Resolve Nothing, Roll Credits

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.

102 Responses Resolve Nothing, Roll Credits
Posted By Dave S : July 27, 2011 8:53 am

The ending of The Birds (which you rightfully call one of Hitchcock’s most under rated movies; without it I don’t think there would have been a Night of the Living Dead and a whole host of other movies) is stellar. I can see it as a reaction to the negative reception the “explanation scene” at the end of Psycho received. What do you think the impact would have been if the planned Golden Gate Bridge ending had been included?

Posted By Dave S : July 27, 2011 8:53 am

The ending of The Birds (which you rightfully call one of Hitchcock’s most under rated movies; without it I don’t think there would have been a Night of the Living Dead and a whole host of other movies) is stellar. I can see it as a reaction to the negative reception the “explanation scene” at the end of Psycho received. What do you think the impact would have been if the planned Golden Gate Bridge ending had been included?

Posted By Adam Ross : July 27, 2011 9:17 am

Great points all around, I saw FRENCH CONNECTION fairly recently and still thought the ending was a great punch to the gut.

Another early “no ending” movie I really enjoy is I AM A FUGITIVE ON A CHAIN GANG. I can’t imagine how audiences took the fade out “I steal!” ending way back then, especially since it was based on a true story. It’s such an unexpectedly bleak closing, since those were relatively rare at the time.

Posted By Adam Ross : July 27, 2011 9:17 am

Great points all around, I saw FRENCH CONNECTION fairly recently and still thought the ending was a great punch to the gut.

Another early “no ending” movie I really enjoy is I AM A FUGITIVE ON A CHAIN GANG. I can’t imagine how audiences took the fade out “I steal!” ending way back then, especially since it was based on a true story. It’s such an unexpectedly bleak closing, since those were relatively rare at the time.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 27, 2011 10:02 am

Dave – There’s a whole discussion of the ending here on YouTube. As Evan Hunter says at the end, basically, you get the same effect, only in miniature, with the ending the film has. The Golden Gate difference simply confirms that the birds are everywhere, so it takes away the ambiguity of whether it was just Bodega Bay or not. But it still offers no explanation of anything, which I think is the right decision.

And, yes, like you I’ve always thought it was, perhaps, a reaction on Hitch’s part to the poorly received explanation ending of Psycho.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 27, 2011 10:02 am

Dave – There’s a whole discussion of the ending here on YouTube. As Evan Hunter says at the end, basically, you get the same effect, only in miniature, with the ending the film has. The Golden Gate difference simply confirms that the birds are everywhere, so it takes away the ambiguity of whether it was just Bodega Bay or not. But it still offers no explanation of anything, which I think is the right decision.

And, yes, like you I’ve always thought it was, perhaps, a reaction on Hitch’s part to the poorly received explanation ending of Psycho.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 27, 2011 10:07 am

Adam, the ending to I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is one of my favorite endings of all time! Two simple words and yet they sum up everything the movie is trying to say about the hellish system this man is caught in. Considering how hard it was at the time for so many people trying to survive, I imagine there was a mixed reaction. Half appreciating how honest the statement made was and half thinking, “Damn, just what I needed, more bleakness in my life!”

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 27, 2011 10:07 am

Adam, the ending to I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is one of my favorite endings of all time! Two simple words and yet they sum up everything the movie is trying to say about the hellish system this man is caught in. Considering how hard it was at the time for so many people trying to survive, I imagine there was a mixed reaction. Half appreciating how honest the statement made was and half thinking, “Damn, just what I needed, more bleakness in my life!”

Posted By bill r. : July 27, 2011 10:09 am

When I saw THE FRENCH CONNECTION as a kid, the ending really, really disturbed me. As you point out, it’s less to do with what happens than how Doyle reacts to it. The corpse of the FBI guy is just one more roadblock to him. Chilling, and the whole thing completely undid my idea of what was supposed to happen in movies like that.

Posted By bill r. : July 27, 2011 10:09 am

When I saw THE FRENCH CONNECTION as a kid, the ending really, really disturbed me. As you point out, it’s less to do with what happens than how Doyle reacts to it. The corpse of the FBI guy is just one more roadblock to him. Chilling, and the whole thing completely undid my idea of what was supposed to happen in movies like that.

