Monday, February 7, 2011

5 Great Endings

While rewatching the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men this evening, I was inspired to make a little list of great movie endings. Now, please note that this list is not titled "the 5 best endings in film" because that's stupid. My goal here is not to inspire inter film-geek shankings, it's just to point out a few films whose endings really just...*clenches fists*...Ahhh. 

So, one may ask, according to Baz, what makes a great ending? I will admit that I am a sucker for two things in particular: dramatic uncertainty and helicopter shots (which go hand in hand more often than not).  Give me a good helicopter shot of a guy wandering off into the distance and I'm like a cat getting its tummy rubbed (see: Proof of Life, The Electric Horseman). I am aware of this prejudice, so I've nixed all helicopter shots from this list because the commentary would be identical ("Look how lonely he looks! And uncertain! You can tell because he's getting smaller and smaller in the distance! It's just like LIFE!!!") I love endings that tie things up but still leave room for a bit of mixed emotion or thought at the end. In some cases, I think a fairly reasonable policy is the more neat and tidy the ending, the less you'll think about it afterward. Because really, where are endings neat and tidy except in fiction? In life, things never really end. A plot may be resolved but the story goes on.

And on that overwhelmingly poetic note, I present you with:

(in no particular order)
p.s. it should be obvious, but if you haven't seen these movies and don't want to know how they end, DON'T READ THESE. Thank you.

1. The 400 Blows
This was one instance where the ending of a movie made me fall completely in love with the rest of the film itself. I vividly remember where I was and what I was doing the first time I saw The 400 Blows. I was in my freshman Language of Film class at NYU, a class cursed with the strange Film Kid Paradox--you find yourself (you being a dorky movie lover from way back) in a class where pretty much your only task is to stay awake and watch amazing classic film after amazing classic film, but quite often you find yourself being distracted by thinking about what you'll be doing once you get home and checking your watch to see how long it is until the movie is over so you can go In essence, many film school classes are forced viewership, and that sort of situation (where you're made to watch a movie you didn't elect to view) very rarely inspires appreciation. For this reason, I think a lot of great movies get a bit neglected by film students and sometimes it takes a rewatching on a comfy couch with a good bowl of popcorn to set things straight.

Now, up until the last bit of The 400 Blows, I was stuck squarely in the middle of the Film Kid Paradox. It was dark, I was tired, I wanted to go home. I liked the movie and I thought Jean-Pierre Leaud was fascinating and immensely watchable and there were definitely bits that made me laugh. However, the movie was turning out to be a bit of a downer--this poor kid gets caught in unfortunate circumstance after unfortunate circumstance. Parents don't understand him, teachers are cruel to him, the world seems to have it in for him. I was fairly certain how it was all going to turn out for little Antoine Doinel.

And then the boy winds up in juvi. It's horrible. His parents have given up on him completely. Everything seems to have come to a horrible, grim dead end for this boy. I'm checking my watch. And then...without warning, Antoine (who is out on a soccer field with the other boys) runs after a stray ball. He chucks it back to his compatriots, then, with only a second of consideration, bolts for the fence, slithers under, and breaks free. It's only a few seconds before the guards are after him. Well, this is going to be over shortly, I thought to myself.

But then he hides beside a bridge and the school officials go past over his head. And Antoine sneaks under the bridge and begins to run. And runs. And runs. And runs. 

It's the brilliance of Truffaut that he used a single tracking shot to follow Antoine on his escape. With each passing unbroken second of film, I swear I felt like the theme from Chariots of Fire was playing in my heart, I wanted to get up, shout at the screen, pump my fist and cheer Antoine to GO! Every second I thought they were going to catch up with him, that they'd find him, that the shout would go up and they'd wrestle him down and haul him back, never to let him out again because that's how these things always end. But he didn't and they don't. Then he reaches the sea (which he has never seen before). He runs as far up to it as he can, right to where the tide is breaking. He can't go forward anymore. He can't go back. So he turns and faces the camera. His face in that frozen last frame is the embodiment of all the confusion, complexity, promise and freedom of youth. It's a stunning sequence and to this day I cannot write about it without tearing up a bit. Watching this ending for the first time remains one of the seminal film experiences of my life.

2. No Country For Old Men

For some reason, this ending aroused a lot of controversy (and still does when it's brought up among my film-minded friends) who cannot ever agree whether the ending is brilliant or whether it sucks beyond belief. In my mind, it is a perfect, deceptively simple ending. No Country tells the story of a man who comes across millions in bloody drug money, takes it, and is pursued by an almost archetypal figure of evil and death as personified by Javier Bardem, who leaves nothing but senseless, emotionless death and destruction in his wake. After the plot has resolved and almost everyone but Bardem's hit man has been killed, the sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones), the quasi-archetypal "good guy"--outwardly simple, inwardly complex, fighting a losing battle on the side of good, discouraged by the harsh face of evil he has been forced to witness, retires from his job. The final scene finds him recounting two dreams he had about his father (who was also a lawman) to his wife:

"Alright then. Two of 'em. Both had my father in 'em. It's peculiar. I'm older now then he ever was by twenty years. So in a sense he's the younger man. Anyway, first one I don't remember too well but it was about meetin' him in town somewhere, he's gonna give me some money. I think I lost it. The second one, it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin' through the mountains of a night. Goin' through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin'. Never said nothin' goin' by. He just rode on past... and he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin' fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. 'Bout the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin' on ahead and he was fixin' to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold. And I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up."

