Monday, October 12, 2020

25 of The Best Movie Ending Scenes of All Time - Part I


I love movies and I’m sure you do also, and as a filmmaker I know that it’s really hard to pull off a great ending. Even though many movies have been made over the last 100+ years there are not that many GREAT endings.  I know it is subjective, but there are some that I, and many others who do these lists, believe are memorable and worthy of pointing out. I limited my selection to include only the very last scene or sequence in the film. There are a lot of movies with actions that take place near the end that are great, such as The Empire Strikes Back, where Han’s life is up in the air and Luke hears those words that rocked the galaxy far, far away, “No, I am your father”, but that all takes place earlier than the actual ending where Luke is saved from Cloud City. Now some of these have a series of scenes that together create an ending, but they all take place in one setting and some include a separate end shot that acts as a coda or exclamation point. So not to delay any further here are my top ending scenes, in order of release date. I have divided the list into two parts so here are the first 12. SPOILER ALERT – if you have not seen any of these films and wish to do so then I recommend skipping those, unless you don’t care to find out what happens at the end first.  

Gone with The Wind (1939).  A classic historical drama with lots of notable scenes throughout, but the ending is by far the most memorable. First, you see Rhett Butler (Clark Cable) say goodbye to his wife, Scarlett (Vivian Leigh), who he finally got fed up with, and utters those famous words after she asks what she should do, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!”  It was scandalous back in 1939 and you can guess what a modern equivalent word would be. The camera follows Scarlet sobbing until she figures out, in close up, that she can go back to her childhood home of Tara and rebuild her life (symbolizing the rebuilding of the South) and she utters the somewhat less famous line of, “After all, tomorrow is another day.” Then cut to the coda shot of Scarlet at sunset standing under the famous oak tree with the plantation house in the distance and the Max Steiner theme filling up the theater. This film still holds the top spot for all-time box office, adjusted for inflation.  Check out ending here.

Citizen Kane (1941) is another classic film by auteur Orson Wells and on the top of many best film lists.  It’s a fictional story about the life of wealthy newspaper baron Charles Foster Kane, based eerily similarly on the real-life newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. The film is told in the guise of a mystery with a reporter being asked by his editor to find out why Kane’s last utterance was simply, “Rosebud”. The film paints a picture of an arrogant, callous publishing tyrant who alienates everyone, including those who love him, and though he gained success personified by his giant mansion called Xanadu, eventually loses everything. The narrator never truly finds out what made Kane tick. After dying, dropping the infamous snow globe, the end scene shows Kane's belongings being cataloged or discarded by the staff. They find the sled on which the eight-year-old Kane was playing on the day that he was taken from his home and his mother. Deeming it junk, they throw it into a furnace. As the sled burns, the camera reveals the brand name, ignored by the staff: "Rosebud."  Besides the antifascist political themes, Wells also tries to tell us that you can have all the trappings of wealth, but it is human connection that matters. The sled representing the last time Kane ever felt safe and loved. Check out ending here.

Casablanca (1943) is famous for its ending and bevy of memorable lines, such as, “Play it Sam, play As Time Goes By.”  Though it is usually misquoted as, “Play it again, Sam.” Coming out during WWII, Casablanca is all about putting country above self and that is capsulized by the ending scene. The story is about Rick (Humphry Bogart), an American expatriate who runs a club in German occupied Casablanca and remains neutral in the war between the Allies and the Nazis. He comes across some very sought-after travel papers that would allow those trapped in Casablanca to escape the German occupation. One day Rick’s ex-lover Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) walks into his bar to ask him if she and her husband could use the papers, but the fallout is their love reignites. The problem, her Nazi-hating husband Laszlo (Paul Henreid) is in the way.  Rick, though angry that Ilsa left him with no explanation, could easily have his friends in right places take care of Laszlo, but she explains that during their affair she thought he was dead, but when discovered he had escaped a concentration camp alive, she had to go back to him. In the end Rick’s conscious gets the better of him and decides to help. The end scene begins with Rick telling Ilsa she can’t stay, she has to leave with Laszlo on the plane because she would regret it, “maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but for the rest of your life.” Rick says goodbye, saying the famous line, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” Then, as the plane taxis away, the German military officer Strasser (Conrad Veldt) arrives wondering why the local French police prefect (Claud Raines) hadn’t arrested Laszlo. The weasel Renault tells Strasser to ask Rick, but before Strasser can call for backup Rick shoots him. Renault covers for Rick, telling his men to “gather up the usual suspects.” Renault points out to Rick that now he’s no longer neutral. Renault offers Rick a way to escape to a free French outpost as payment for gambling debts. The two walk off into the night fog with Rick saying, “Louie, I believe this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”  
Check out ending here.