Posted By Fred : July 27, 2011 10:32 am

I think this comes back to the fact that most people want some closure whether reading a book or watching a film, since there is no real closure in life. But the films that you illustrated are more close to true than the ones that neatly tie up all their loose ends before fading out to Bond, in the arms of the hottie du jour, about to be called by M about his next mission. This is like the “ending” of the Sopranos which caused a whole to do on the internet since David Chase didn’t neatly resolve all of the loose ends from the series. But the so-called non-ending is more true to life. And in the case of The French Connection, it seems especially fitting.

By the way, I was going to link to some SPAM advertisement, but wasn’t able to properly copy and paste it here. Maybe next time.

Posted By Fred : July 27, 2011 10:32 am

I think this comes back to the fact that most people want some closure whether reading a book or watching a film, since there is no real closure in life. But the films that you illustrated are more close to true than the ones that neatly tie up all their loose ends before fading out to Bond, in the arms of the hottie du jour, about to be called by M about his next mission. This is like the “ending” of the Sopranos which caused a whole to do on the internet since David Chase didn’t neatly resolve all of the loose ends from the series. But the so-called non-ending is more true to life. And in the case of The French Connection, it seems especially fitting.

By the way, I was going to link to some SPAM advertisement, but wasn’t able to properly copy and paste it here. Maybe next time.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 27, 2011 10:49 am

Bill, I read somewhere that the version that aired on television in the late seventies inserted a line by Doyle to ease the ending for people. The line was something like, “I’ll get that guy even if it takes the rest of my life!” This way, the audience kind of had an ending (he doesn’t have Charnier now but, by God, he will!) but I’m not sure if it made anyone feel any better about Doyle’s manic and coldhearted behavior. The ending is perfect as is.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 27, 2011 10:49 am

Bill, I read somewhere that the version that aired on television in the late seventies inserted a line by Doyle to ease the ending for people. The line was something like, “I’ll get that guy even if it takes the rest of my life!” This way, the audience kind of had an ending (he doesn’t have Charnier now but, by God, he will!) but I’m not sure if it made anyone feel any better about Doyle’s manic and coldhearted behavior. The ending is perfect as is.

Posted By Dave S : July 27, 2011 10:51 am

Really interesting Youtube clip about the original ending of The Birds, Greg. And the ending of I am a Fugutive from a Chain Gang is truly astounding and one of my favourites as well. I was completely unprepared for it the first time I watched it, and it had a deeply unsettling effect on me that I have a hard time describing.

Posted By Dave S : July 27, 2011 10:51 am

Really interesting Youtube clip about the original ending of The Birds, Greg. And the ending of I am a Fugutive from a Chain Gang is truly astounding and one of my favourites as well. I was completely unprepared for it the first time I watched it, and it had a deeply unsettling effect on me that I have a hard time describing.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 27, 2011 10:52 am

Fred, The Sopranos is a show I never watched so I’ve heard of that ending but don’t know any of the context. I almost want to watch all the seasons just so I can see the ending. Even without doing that, I can imagine people working themselves into fits because it didn’t end with every loose end tied up. Not only do I not mind that but I think it keeps the story alive in your head, if simply because you have to fill in the blanks as to where it went from there.

And Fred, I find your lack of spamming skills disturbing.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 27, 2011 10:52 am

Fred, The Sopranos is a show I never watched so I’ve heard of that ending but don’t know any of the context. I almost want to watch all the seasons just so I can see the ending. Even without doing that, I can imagine people working themselves into fits because it didn’t end with every loose end tied up. Not only do I not mind that but I think it keeps the story alive in your head, if simply because you have to fill in the blanks as to where it went from there.

And Fred, I find your lack of spamming skills disturbing.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 27, 2011 10:58 am

Dave – I first saw I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang when I was about 12 years old, I think. It was around that time that I was consuming any older or foreign film I could find. Anyway, I just knew how it would end. I mean, I’d seen thirties movies before. He’d escape and then be pardoned and walk away with Glenda Farrell, a little more hardened but none the worse for wear. Then came that ending! I couldn’t believe it and, yes, it sent chills down my spine.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 27, 2011 10:58 am

Dave – I first saw I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang when I was about 12 years old, I think. It was around that time that I was consuming any older or foreign film I could find. Anyway, I just knew how it would end. I mean, I’d seen thirties movies before. He’d escape and then be pardoned and walk away with Glenda Farrell, a little more hardened but none the worse for wear. Then came that ending! I couldn’t believe it and, yes, it sent chills down my spine.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : July 27, 2011 10:59 am

I recently had a conversation with someone about how the ending of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is one of the most chilling in movie history.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : July 27, 2011 10:59 am

I recently had a conversation with someone about how the ending of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is one of the most chilling in movie history.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 27, 2011 11:03 am

And it’s not presented in a big, dramatic sweep. It’s dark and quiet and still as he fades back into the night with that powerful line. Really incredible.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 27, 2011 11:03 am

And it’s not presented in a big, dramatic sweep. It’s dark and quiet and still as he fades back into the night with that powerful line. Really incredible.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : July 27, 2011 12:45 pm

As the man said – not with a bang, but a whimper.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : July 27, 2011 12:45 pm

As the man said – not with a bang, but a whimper.

