Famous Last Words



I’m sure that many people will choose The Searchers. Ford himself described it as “the tragedy of the loner,” and when you think about that statement in relation to the film it really gives you a sense of the full scope of its power. After this insane, endless quest to find his niece, which goes on for years, Wayne’s character drops her off and then leaves to keep roaming the desert. The door opens on him as he enters at the beginning and closes on him as he leaves at the end. Some people, possibly most people, are so alone that it’s terrifying, too terrifying to think about. Better to just film that aloneness as simply and eloquently as Ford does here.

— MARTIN SCORSESE (Bringing Out the Dead, 1999)

Weimar Germany was just emerging from the period of hyperinflation when, inspired by a news item about a washroom attendant who committed suicide, scenarist Carl Mayer wrote a script entitled Der Letzte Mann [The Last Man]. F. W. Murnau directed; Emil Jannings starred as the self-important Berlin hotel doorman who is demoted to the washroom. The movie, which remains a classic for its innovative mise-en-scène and fluid camerawork, ended with Jannings’s death in the toilet. Not surprisingly, the producer objected to this downbeat denouement, demanding instead the sort of happy ending for which Hollywood was already famous. Mayer and Murnau sublimated their outrage and complied with the first deliberately unconvincing closer in movie history (introducing a strategy that would later serve Douglas Sirk well). Rather than the attendant, an eccentric American millionaire named Mr. Money drops dead in the men’s room and, because his will has stipulated that his fortune be left to whoever was with him when he died, the Jannings character winds up rich, rich, rich!

All this is explained in a fantastically sarcastic scene wherein Jannings returns to the hotel that has demoted him and, installing himself in the dining room, triumphantly feeds his face. Although many people find this hysterical display a bit disconcerting, the movie’s American distributors took it seriously, which is why in this country Der Letzte Mann is known as The Last Laugh. — J. HOBERMAN

My favorite ending: Room at the Top, in which Joe Lampton (Lawrence Harvey)­in the back of the limo, sprinkled with rice, fresh from his wedding to Susan Brown (Heather Sears), daughter of his wealthy employer­remembers the suicide of Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret), his true love; his eyes grow moist. His new vacuous bride, seeing this, says, “I believe you really are sentimental after all.”

— PAUL SCHRADER (Affliction, December 30)

The most unsentimental and conceptually satisfying endings are those of the great Warhol talkies of the mid ’60s, Beauty #2and Outer and Inner Spaceamong them. They end because the last frame of a 33-minute roll of film has run through the camera and the filmmaker has decided not to reload. What made him decide to stop shooting? His sense that enough was enough, that the situation had been exhausted, and that the actors had done all they could do? Perhaps he had other things to attend to. Perhaps he considered shooting more the next day. Perhaps he did shoot, but it didn’t turn out well, or it seemed redundant. Or, maybe, this was a period in which he felt that two 33-minute reels shown sequentially or concurrently (side by side) added up to the right length for a film, regardless of what was taking place on screen.

In any event, for me, these endings, which could never be precisely anticipated, and which occurred out of a conjunction of the limitations of the moviemaking machinery with the will of the director and with a plethora of unknown contingencies, seemed to speak, after the fact and most marvelously, to the way life ends for many people, including the director himself. — AMY TAUBIN

From flourishes (Mauvais Sang) to camera movements that impart a sense of peace to the preceding events (Sansho the Bailiff), from endings suspended in a state of regret (Jackie Brown) to endings of perfectly modulated uplift (I Know Where I’m Going), it’s every great ending combined that forms the great ending in our mind. But here are a few endings that send shivers through me each time I see them: Gabin and Prim ambling down the road in The Lower Depths; Keitel’s long-shot execution in Bad Lieutenant; Huston leaving Chatterton on the boat and returning to Astor in Dodsworth; De Niro’s opium-induced grin in Once Upon a Time in America; and, above all, Stewart walking out of the bell tower and becoming a De Chirico rendering of himself, for all the world to see, in Vertigo. — KENT JONES

When Guido joins hands with everyone at the end of 8 1/2, it evokes the sense of the extended and real family that become a part of your life when you’re making a film.

