I find that one sign of bravery in filmmakers is their willingness to hold on shots or scenes – usually towards the end of a film – that, had they not kept the camera rolling, would have resulted in an entirely different meaning.
Usually these result in uncomfortable realisations for the audience…and the studio execs too.
Just look at Brazil‘s ending-within-an-ending: our hero Sam manages to escape the Orwellian bureaucratic nightmare he’s been trapped in for most of the movie – and with his romantic interest happily by his side to boot – only for us to be pulled out of what’s revealed as a dream and shown that Sam never escaped anything, except perhaps reality.
It’s tough to swallow and very pessimistic, and that’s why the studio wanted to lop off the ‘downer’ ending and just have folks believe that Sam got away and lived happily ever after. Which kinda would have killed the point of it, which is heartbreaking and incredibly poetic. The director Terry Gilliam had to fight to keep his ending in, and rightly so; that kind of last-second curtain pull might seem vaguely cheap, but it can be used as a phenomenally powerful tool to make an audience rethink the last 90 minutes, and often encapsulates a film’s themes within a single image.
I wish people would do it more, but I don’t recall seeing it in any film that’s been released since I’ve been alive.
Jump back 40-odd years and we have the infamous last scene of Carol Reed’s exceptional postwar mystery The Third Man, where Joseph Cotten’s hack writer-cum-detective Holly decides to go out on a limb and see if he’s got a chance with Alida Valli’s emotionally bruised actress Anna.
(It’s worth noting that they’ve just come from Anna’s former lover (Orson Welles)’s second funeral.)
In a gorgeous wide shot, Holly stands off-centre near the foreground as Anna walks from the far distance straight towards the camera. Surely once she reaches him, she’ll stop, maybe take a cigarette and smile as he light it for her? Surely:
The anticipation just kills you, doesn’t it? It’s a wonderful ending that can be looked at in endless ways, but for me it’s the best kind of anti-romance; things don’t wrap up nicely for Holly like in one of his cheap Western novels, no matter how much he thinks himself the hero in this story. To Anna, he ended up being the villain.
By leaving us wondering what will happen for so long – a good minute, which can be an eon in the cinema – we’re afforded the time to really consider what the ending means. Letting the audience figure things out for themselves shouldn’t have to be praised for being brave, but in a time when movie plots are spoon-fed to viewers, they kind of do.
Finally, the last scene of The Graduate, which is often considered as one of the films central to ushering in the New Hollywood era in the late 1960s, is one of my favourite slow-burner shots and packs a hell of an emotional punch.
For those that don’t know, the Holden Caulfield-esque Dustin Hoffman has just saved the supposed love of his life Katharine Ross from her wedding, which most of the congregation aren’t too happy with. They escape the church and board a bus together, happy as clams. And then, well…it’s easier if I just show you:
That’s got to be one of the most heartbreaking moments in cinema. And you can bet there were some nervous execs in 1967 who wanted the movie to end just twenty seconds sooner. Thankfully for us it didn’t.
I suppose some of the power of the lingering finale would be lost were it to become common practice, but I do wish some filmmakers would realise what an opportunity it affords them – to be able to say exactly what you mean, to set aside all the bullshit happy endings and actually tell the truth for one raw moment, to leave the audience actually thinking when the credits roll and they leave their seats.
Of course, some films manage that kind of honesty earlier – sometimes at the very beginning – and a very small few keep it up for most of the runtime, but the end’s always going to be the most effective place to utilise that opportunity.
It’s just so rarely seen in my experience – that eye-opener you get when ambiguity turns into stomach-churning certainty, or when one moment becomes its antithesis in less than a second.
If I ever create something that replicates that feeling for even one other person, I’ll know I’ve made something worthwhile.