Posted By chris : July 27, 2011 1:19 pm

The ending to John Carpenter’s The Thing. Is one of them the alien? Neither of them?

Posted By chris : July 27, 2011 1:19 pm

The ending to John Carpenter’s The Thing. Is one of them the alien? Neither of them?

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 27, 2011 1:23 pm

Just watched the original again on TCM the other night for the, oh, I don’t know, 20th time and was thinking about the two and how they differ (with the remake following the source story much closer) but it didn’t occur to me until now that, yes, it is an ambiguous ending. If neither is an alien (my feeling on it), they both freeze to death and the world is saved. If one of them is, we’re doomed.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 27, 2011 1:23 pm

Just watched the original again on TCM the other night for the, oh, I don’t know, 20th time and was thinking about the two and how they differ (with the remake following the source story much closer) but it didn’t occur to me until now that, yes, it is an ambiguous ending. If neither is an alien (my feeling on it), they both freeze to death and the world is saved. If one of them is, we’re doomed.

Posted By DBenson : July 27, 2011 3:06 pm

I think any movie has to end on some sort of turning point, whether it’s a conventional wrap, a pointed reversion to the status quo (which could play either comic or tragic), or even just a hint something is going to change.

“City Lights” gives us the tramp, worn down and defeated, and the girl, realizing the truth. It doesn’t take us any further than that — we want to infer a happy ending, but all we get is that hopeful but not really optimistic closeup. Still, the secret that drove the whole film is out. That’s a clear endpoint.

“Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” simply says the vacation ended. His mild flirtation with a young woman comes to naught, but not in a dramatic or emotional way — In the fuss of departure, it’s not worth bumbling his way through a crowded little party. You can choose to read it as poignant, or even tragic, but all we actually see is Hulot going home with a shrug. It’s possible he’ll forget his trip entirely in a few months.

Contrast to “Mon Oncle”, where Hulot’s quirky old neighborhood and off-center existence are both being rebuilt to somebody else’s modern standards. The ending is almost literally as subtle as a wrecking ball.

Posted By DBenson : July 27, 2011 3:06 pm

I think any movie has to end on some sort of turning point, whether it’s a conventional wrap, a pointed reversion to the status quo (which could play either comic or tragic), or even just a hint something is going to change.

“City Lights” gives us the tramp, worn down and defeated, and the girl, realizing the truth. It doesn’t take us any further than that — we want to infer a happy ending, but all we get is that hopeful but not really optimistic closeup. Still, the secret that drove the whole film is out. That’s a clear endpoint.

“Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” simply says the vacation ended. His mild flirtation with a young woman comes to naught, but not in a dramatic or emotional way — In the fuss of departure, it’s not worth bumbling his way through a crowded little party. You can choose to read it as poignant, or even tragic, but all we actually see is Hulot going home with a shrug. It’s possible he’ll forget his trip entirely in a few months.

Contrast to “Mon Oncle”, where Hulot’s quirky old neighborhood and off-center existence are both being rebuilt to somebody else’s modern standards. The ending is almost literally as subtle as a wrecking ball.

Posted By Emgee : July 27, 2011 3:35 pm

One reason why The French Connection (one of my all-time favourites) had to end the way it did was of course because it was based on an actual case. In reality Frog Number One wasn’t caught either, so it made sense to end on a down note. But is was refreshing for Friedkin to go that way. Typical Seventies “Life’s just like that” anti-Hollywood ending.
Oh, and kudos to Friedkin for not directing Part Two.
Talk about missing the point……

On the subject of Hitchcock: the ending of The Wrong Man must be one of the bleakest in movie history.

