • In the climax of True Lies, Eliza Dushku steals the key needed to set off the bad guy's bomb, and then runs up the stairway, trapping herself in the building, rather than down it, which would have given her a chance of escaping.
    • Cut her some slack. She's frightened and disoriented and probably not thinking clearly.
      • If she'd gone downstairs, the terrorists could have caught her and recovered the key as they had men downstairs, not up. By going up, it's true she's risking her life, but she's got a better chance of keeping the key away from them by dropping it over the side if necessary.
  • Justified in Darkman, where the agile villain explains that his father'd made him do construction work on skyscrapers early in his career. Luring Westlake to the top of a half-finished building, where he's more comfortable with the terrain than the hero, is an intentional ploy to cancel out Darkman's enraged strength and pain-resistance.
  • In White Heat, Cody Jarrett climbs to the top of a gas storage tower to escape from the police. Rather than follow him, the police just shoot him, whereupon he shoots into the tower shouting, "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" right before it explodes.
  • Used in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only, in which Bond prepares to scale a mountain to reach the monastery located at its summit (there's no other way to reach it without being detected by the bad guys). Unfortunately, the bad guys ARE guarding the cliff, and one of them nearly sends Bond plummeting to his death.
    • Also done in Goldeneye, where the climax takes place atop the giant satellite dish the villain is using to control the titular superweapon. Unlike most examples though, it's the villain that's chasing Bond (who's trying to disable the dish) rather than the other way around.
  • In Scotland, PA, the final confrontation happens on top of the local fast-food restaurant.
  • The climax of the Robert Powell version of The Thirty-Nine Steps takes place in the Clock Tower of Big Ben, where the villains have integrated a bomb into the mechanism of the clock. While Hannay hangs onto the minute hand in a desperate attempt to stop the clock, the police engage in a fire-fight with the villains who are trying to set the bomb off by hand. And the 39 steps refers to the number of steps the police and Hannay have to climb to get up to the clock tower.
  • Theater of Blood climaxes with Edward Lionheart scaling his abandoned theater hideout, late daughter/accomplice in arms, in order to give some knowingly Famous Last Words (quoting Shakespeare one last time) to the crowd below before falling to his death.
  • The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes, a film otherwise remarkably faithful to Valley of Fear, ends with Moriarty, of all people, doing this.
  • A Shout-Out occurs in the final scenes of Rocky Horror Picture Show.
  • A Justified example in The Naked City: at the climax, the exhausted and panicking murderer finds himself trapped on a bridge and starts climbing the supports in desperation. The police, wisely, don't bother following, but instead try to talk him down and then, when that doesn't work, shooting him from the ground.


  • Referenced in Robert Rankin novels; one of the four sets Private Detective Lazlo Woodbine uses is a rooftop, for climatic battles.
  • In Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, everyone and their grandmother (seemingly) climbing up the massive staircase to the top of Green Angel Tower is the buildup to the big climax at the top. It even starts below ground for several characters, as the tower descends at least as far beneath the surface as it does above.

Live-Action TV

  • In the Inspector Morse episode "Service of All the Dead", Morse pursues the murderer up a church tower. This is lampshaded in the original book; it mention that, later, Sergeant Lewis asked Morse why he didn't just lock the murderer in and call in reinforcements.
  • While the final episode of Maddigan's Quest sets this trope in motion as a trap for the heroes rather than the villains, it's largely played straight from there on in. The children make it to the top of Solis tower with the solar converter, where they are greeted by the Duke of Solis and betrayed by Timon. Maddie, Boomer and Yves arrive, and in the resulting chaos Ozul and Maska fall to their deaths, Timon reverted back to his usual self and Solis is saved.
  • Used in the Grand Finale of The Fugitive in the prelude to Kimble's showdown with the One-Armed Man at the top of the tower. You would think that, after being kicked in the head three times after as many unsuccessful attempts to follow him, he'd start to get the hint...

Professional Wrestling

  • Professional Wrestling abuses this trope in the "Hell in a Cell" gimmick match. For the uninitiated, it's a match in which the ring is entirely enclosed by a huge cage (with a roof). Ever since Mick Foley took a bump off the thing in a match with The Undertaker in 1998 (and, actually, they started on the roof that time...) a significant percentage of matches have involved the heel "escaping" by climbing the cage, and terrible, terrible things happening as a result. It's been toned down in recent years, but WWE video games still keep the trope alive by having breakable panels on the roof and specific animations for being thrown off.
    • The thing that makes the Mankind-Undertaker match a CMOA is that after 'Taker tossed Foley off, Foley managed to get back up, climb the cage, and get chokeslammed through the cage.


  • Bully, fer sure.
  • A variation of this happens in Half-Life 2: Dr. Breen runs from his office near the top of The Citadel to the nearby Combine Portal, which he intends to use to leave Earth while simultaneously killing Freeman. Said machine slowly lifts him up to the portal via a shielded platform, and you basically have to reach the apex before him and shut the gateway before he escapes. By that point, you're very high above City 17.
  • The opening video of Baldur's Gate is build around this trope, only that it's (apparently) a hero who is chased to the top of the tower by a villain, only to be promptly thrown all the way back down. Is Sarevok Badass or is he Badass?
  • The video game Mirror's Edge features the final level, the Shard, the tallest building in the city. In a bit of a variation, protagonist Faith isn't necessarily chasing the villain to the top of the tower - at this point, she still doesn't know who the real villain is - but when she inevitably gets to the top of the tower, the Bad Guy jumps into a helicopter to fly away.
  • In the climax of Final Fantasy XII, Princess Ashe is first tasked by the Occuria to cut a shard of the Sun-Cryst to destroy The Empire and take back her kingdom. To reach it, she must climb the hundred-floor Pharos Lighthouse, atop which the Sun-Cryst—and many revelations of herself, the Occuria, and her enemies—reside.
    • Furthermore, at the final outcome of the story, the party infiltrates Sky Fortress Bahamut and pursues Vayne to the topmost balconies, confronting him in one Final Battle.
  • The lighthouses in both Golden Sun games.
  • Donkey Kong ?
  • The original Max Payne subverted it with the last level, where Max ascends to the roof of a skyscraper, only for the Big Bad to board a helicopter. Armed helicoper. The sequel plays it straight, however.
  • Justified in Dragon Age, where the Big Bad is a giant flying demon-possessed dragon god, so it makes sense for the heroes to climb to the top of the highest building in the city and confront him there.


  • In the movie-within-a-comic "Man on the Border" in Nip and Tuck, the villain and the hero (played by Nip) end up in a desperate struggle on the catwalks in the roof of the Astrodome. Justified by the fact that the villain, thwarted in releasing a biotoxin through the fire sprinkler systems, was taking a distant second alternative by tossing the vials from the catwalk onto the crowds below...

Western Animation