 I suppose people's opinions of this scene depend greatly on what they believe the film to be about. If you thought the movie was about a guy who finds $2 million, who plays a deadly cat-and-mouse game with a psychopath who eventually catches up to him and kills him and then gets away with everything, sure, you're going to find this ending unsatisfying. But if you instead realize that the entire "plot" of the film merely serves as a MacGuffin for a deep meditation on violence and evil, then the ending is absolutely perfect. No Country observes the way in which those horrible things seem to grow and grow and grow through every generation, unstoppable by all those who oppose it (look no further than the car accident near the film's end if you want proof of the film's overarching metaphor--Bardem's hitman is struck by what should be a fatal blow, but gets up, merely grits his teeth and marches on). But it's the intelligence of the film and the filmmakers that allow it to end not on a cynical note (and it's a pretty cynical film), but on a note of hope. Tommy Lee Jones's weathered face is the picture of world-weary struggle as he reflects on the men who came before him, wistfully recalling the days when such violence, such evil was yet unheard of. The telling of his dream is an assurance to the audience that men like him and his father before him will always be out there in "all that dark and all that cold" to light a fire for us to follow.
3. Roman Holiday

This is a classic example of an ending that could not possibly have been filmed in Hollywood today. Today's rules dictate that everything must end prettily and happily, tied up with a large (preferably matrimonial) bow, scored by a Katy Perry song over the end credits. Roman Holiday is fantastic proof that all it takes is a pair of balls to actually make a romantic comedy that has deep emotional resonance and an ending that feels right instead of forced.

After spending a day together in Rome, Princess Ann (who has been masquerading as a commoner named Anya on her stolen day off of princessing duties) and Joe (a reporter who is well aware of her true identity, but decides to forget his exclusive scoop when he realizes that he's fallen in love with her) come face to face when she gives a press conference. Up until this scene, I was rolling my eyes and gritting my teeth, just knowing how it would all turn  out--Joe would cave in and sell his story, betraying Anya's trust and making her furious at him, and then he would realize the error of his ways, stage an extremely public apology just in time for her to confess her love as one of her cabinet members provides a convenient clause in the laws of her kingdom for them to be able to marry, they embrace, all of Rome applauds, credits roll and I have already been asleep for fifteen minutes.

But then I realize why I love old Hollywood eighty thousand times more than mainstream films today. It does the exact opposite--it shows the reality instead of the fantasy, and in doing so finds more cinematic magic and emotional resonance than an overdramatic conclusion ever could produce. It's a brilliantly acted scene on both parts. Joe is smiling to himself, watching Ann in all her grace and poise and public decorum (after having seen her smash a guitar over someone's head mere hours before). Ann scans the line of reporters, her gaze focuses on Joe, and her eyes flash with recognition, shock and then panic. He's a reporter. He's sure to reveal her secret. But then, during her question and answer section with the reporters, she goes off script (to the visible chagrin of her secretary), throwing in a subtle bit aimed directly at Joe about "faith in the goodness of people" to which he replies that her faith will not be misplaced. Her sigh of visible relief is heartwrenching.

She then stands and goes down to shake the hands of the men and women of the press. In an unbroken shot we follow her all the way down the line, person after person until finally she reaches Joe. She shakes his hand politely, gives a courteous smile, then continues on to the next person. Only the audience, Joe and Ann know the inner turmoil brimming beneath the surface. Finally, she turns back, smiles (a tear glistening brilliantly in one eye), waves and is gone. Joe stands alone until the room clears out, then slowly begins to walk out of the now deserted room, hands in his pockets. Finally, he smiles a bit to himself, and along with him we find a sort of resolution--the day they spent together was something to be treasured and cherished and we get the feeling that Joe will do just that until the end of his life.

4. The Graduate

This is certainly one of the most celebrated endings in film, and rightfully so. Its off-balance uncertainty perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the whole film which, in itself, was the spirit of an entire disillusioned generation of youth at the time the film was released.

Benjamin Braddock, a recent college graduate has embarked on, among other things, floating aimlessly in a pool, conducting an affair with his parents' married friend, falling in love with her daughter, stalking said daughter all the way to Berkeley, acting like a nut until she finds out he slept with her mother at which point she high-tails it off to marry some zero her parents like. Benjamin must finally rouse himself out of his stupor in time to save the woman he loves from a fate worse than death (mediocrity: the same one that consumes his parents and the Robinsons). He does just that--in high style.