Posted By Emgee : July 27, 2011 3:35 pm

One reason why The French Connection (one of my all-time favourites) had to end the way it did was of course because it was based on an actual case. In reality Frog Number One wasn’t caught either, so it made sense to end on a down note. But is was refreshing for Friedkin to go that way. Typical Seventies “Life’s just like that” anti-Hollywood ending.
Oh, and kudos to Friedkin for not directing Part Two.
Talk about missing the point……

On the subject of Hitchcock: the ending of The Wrong Man must be one of the bleakest in movie history.

Posted By Tom S : July 27, 2011 5:50 pm

Ending without resolution has become kind of a thing lately- Fincher’s Zodiac and No Country, of course, and two of my favorite movies this year, Certified Copy and Meek’s Cutoff. In any movie whose themes are about the uncertainty of what you think you know, or the foolishness of thinking you can ever really accomplish anything- movies designed as anodynes to some of the things we believe because we’ve seen them so often in fiction- it makes sense to cap it by refusing to tell the audience what has happened, how it all ends. When do you ever know that in real life?

Posted By Tom S : July 27, 2011 5:50 pm

Ending without resolution has become kind of a thing lately- Fincher’s Zodiac and No Country, of course, and two of my favorite movies this year, Certified Copy and Meek’s Cutoff. In any movie whose themes are about the uncertainty of what you think you know, or the foolishness of thinking you can ever really accomplish anything- movies designed as anodynes to some of the things we believe because we’ve seen them so often in fiction- it makes sense to cap it by refusing to tell the audience what has happened, how it all ends. When do you ever know that in real life?

Posted By DBenson : July 27, 2011 6:32 pm

The trick is defining resolution. A character (or the audience) realizing the puzzle doesn’t have an answer is a resolution. Abruptly (but not arbitrarily) opening a huge new can of worms can be a resolution.

Sometimes the perfect ending is to say “at that moment things got REALLY ***ed up.”

Posted By DBenson : July 27, 2011 6:32 pm

The trick is defining resolution. A character (or the audience) realizing the puzzle doesn’t have an answer is a resolution. Abruptly (but not arbitrarily) opening a huge new can of worms can be a resolution.

Sometimes the perfect ending is to say “at that moment things got REALLY ***ed up.”

Posted By smallerdemon : July 27, 2011 7:14 pm

One of my favorite Jarmusch films, BROKEN FLOWERS, is a text book case of unresolved ending that breaks away at the end in midst of a critical point for the protagonist. It is one of my favorite movies because of that.

I always felt that in large part FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS closes on mostly an unresolved note as well. Gilliam attempts to finalize it as best he can in the film as a closing note of Raoul Duke saying goodbye to the 60s, but you feel the impending openness before you as the small crack of the 70s that was separating Raoul Duke from the 60s opens wide and becomes a chasm that he knows he can never cross back over into and that he knows nothing in the future can ever match the greatness of that time in the 60s. You feel the doom and misdirection and future of dark uncertainty lying ahead of him and the United States in that moment. It always leaves me a little weird feeling at the end no matter how often I watch it.

Posted By smallerdemon : July 27, 2011 7:14 pm

One of my favorite Jarmusch films, BROKEN FLOWERS, is a text book case of unresolved ending that breaks away at the end in midst of a critical point for the protagonist. It is one of my favorite movies because of that.

I always felt that in large part FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS closes on mostly an unresolved note as well. Gilliam attempts to finalize it as best he can in the film as a closing note of Raoul Duke saying goodbye to the 60s, but you feel the impending openness before you as the small crack of the 70s that was separating Raoul Duke from the 60s opens wide and becomes a chasm that he knows he can never cross back over into and that he knows nothing in the future can ever match the greatness of that time in the 60s. You feel the doom and misdirection and future of dark uncertainty lying ahead of him and the United States in that moment. It always leaves me a little weird feeling at the end no matter how often I watch it.

Posted By bmj2k : July 27, 2011 7:35 pm

To hear people say that The Birds and The French Connection don’t have endings makes you wonder if they had their brains turned on. Not every moive has a literal “end of story here” but there is always (in well-made films) a finish. It may be a thematic finish, an end of tone or a conclusion of mood, but there is always an appropriate place to stop. It doesn’t have to be as simple as “end of narrative.”

Posted By bmj2k : July 27, 2011 7:35 pm

To hear people say that The Birds and The French Connection don’t have endings makes you wonder if they had their brains turned on. Not every moive has a literal “end of story here” but there is always (in well-made films) a finish. It may be a thematic finish, an end of tone or a conclusion of mood, but there is always an appropriate place to stop. It doesn’t have to be as simple as “end of narrative.”