Sunset Boulevard (1950) is another film on many top 10 lists. As directed by Billy Wilder, it is a film noir about washed up silent film star Norma Desmond (real-life silent film star Gloria Swanson) who befriends a washed-up screenwriter, Joe Gillis (William Holden) who convinces her he needs to rewrite a Salome script she wants as her comeback film. Gillis is desolate, after having been rejected by every studio in Hollywood. The film opens with the death of Gillis floating in a swimming pool and the story is told by Gillis. In the end the senile Desmond is discovered as committing the murder but to get her into police custody, her dedicated butler (Erich von Stroheim) arranges for the press to have cameras and lights ready as a guise that they are shooting her film. She makes a grand exit down the staircase while thinking the famous Cecil B. DeMille is directing her.  As she approaches the cameras, her butler posing as the director, she says dramatically straight into the camera lens, “Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup,” and then continues forward, filling the frame with her face. Like most noirs nobody really wins in the end, showing that both good and evil lie in all of us. Check out ending here.

Shane (1953) A classic western starring Alan Ladd as the titular Shane, a drifter gunfighter with a mysterious past.  He ends up helping a homesteading family in the Wyoming territory as a ranch hand. He especially befriends Joey, the young boy in the household. He uses his skills to protect the boy and help defend the family from greedy landowners who want to take over their land.  But his past catches up to him and he knows he has to leave to protect the family. The famous ending has Shane riding off into the distance, the Wyoming mountains looming over. Joey, who admires and wants Shane to stay, runs to watch him leave but continues yelling out reasons for him to return, finally screaming in desperation, “Shane, come back!” I don’t think even macho men could keep their eyes dry during this ending scene. Check out ending here.

The Searchers (1956) is the most iconic western ever made. Director John Ford, John Wayne, Natalie Wood, Ward Bond and the Monument Valley landscape.  When I visited Arizona many years ago my friend Steve and I stayed in the same hotel the cast and crew stayed at while filming. This film actually has both a classic opening and an ending shot that act as bookends – most of the ending scenes in this article are famous because of the performances and dialogue but the ending here is iconic because of Ford’s and his cinematographer, Winton C. Hoch’s artistry. Both the beginning and end show John Wayne either arriving or leaving a Texas homestead, showing the front door opening or closing, with strong contrast of light and dark. The ending represents victory, tragedy and iconic imagery all wrapped into one. There is also symbolism of good vs. evil, with John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards coming in from the light and exiting into it at the end. Is he an angel or the devil? It depends on your perspective. He returns his niece after she had been abducted by Comanche warriors, but he searched for her in order to kill her, as she was, in his view, contaminated by the Comanche. Once he finds her and discovers how well she assimilated unscathed he changes his mind and instead takes her back to friends, to what he considered civilization. It all depends on interpretation. The door opening at the start could symbolize a nation coming out of the devastating civil war, which occurred not too long before the story begins. The film as a whole is an allegory about manifest destiny with white supremacy justifying taking over Native American lands. It is what makes it such a great film: Layered with so much that you’d need a whole college course just to dissect it, encompassing history, psychology, philosophy and film studies. Check out ending here.

Some Like It Hot (1959) brings us to Billy Wilder again. The wizard of endings.  I could have easily included his film The Apartment (1960) as well, but I didn’t want this to be the Wilder show. This is the only full-out comedy on the list – the antics of two musicians on the run from the mob dressing up as women to hide among an all-girl’s band. It stars Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marylin Monroe. It’s a farce with pratfalls, misinterpretations and misguided antics perfectly put together. The ending is one of the best ever - comedy or drama. Jack Lemmon, who was posing as Daphne (but really Jerry), had been courted throughout the film by Joe E. Brown’s Osgood, a true millionaire and the only character not trying to hide their true selves. As they escape on Osgood’s motorboat Jerry comes clean, taking off his wig and revealing he’s a man. Osgood doesn’t miss a beat and says, “Well, nobody’s perfect”. The most faultless ending line ever. Like with The Apartment, Wilder leaves it up to the audience to determine what happens to the characters in the future, and it is this nebulous rim “shot” that makes it the best comedic film ending ever. 
Check out ending here.

