Posted by Greg Ferrara on July 27, 2011
Occasionally, I hear people (very foolish people indeed) complain that a movie doesn’t have an ending. Of course, this is nonsense. Unless the film in question has an infinite running time, it has an ending. When the credits are done and the lights go up, trust me, the movie is over. Nevertheless, just a few short years ago, when No Country for Old Men (2007) was released, many of the same complaints were heard again, even if they were easily dismissed by anyone actually watching the movie with open eyes. You can even find websites with “Movies with No Endings” lists (though I won’t link to such garbage here) that find such movies troubling. In the end, literally, it’s a matter of how the viewer wants it to end, on the tonic, so to speak, but not every movie goes down that path. Now, I’m not here to provide a list of every movie like that but there are three movies I saw several times growing up that defined the non-traditional ending for me, and if I ever get around to making a feature film, all three of these will play a definite role in how I end it.
Going in chronological order, the first is The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1960). This is a film I saw only on commercial television for decades until finally acquiring the DVD a few years back. What a marvelous film! Ignoring the fact that even a thousand hydrogen bombs set off simultaneously at either pole wouldn’t be enough to knock the earth off its axis, let alone two, the idea of the earth’s atmosphere slowly baking away as it moves towards the sun is handled adeptly and slyly throughout. A simple tinting of the lens and a generous coating of sweat on all the actors is enough to make this viewer hot just thinking about it. What really sets this movie apart for me, though, is the ending. As the earth nears its doom a plan is hatched to correct the situation, a plan involving more hydrogen bombs detonated at strategic points to knock the earth back in place. Yeah, okay. The important thing about this is that once these detonations take place, no final outcome is ever revealed. The newspaper where our hero, Peter Stenning (Edward Judd), works has two headlines set to go: “World Saved” and “World Doomed.” And as the camera pulls back and we hear bells in the distance, the movie ends, never revealing if the plan worked or not.
It would have been just as easy to show some scientists monitoring some movie-science equipment (something with an electric arc and blinking buttons, preferably) with some random counting (“point one… point two… point three… point four! It worked!”) to give the viewer the satisfaction of a solid outcome, however trite. The opposite of that (“point one… point two… point three… no… no… point… point two… point one. It didn’t work.”) would be a downer, no doubt, and so the “up in the air” ending seems to be the best alternative and not just a gimmick (or extended take-off of Citizen Kane’s famous headline scene). It provides the viewer with the real possibility that it didn’t work but an ending that, in a way, could still be considered uplifting. After all, we saw humankind fight and think and plan and do everything in its power right up to the very end. And because of that fight, if it didn’t work, we want to leave humanity with the dignity and grace of its final fight, not gawk as it descends into despair, madness and chaos as the end approaches.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire was the first time I was shown, as a kid, that a movie could end outside the normal parameters of plot resolution. The next movie to do that did it on a level so extraordinary, so brilliant, that I found myself fascinated, intrigued and all-around hooked from the very first viewing. That movie was Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). I don’t believe it to be Hitchcock’s best film (although a great one, nonetheless) but I do believe it to be his most underrated.
The Birds may be Hitchcock’s truest “experimental” film. I’ve written about it before, elsewhere, but I’ll say it again: It eschews many of the conventions of not just horror movie making, but movie making in general. First, there is no music. For a Hitchcock film to not have music, especially with so many of them famous for their wonderful Bernard Herrmann scores, is immediately disorienting. The music of the film comes from the sounds of Bodega Bay, the cars, the children singing and, of course, the birds. Hitchcock, through ambient sound absent of any dramatic musical cues, takes a bright and sunny Bodega Bay and turns it into another world, a distant, disquieting planet where nature has an unsettling, and undefined, menace. And what better way to ruin all of this than to have the military show up and kill all the birds or have a radio news report declare that it was high-pitched radio signal that was causing the birds aggression, etc.
There’s only one way to end The Birds: Fade out. There aren’t even credits, just the Universal Logo as the sound of the ominous bird calls fade away. The birds are there. Maybe they’ve taken over the whole world. Maybe just Bodega Bay. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the humans are driving away, no longer fighting, no longer holing up, no longer hoping. Just driving. Retreating. As they recede into the distance, and recede in importance, the birds are all one can see. How could it possibly end any better?
Finally, there was the movie that I saw again and again, in theaters, on television, cable, videotape and dvd: The French Connection.
The French Connection was a movie that felt different to me in the seventies. Today, it doesn’t seem as awe-inspiring as it did then but when I first saw it (sometime in the seventies) I felt like I was watching the dirtiest, grimiest, grittiest movie ever made. It didn’t feel like a movie but like a series of shots taken by a guerilla journalist that I had somehow happened upon and was watching with a fevered fascination. Now it seems a bit more conventional than it did then but still more unconventional than most cop movies ever made. Certainly Popeye Doyle’s (Gene Hackman) character doesn’t scream out for witty one-liners and muscle-bound action. In fact, the best Doyle can produce in the witticism department is “You pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?”. But its most unconventional position taken is the ending. And despite seeing it pop up on one of those “Movies with no endings” lists (but not The Day the Earth Caught Fire or The Birds, thank heavens) I can assure you, it has an ending. I can doubly assure you that the ending is the best possible ending it could have.
To this day, I’d have to say The French Connection has one of the bleakest endings to a movie I’ve ever seen. Not bleak as in all is lost but in the sense that a man’s soul is lost as he desperately looks for salvation in a closure that will never come. As Popeye Doyle and his partner, Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider), pursue heroin kingpin Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) into a dark, dank warehouse, Doyle sees a figure and fires. It’s not Charnier but a federal agent. When Russo points this out, all we see on Doyle’s face is bewildered frustration… and anger. Not that he killed an innocent man but that it wasn’t Charnier. He tears away and shortly after, in the distance, we hear another gunshot. Just one more. Doyle’s still shooting. Shooting at phantoms, at himself, at the boogeyman that is Charnier.
There is no moment where someone says, “He’s gone! Got away! Dammit!” No other point where Doyle walks back with Charnier in cuffs. No, it ends with that gunshot and Doyle lost to the viewer, lost in the shadows. If it’s possible for a documentary-style police procedural to achieve a kind of despairing beauty with its ending, The French Connection does it.
These three films taught me that movies don’t have to end on the tonic. They don’t have to end where an answer is given, one neat and tidy and easily digestible. They can end with a suggestion, a question or just a stopping point, a point where nothing more needs to be said. I don’t know if I’m ever going to have the time, money or inspiration to make a feature film but if I do, I hope I have the courage and talent to end the movie half as well as any one of these. And that’s final.
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