It is the most famous home movie ever, and the most carefully studied image, an 8-millimeter film that captured the death of a President. The movie is just as well known for what many say it does or does not reveal, and its existence has fostered countless conspiracy theories about that day in Dallas. But no one would argue that what it shows is not utterly heartbreaking, the last moments of life of the youthful and charismatic John Fitzgerald Kennedy as he rode with his wife Jackie through Dealey Plaza.
Amateur photographer Abraham Zapruder had eagerly set out with his Bell & Howell camera on the morning of November 22, 1963, to record the arrival of his hero. Yet as Zapruder filmed, one bullet struck Kennedy in the back, and as the President’s car passed in front of Zapruder, a second one hit him in the head. LIFE correspondent Richard Stolley bought the film the following day, and the magazine ran 31 of the 486 frames—which meant that the first public viewing of Zapruder’s famous film was as a series of still images.
At the time, LIFE withheld the gruesome frame No. 313—a picture that became influential by its absence. That one, where the bullet exploded the side of Kennedy’s head, is still shocking when seen today, a reminder of the seeming suddenness of death. What Zapruder captured that sunny day would haunt him for the rest of his life. It is something that unsettles America, a dark dream that hovers at the back of our collective psyche, an image from a wisp of 26.5 seconds of film whose gut-wrenching impact reminds us how everything can change in a fraction of a moment.