Dr. Strangelove, or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). In the middle of the cold war, when the fear of nuclear war was at an all-time high, director Stanley Kubrick came out with this antiwar film, a black comedy exposing what many people dreaded - that the leadership of the two most powerful countries in the world couldn’t protect the Earth from complete annihilation. One of the most famous scenes from this film occurs near the end and shows Maj. T.J. "King" Kong (Slim Pickens) riding an H Bomb like a bronco as it falls toward its explosive end. But it wasn’t the last scene in the movie. The last scene with actors takes place in the White House War Room, with the title character played by Peter Sellers (who also played the US President), a disabled German scientist in a wheel chair who stands up and says, "Mr. President, I have a plan" and then walks a few steps and declares as Armageddon approaches, "Mein Führer, I can walk!” Then it cuts to a series of nuclear bombs exploding to Vera Lynn singing an upbeat WWII ballad, We'll Meet Again. But that wasn’t the original ending. There was more to the scene, much more, but it was cut after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which occurred soon before the film was to be released. The conclusion of the scene had Dr. Strangelove falling on his face, followed by an enraged General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) throwing a custard pie at the Russian ambassador after seeing him take pictures of the War Room. The Russian ducks, and the pie hits the President, triggering an all-out pie fight amongst all in the room - a comical exclamation mark on the absurdity of war. During the fight Turgidson declares, "Our President has been struck down in his prime!" The studio thought this ending would be seen as disrespectful by audiences so soon after JFK’s death. Only stills of the scene survive. I would love to see the whole scene as Kubrick intended and believe it would have made the ending even more significant than as released.  Check out released ending here.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was a pioneering film ushering in a time when filmmakers were breaking many Hollywood norms. Director Arthur Penn turned a group of criminals and made them sexy, human and almost sympathetic, while making the law enforcers the villains. The ending was also groundbreaking by not only killing off the protagonists but in such a violent and over-the-top manner. The idea of antiheroes would continue throughout Hollywood during the 60’s and 70’s and continues today with the likes of Deadpool, the Dude and Prof. Snape, among others. Check out ending here.

The Graduate (1967) has gone down in history as having one of the most famous end shots of all time (and a few other great scenes and lines, as well.) If you’re one of the few people who has not seen the film and its ending it shows Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) and Ellaine (Katherine Ross) sitting at the back of a city bus after Benjamin having just rescued Ellaine from marrying someone pressed on her by her mother, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), who had an affair with Benjamin earlier in the film. What makes the scene great are the expressions displayed on the faces of the lead characters. Though they remain silent and do not interact with each other, so much can be interpreted by the viewer. The film is symbolic of a period in history called the youth or counterculture revolution, summing the period up in one shot: They have broken conventions on how kids are supposed to act (albeit listen to your elders as personified by the “plastics” line at the beginning of the film), and even though they really don’t know what the future will bring, at least now they will choose their own path. The last shot is of the bus driving off down the road to their future as The Sounds of Silence plays. Kudos to both director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Buck Henry. The equally famous soundtrack, by Simon & Garfunkel and Dave Grusin, makes the film just that much better. Check out ending here.