Posted By Kingrat : July 27, 2011 8:22 pm

THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR has a similar ending. Robert Redford goes out to buy a newspaper. Will the story of what happened be a front page headline, or will it be suppressed altogether? Films in the 1970s could have downbeat endings, but CONDOR wants to allow for the possibility that the good guys might win this one time.

Posted By Kingrat : July 27, 2011 8:22 pm

THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR has a similar ending. Robert Redford goes out to buy a newspaper. Will the story of what happened be a front page headline, or will it be suppressed altogether? Films in the 1970s could have downbeat endings, but CONDOR wants to allow for the possibility that the good guys might win this one time.

Posted By Tom S : July 27, 2011 11:33 pm

A lot of times that kind of ending is used when the moviemaker doesn’t want either to have a falsely upbeat ending nor to totally crush your hopes- it ends with a coin toss still in midair kind of thing, like Inception. That’s sort of less ‘no ending’ and more ‘one of two endings, but you don’t know which’

Posted By Tom S : July 27, 2011 11:33 pm

A lot of times that kind of ending is used when the moviemaker doesn’t want either to have a falsely upbeat ending nor to totally crush your hopes- it ends with a coin toss still in midair kind of thing, like Inception. That’s sort of less ‘no ending’ and more ‘one of two endings, but you don’t know which’

Posted By Z : July 28, 2011 1:21 am

Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop and Jim McBride’s 1983 remake of Breathless. Two great movies, two fantastic endings.

Posted By Z : July 28, 2011 1:21 am

Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop and Jim McBride’s 1983 remake of Breathless. Two great movies, two fantastic endings.

Posted By Christopher : July 28, 2011 1:28 am

I was taught in a college Playwriting course an interesting method of fleshing out a story by first drawing an Oil well or Pyramid shape,writing in your ending(KNOW your ending!) at the peak and working your way down either side,marking down events that lead to that ending..
So many films I’ve seen in recent years have this sort of, “Lets stop now,we’ve run out of money and ideas” style of finis.

Posted By Christopher : July 28, 2011 1:28 am

I was taught in a college Playwriting course an interesting method of fleshing out a story by first drawing an Oil well or Pyramid shape,writing in your ending(KNOW your ending!) at the peak and working your way down either side,marking down events that lead to that ending..
So many films I’ve seen in recent years have this sort of, “Lets stop now,we’ve run out of money and ideas” style of finis.

Posted By dukeroberts : July 28, 2011 1:58 am

Fail-Safe. Did the world get blown all to hell at the end or what? We’ll never know. Or do we? Will the world find out the truth about The Parallax View? Did Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid survive? Did Anton Sigurh kill that lady? Who knows the answer to these questions? No one, as it should be. I like it that way sometimes.

One movie whose end was ruined by a tidy Hollywood wrap up was L.A. Confidential. The perfect ending would have been Edmond Exley pulling out his badge as the headlights shone on him at the Victory Motel. That would have been a perfect noir ending. Instead, we get to see Exley tell the story, get awarded and promoted, Bud White is alive(!), and Bud and Lynn ride away together. I have turned it off a couple of times right as he pulls out his badge. It’s perfect just like that. (I’ve also turned off the color, but I’m weird.)

And the end of Secondhand Lions made me mad. Throughout the whole movie you hear the stories of the adventures of the two old uncles, but aren’t sure if they’re true. You don’t know what to believe, until the end when the grandson of the Shiek (or whoever the guy was) flies up in his helicopter. Didn’t need to see that. There’s something to be said for ambiguous endings.

Posted By dukeroberts : July 28, 2011 1:58 am

Fail-Safe. Did the world get blown all to hell at the end or what? We’ll never know. Or do we? Will the world find out the truth about The Parallax View? Did Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid survive? Did Anton Sigurh kill that lady? Who knows the answer to these questions? No one, as it should be. I like it that way sometimes.

One movie whose end was ruined by a tidy Hollywood wrap up was L.A. Confidential. The perfect ending would have been Edmond Exley pulling out his badge as the headlights shone on him at the Victory Motel. That would have been a perfect noir ending. Instead, we get to see Exley tell the story, get awarded and promoted, Bud White is alive(!), and Bud and Lynn ride away together. I have turned it off a couple of times right as he pulls out his badge. It’s perfect just like that. (I’ve also turned off the color, but I’m weird.)