He drives like a maniac all the way to the church where Elaine is being married, can't find a way in, so he pounds on the glass window above, screaming Elaine's name until she finally sees him. At first she is embarrassed and looks away...then she sees the angry, ugly faces of those silently cursing him around her and realizes the hole she's nearly fallen into. "Ben!" she cries, and that's all he needs. A few moments later, after grabbing Elaine, punching out a few people and fending angry relatives off with a crucifix, Ben and Elaine race out of the church and onto a nearby bus, where they plop down in the back seat laughing with exhilaration and giddiness (when I saw this scene for the first time I was literally laughing in tears on the floor). But, as the camera unflinchingly stares them down, their giggles gradually lessen to reflective smiles, then the smiles fade away and we are left with the image of two people together, being carried forward into an uncertain future. If that's not something legions of people can identify with, I don't know what is.

5. The Man Who Would Be King

Among other things, this is the most unforgivably unappreciated masterpiece in film. I just needed to get that out there and trust me, there will be at least one other post devoted to how great this movie is. In case you haven't seen it, let me spell it out for you: Sean Connery. Michael Caine. In their primes. Directed by John Huston. Based on a story by Rudyard Kipling. Two swashbuckling con men/British soldiers travel to Kafiristan to become kings and are just as surprised as we are when their plans actually work out (for a time). Adventure. Loyalty. Hot woman (Caine's wife). One of the greatest stories of friendship on film. Done. Go rent it. Now.

Read no further if you haven't seen it. The story has been told in flashback by Peachy (an almost unrecognizable Michael Caine) to Rudyard Kipling (Christopher Plummer). The Peachy in the present is a beggar dressed in rags and a turban, speaking in a hoarse whisper, horribly disfigured. We see the whole story--how Peachy and his best friend Danny (Connery) conquered Kafiristan, where through a blind coincidence Danny is mistaken for a God and crowned King. All is not well, however, when he falls in love with a mortal woman and refuses to leave with Peachy, who is eager to take their newfound riches and make an escape. Peachy reluctantly agrees to stay for Danny's wedding "for old times' sake." The girl Roxanne fears for her life (any mortal who makes love with a god is rumored to go up in smoke) and bites Danny as he kissses her at the end of their marriage vows. Seeing the blood on his cheek, the high priest of the country realizes that Danny is, "Not god, not devil, but man!" Danny and Peachy make a run for it but are cornered by the hoards of angry priests and, seeing that escape is hopeless, Danny apologizes to Peachy "for being so bleedin' high and bloody mighty", and his friedn forgives him. This being settled, they throw down their weapons and Danny is led to a bridge which is cut out from beneath him. Danny tumbles to his death, leaving Peachy behind singing his battle cry.

The final note of the film may strike some as odd. We are once again in Kipling's office and Peachy is the beggar. He tells of how he was crucified by the Kafiris, then, when he refused to die, was cut down and set free. He made it back to India on his own--or, as Peachy believes, with Danny "never letting go of his hand." "And Peachy," he continues, "Never let go of Daniel's head."

"His head?" Kipling asks in a hoarse whisper, clearly believing him mad--unsure of whether the outrageous story was true or whether it was the ravings of a lunatic.

With that, Peachy quietly sets down his mysterious parcel, mumbles something about urgent business in the south (a throwback to his introduction with Kipling at the beginning of the tale) and shuffles off into the darkness to be forgotten. Kipling steals forth, pulls the shroud from around the parcel, then shrinks back when he realizes that what is before him is Daniel's head--still wearing the crown of Kafiristan. His eyes narrow as he takes it in. It's a spooky, macabre sight until the triumphant battle hymn "The Minstrel Boy" (Danny's theme throughout the movie) kicks in on the soundtrack and we realize that this is exactly what he wanted--to die a king. And he did. We are left with a smile and the overwhelming conviction that films as great as this simply don't get made anymore.

Anyway, those are some of my favorites. Feel free to contribute your own in the comments below!



  1. Two other great film endings, in my opinion, are the endings of "Notorious" and "2001: A Space Odyssey." I think that the final shot of "Notorious" is more brilliantly haunting than anything else in Hitchcock's career and is simply gorgeous. The ending of "2001" confuses me and makes my brains hurt but at the same time transcends the normal language of film and speaks in another language entirely. It poses a question, asking if humans are the highest evolutionary form or if there is something beyond our comprehension.

    I think another interesting essay would be on great film beginnings. I would say "2001" (again), "Le Samourai", and "Aquirre: The Wrath of God."

  2. I completely agree with you on Notorious--I was totally going to include it in this list but then I remembered that my LAST post was about Notorious and while I'd be perfectly happy just changing this to "Bailey's Notorious Blog", I had to force myself to include some variety. But that's definitely one of the best ending sequences ever--the escape from Alicia's room, them getting away in the car, then Claude Rains slowly turning around...ahh...Perfect.

    And I love the idea of a movie beginnings entry! Great suggestion.

  3. Oh, oh, oh! Continuing on the Hitchcock Note, also Strangers on a Train. I love the dutch angled carousel and such.