Planet of the Apes (1968) has spawned countless sequels and reimagined versions, I think more than any other film series in history, except for maybe the James Bond films. The first one I believe is the best and is remembered for countless dialogue and imagery, such as the line, “Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!” voiced by Charleston Heston’s character, Taylor.  It is the surprise ending that had everyone talking in 1968 and still does.  After finally escaping his ape captives, Taylor and his mute human girl companion ride a horse along the desolate coast of an unnamed ocean when he comes across something that takes his breath away but is only slightly revealed to the audience. He jumps off the horse and falls to his knees in anger and despair. He cries out, “Oh, my God. I’m back. I’m home. All the time. We finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! God…damn you all to hell!” It cuts to the girl who looks up and then the camera zooms out to reveal the remnants of the Statue of Liberty sitting on the edge of the beach, signifying that Taylor had been on Earth the entire time and not on some distant planet.  Remember, this was during the height of the cold war, students, such as myself, were being taught in classrooms to “duck and cover” to naively guard against a nuclear attack. It sent chills all over me when I first saw the movie, especially at such a young age. The Vietnam War was raging, and it seemed a very good possibility that nuclear bombs could blow up the world...and then repopulate with simians. The ending still sends chills. 
Check out ending here.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) came out in a banner year for great films: Funny Girl, Rosemary’s Baby, The Odd Couple, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Thomas Crown Affair, Ice Station Zebra, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Night of the Living Dead, The Swimmer, the above mentioned Planet of the Apes and its sci-fi counterpart, Kubrick’s masterpiece. Like The Searchers, you could have a whole course designed around this film and there have been many. It was all conceived by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, but Clarke came out with a book version ahead of the film to give it some prestige. I saw it with my father and sister at the Princeton Playhouse theater on Witherspoon Street when there still were great single screen theaters. I was in 70mm awe, mystified and in love with science fiction. The meaning of the ending is still being talked about today. Clarke and Kubrick have said that they left it open to interpretation on purpose because the theme of the film couldn’t be expressed with dialogue or even conventional visuals – it needed to be felt. Kubrick said, “I think the power of the ending is based on the subconscious emotional reaction of the audience.” The Star Child approaches Earth to spawn a new age of enlightenment? Maybe? If you’ve never watched the film, then you must, and then you can come up with your own interpretation. All while hearing Also sprach Zarathustra" in your head. Check out this video that goes more deeply into the ending:

Easy Rider (1969) is one of those counter-culture films made by those in the middle of it, Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and Terry Southern and like others on this list changed filmmaking forever. The box office hit independent modern Western explored the changing societal landscape at the time, especially generational tensions and issues such as drug use and communal lifestyles. Instead of horses they rode motorcycles or choppers, traveling through a Western landscape, such as the iconic Monument Valley (remember The Searchers). Wyatt or Captain America (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) are cash infused from a cocaine sale and take a cross country motorcycle trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Along the way they pick up an alcoholic ACLU lawyer named George (Jack Nicholson). In Louisiana while sleeping under the stars they are accosted at night by rednecks who beat them up, killing George. After tripping on LSD in New Orleans they head to Florida.  On the road two rednecks in a pickup truck shoot them dead just for kicks. The ending puts an ugly coda on the problems facing America during the 60’s and helps usher in a new era of films that expose the ugliness in America that had been sanitized by Hollywood up to that time.  Check out ending here.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) came out the same year as Easy Rider and was a more traditional Western about real-life train and bank robbers during the late 19th century. It was written by the great screenwriter William Goldman (Princess Bride), directed by George Roy Hill (The Sting, Garp) and starring Paul Newman (Butch) and Robert Redford (Sundance), along with Katherine Ross as Sundance’s girl. The film takes the likable antihero concept introduced with Bonnie & Clyde and expands on it to where you don’t just sympathize with these criminals, but you root for them to succeed. It is the ending that lifts this film as the best Western in the modern era. Hill uses the freeze frame technique to great effect at the end, the first major Hollywood film to do so. It’s now used all the time – just look at all the Rocky movies or a film I talk about in part II, Thelma & Louise. In this case though it is not a cliché, because it is not only used for emotional effect but allows the filmmakers to leave the visualization of Butch and Sundance’s death (the guns shots are still heard) better left to the audience’s imagination and thus keeping them from getting distracted by what would be gruesome deaths (what had happened with Bonnie and Clyde). The still frame also harkens back to the pair’s non-criminal “good times” spent in New York, shown in a sepia-toned photographic montage earlier in the film. I do not believe the film would have received as much praise and adulation all these years if not for that freeze at the end. It helps it linger in one’s mind far longer than most films.  Check out ending here.

That’s the “end” of Part I. Come back next time for more great endings from the 70s, 80s and 90s.  Please note that I believe it takes years for films to enter the movie zeitgeist, including great endings, thus I ended my current list in the year 1999, but there have been some films with great endings during the past 20 years.  Here are some of those you may want to check out and I’m sure you have some of your own: Call Me by Your Name, Inception, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, Moonlight, and this film...  

Can you guess the movie?

Please share in the comments any thoughts or other film endings that you think are great. Thanks for reading.

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