And the end of Secondhand Lions made me mad. Throughout the whole movie you hear the stories of the adventures of the two old uncles, but aren’t sure if they’re true. You don’t know what to believe, until the end when the grandson of the Shiek (or whoever the guy was) flies up in his helicopter. Didn’t need to see that. There’s something to be said for ambiguous endings.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 28, 2011 8:45 am

Damn, I hate being offline for sustained periods. I’ve missed a great conversation on endings that I haven’t been able to respond to. Oh well.

Emgee, yes, it had to end that way because it was based on a true story but they still could have given it a solid ending, like they tried to do on tv, by having Doyle say “I’ll find him, one day!” What they went for instead was quite beautiful.

And, yes, could FCII be more purposeless as a movie?

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 28, 2011 8:45 am

Damn, I hate being offline for sustained periods. I’ve missed a great conversation on endings that I haven’t been able to respond to. Oh well.

Emgee, yes, it had to end that way because it was based on a true story but they still could have given it a solid ending, like they tried to do on tv, by having Doyle say “I’ll find him, one day!” What they went for instead was quite beautiful.

And, yes, could FCII be more purposeless as a movie?

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 28, 2011 8:47 am

Most unresolved endings fit into the Day the Earth Caught Fire model: That is, a couple of possibilities but we’re not told which one occurs. Many of the examples given here are like that and while I love those endings, I wish more movies went with the French Connection or The Birds models. Not a lot, mind you, because it really only fits certain stories well, but more than we’ve got.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 28, 2011 8:47 am

Most unresolved endings fit into the Day the Earth Caught Fire model: That is, a couple of possibilities but we’re not told which one occurs. Many of the examples given here are like that and while I love those endings, I wish more movies went with the French Connection or The Birds models. Not a lot, mind you, because it really only fits certain stories well, but more than we’ve got.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 28, 2011 8:56 am

Also, for those unfamiliar with the term “tonic”, it’s a musical term indicating the primary key in which a piece is written and 98 percent of all music ends on the tonic key. A great cinematic moment about this is when Mozart backhandedly “praises” Salieri’s ability to end his pieces on the tonic, “so the audience knows to applaud.”

Most endings are designed not to necessarily wrap up the story but strongly indicate the end. Nothing is completely wrapped up in, say, Casablanca, but the movie has clearly ended and the audience knows it. And that’s not a bad thing at all, especially in Casablanca. Just trying to give some further clarification. Now, to make it unresolved, Rick could give Ilsa the speech and as she goes to the plane we follow her on board. Then, they see the Nazis driving in as their plane takes off and we hear multiple gunshots as we see Ilsa’s face, wondering if Rick is still alive. The audience never knows what happens beyond that. Did Rick sacrifice himself for Victor and Ilsa? Did he kill the Nazis and flee? Did Renault kill him? Who knows, only, we do but it could have been different.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 28, 2011 8:56 am

Also, for those unfamiliar with the term “tonic”, it’s a musical term indicating the primary key in which a piece is written and 98 percent of all music ends on the tonic key. A great cinematic moment about this is when Mozart backhandedly “praises” Salieri’s ability to end his pieces on the tonic, “so the audience knows to applaud.”

Most endings are designed not to necessarily wrap up the story but strongly indicate the end. Nothing is completely wrapped up in, say, Casablanca, but the movie has clearly ended and the audience knows it. And that’s not a bad thing at all, especially in Casablanca. Just trying to give some further clarification. Now, to make it unresolved, Rick could give Ilsa the speech and as she goes to the plane we follow her on board. Then, they see the Nazis driving in as their plane takes off and we hear multiple gunshots as we see Ilsa’s face, wondering if Rick is still alive. The audience never knows what happens beyond that. Did Rick sacrifice himself for Victor and Ilsa? Did he kill the Nazis and flee? Did Renault kill him? Who knows, only, we do but it could have been different.

Posted By CitizenKing : July 28, 2011 10:28 am

One of my favorite ambiguous endings (and one which drives my daughter crazy) is the original The Italian Job. How much better ending could you imagine? A bus filled with gold teetering on the edge of a cliff, and Michael Caine saying “I’ve got an idea.”

Posted By CitizenKing : July 28, 2011 10:28 am

One of my favorite ambiguous endings (and one which drives my daughter crazy) is the original The Italian Job. How much better ending could you imagine? A bus filled with gold teetering on the edge of a cliff, and Michael Caine saying “I’ve got an idea.”