— CHRISTINE VACHON (producer of Happiness, Velvet Goldmine)

It took unheralded great grace to end the nearly six-hour, 12-course historical banquet of 1900 not with a sweeping flourish or an ironic hoochie-koo, but with a moment of almost abstracted lyricism— and one that is decisively cinematic. Boyhood pals­turned­epochal class adversaries Robert De Niro and Gérard Depardieu are, finally, two squabbling, Python-esque septuagenarians; Depardieu yanks De Niro toward the train tracks, to lie between them under a passing train as only Depardieu dared to do ages before. De Niro lies across them instead, a locomotive flying revolutionary flags rolls past, and there between the tracks is De Niro’s 10-year-old self, arms crossed. The Morricone clarinets swell. Communism, and the 20th century, never had a sweeter elegy. — MICHAEL ATKINSON

All sorts of endings are for me a source of high anxiety. So I would like to meet death with the composure of Bette Davis in the final moments of Dark Victory. It would be good to have a little warning— five minutes of blindness, say, before the brain tumor strikes its fatal blow— as, with glamorous humility, I pack my husband’s suitcase, send him off, plant some flowers, and retire to feel my life dissolving in one huge glorious fade-out. — LESLIE CAMHI

Favorite ending: Salo, in which two fascist soldiers have just witnessed unspeakable horror and torture when
they look at each other and suddenly start slow-dancing. Pasolini’s masterpiece.
— JOHN WATERS (Pecker)

At the close of Peeping Tom, Michael Powell’s disturbing ode to scopophilia and filmmaking, Mark Lewis (Karl Boehm), the homicidal man with the movie camera, turns his camera on the cops, filming their arrival. The climax becomes a brilliant job of double mise-en-scène: Powell’s mise-en-scène of Mark’s mise-en-scène of his own suicide. He clips the camera and tripod to the wall, impales himself, and films his own death. Mark’s Kodak surveys the corpse. His extraordinary funeral rites include: the police sirens, the explosion of flashbulbs, the tangle of screams and sobs of his guinea-pig childhood recorded on tape, and, above all, the voice of Mark-as-a-child (played by one of Powell’s own sons) telling his father (played by Powell): “Good night, Daddy, hold my hand.” The ending is the most moving scene in this powerful film, but whether Peeping Tom is giving us crime as mise-en-scène or mise-en-scène as crime is something for each individual voyeur in the audience to ponder. — ELLIOTT STEIN

Videodrome:A totally abstract and totally emotional ending, mysterious and obvious at the same time, and so incredibly brave. This was not about moviemaking; it was about politics, true radical politics.

— OLIVIER ASSAYAS (Late August, Early September, 1999)

In The Lady Eve, con artist Barbara Stanwyck selects bumbling rich guy Henry Fonda as the perfect mark, but falls in love with him instead. He discovers the scam, flees, and she plots his comeuppance. Ill-disguised, with a phony English accent, she seduces him a second time; absurdly, he doesn’t know it’s her. “I hardly recognized him, either,” she says sadly. “It’s because we don’t love each other any more.” When they find each other a third time, they recognize each other at last, with no disguises, offscreen, in the dark. — JUSTINE ELIAS

Movie endings are always sad for me, a forced reintroduction to the outside even when they work and please as “film.” I like movies that end with the promise of a worthwhile sequel or films whose momentum ends in a kind of stasis; think Tarkovsky’s Solaris. The movie ending that comes clearest to mind just now doesn’t technically exist, being the end of an unfinished, advance print of Blade. The cgi-jocks weren’t done with the effects, so the film ended with Wesley Snipes and Stephen Dorff taking their final, climactic-conflict poses just before the words “To Be Continued” slammed onto the screen. I liked how they actually ended Blade, but I keep coming back to that other moment, the way it suggested a movie that never stopped, a movie perfect in its incompleteness and therefore never able to disappoint.


