Famous Last Words

Movie Buffs Pick Their Favorite Endings

[Spoilers are in bold]

I'm sure that many people will chooseThe 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

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