The Searchers: The ending implies that John Wayne’s character is always rejected from home and will always be exiled. Very powerful! The Eclipse:A sequence of empty shots at the end of the film revisits many of the locations seen earlier; suddenly, one realizes this film is not about Monica Vitti or Alain Delon, but about the place they live in. — WONG KAR-WAI (Happy Together, Fallen Angels)

At the end of Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. , Buster, in a movie projection booth with the girl he loves, glances at the movie screen for tips on lovemaking. The hero passionately kisses the leading lady. Buster gives his girl a quick peck on the cheek. The movie hero produces an engagement ring. Buster timidly follows suit. The movie dissolves to find the hero bouncing a pair of twins on his knee. A bewildered, blank-faced Buster scratches his head. The End. — BRUCE GOLDSTEIN (Director of Repertory Programming, Film Forum)

Whether it sneaks up on you or smacks you in the face, a great movie ending resonates in a way that suggests it is the only resolution there could ever be for the events that preceded it, and yet is never so obviously decisive as to actually feel like closure. Think of Julianne Moore’s hesitant, heartbreaking declarations of self-love in Safe, or any number of Mike Leigh grace notes, or Pierrot le Fou‘s unforgettable explosion/camera-pan/last-line sucker punch (“Eternity? . . . No, it’s just the sea . . . and the sun”). The first movie ending that struck me as a great movie ending remains an iconic crystallization of film noir’s glorious toughness: Alida Valli’s to-camera snub of hopeless, deluded Joseph Cotten in The Third Man. Leaving the Vienna cemetery for the second time in the film, she walks straight past him without a word. Stranded in the periphery of the frame, he watches her just long enough to see that she isn’t about to turn back, then lights a cigarette, tossing away the match in disgust. And not a moment too soon, that damn zither music finally stops. — DENNIS LIM

Film endings are often what I like least in a film and they often give me the hardest time in my own films. I have a preference for “false endings” that are followed by an epilogue that takes place after some time has elapsed. One of the most beautiful endings I know is from Bresson’s Pickpocket. Several years have passed, yet the man whose destiny is the subject of the film looks exactly the same— same face, same clothes. He’s in jail, and through the bars, he tells the woman whose path he has crossed many times, “Oh, Jeanne, how far I’ve had to go to come close to you,” even though they’ve seen each other without acknowledging it several times prior to that.

— BENOIT JACQUOT (The School of Flesh, February)

Tsai Ming-liang’s not one to spill a drop when a gallon’s handy. In an interlocked quartet of love-parched weepies, he’s single-handedly watered Taipei’s concrete garden with free-floating ennui. At the climax of Vive L’Amour, Tsai comes on like Noah himself, sending forlorn realtor Yang Kuei-mei into a half-complete and especially fecal public park, and having her cry and cry and cry for what feels like 40 days and 40 nights. Just one seemingly unending shot, but her tears set in motion The River (Tsai’s subsequent film), and in his latest, The Hole, threaten to flood the entire world. — CHUCK STEPHENS

I tend to favor guy-gets-girl endings that involve jerks transformed, where the trials the initially undeserving pursuer gets put through are both tremendously arduous and nightmarishly comic. There’s Groundhog Day, there’s There’s Something About Mary, and then there’s the ultimate happy finale of
Defending Your Life. Following a painfully funny afterlife judging process and an apparently doomed courtship (of twinkly-eyed Meryl Streep), our fear-driven, little-brained hero (Albert Brooks) is inspired to break out of his self-pitying trance. The scene somehow turns the simple act of jumping onto a cheesy tourist tram into a wonderful leap of faith. From here to eternity indeed. — ABBY MCGANNEY NOLAN

I am always startled by the goofy, playful fearlessness at the end of Goodfellas. After floating Henry Hill’s disembodied narration above the exotic scenes of his mob life, Scorsese drops the convention of voice-over and has Henry turn to us from the witness stand and talk directly to the camera. He’s ratted on his fellow mobsters, identified them for the jury, and now walks through the courtroom like it’s a wax museum of his old life. And then the postscript: Cut to an anonymous suburban housing development and Henry’s life in the witness protection program— “a place where I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce and I got egg noodles and ketchup. . . . I’m an average nobody. I get to spend the rest of my life like a schnook.” Henry, in his terrycloth bathrobe, steps out in front of his nondescript house, picks up the morning paper— and BANG BANG! A blast from the past. It’s Joe Pesci in a flashback, guns blazing. A beat. Henry cracks a wistful smile, stares us dead bolt in the eye, and slams the door in our faces. Sid Vicious sings “My Way.” I get a rush. — TAMARA JENKINS (Slums of Beverly Hills)