Posted By Fantomex : July 29, 2011 9:42 am

@dukeroberts: Fail-Safe‘s ending is simple; New York is nuked. We see the freeze frames of the people as we hear that the bombs are falling, obviously.

Posted By Fantomex : July 29, 2011 9:42 am

@dukeroberts: Fail-Safe‘s ending is simple; New York is nuked. We see the freeze frames of the people as we hear that the bombs are falling, obviously.

Posted By Fred : July 29, 2011 11:01 am

I always loved the end title card of Barry Lyndon: “It was in the reign of King George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.” Isn’t that really the point?

Posted By Fred : July 29, 2011 11:01 am

I always loved the end title card of Barry Lyndon: “It was in the reign of King George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.” Isn’t that really the point?

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 29, 2011 11:32 am

Fred, those words are words that give my life meaning. It’s like Bill Lee used to say when facing down a particularly dangerous batter, “In 100 billion years, when the whole universe is cold and dead and lifeless, no one’s going to care whether I struck this guy out.” It helps during periods of stress to recall that all things end, no matter what stopping point we assign them, and permanently.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 29, 2011 11:32 am

Fred, those words are words that give my life meaning. It’s like Bill Lee used to say when facing down a particularly dangerous batter, “In 100 billion years, when the whole universe is cold and dead and lifeless, no one’s going to care whether I struck this guy out.” It helps during periods of stress to recall that all things end, no matter what stopping point we assign them, and permanently.

Posted By davidkalat : July 29, 2011 12:41 pm

I want to thank DBenson for bringing up some examples of comedies with ambiguous open endings, because it’s almost too easy to come up with examples of open-ended horror films. Greg, your point about ambiguous endings as a triteness-avoidance strategy is well taken. That may be why horror movies feel more comfortable with narrative loose-ends.

For example, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s CURE. There’s a “killer” at loose who somehow has been compelling his victims to commit suicide (it’s never entirey clear how he does this). The main character, a detective, successfully defeats the “killer” in circumstances that aren’t wholly unlike the final scene of FRENCH CONNECTION, only then to apparently have absorbed the ability himself. It’s one thing for a cold-blooded monster with a clinical fascination for murder to have the ability to psychically induce suicides, but it’s a whole helluva lot worse to put that power in the damaged psyche of a deeply flawed man full of remorse, self-hatred, and fury.

The film “ends” at what in any other situation would be the starting point of the story–this is where it gets interesting! Fade to black!

Posted By davidkalat : July 29, 2011 12:41 pm

I want to thank DBenson for bringing up some examples of comedies with ambiguous open endings, because it’s almost too easy to come up with examples of open-ended horror films. Greg, your point about ambiguous endings as a triteness-avoidance strategy is well taken. That may be why horror movies feel more comfortable with narrative loose-ends.

For example, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s CURE. There’s a “killer” at loose who somehow has been compelling his victims to commit suicide (it’s never entirey clear how he does this). The main character, a detective, successfully defeats the “killer” in circumstances that aren’t wholly unlike the final scene of FRENCH CONNECTION, only then to apparently have absorbed the ability himself. It’s one thing for a cold-blooded monster with a clinical fascination for murder to have the ability to psychically induce suicides, but it’s a whole helluva lot worse to put that power in the damaged psyche of a deeply flawed man full of remorse, self-hatred, and fury.

The film “ends” at what in any other situation would be the starting point of the story–this is where it gets interesting! Fade to black!

Posted By Juana Maria : July 29, 2011 2:44 pm

The Sean Connery movie”The Hill”. Sad.

Posted By Juana Maria : July 29, 2011 2:44 pm

The Sean Connery movie”The Hill”. Sad.

Posted By dukeroberts : July 29, 2011 3:31 pm

Fantomex- That part I got, but did it end with just New York being bombed? A sitting U.S. President nukes the largest city and that’s how it ends? There’s got to be more after that, but we don’t need to know.

Posted By dukeroberts : July 29, 2011 3:31 pm

Fantomex- That part I got, but did it end with just New York being bombed? A sitting U.S. President nukes the largest city and that’s how it ends? There’s got to be more after that, but we don’t need to know.

Posted By dukeroberts : July 29, 2011 3:35 pm

How about The Graduate? It’s obvious those two would not live happily ever after. It ends with each one showing signs of regret. I think that might be considered a somewhat ambiguous ending.

Posted By dukeroberts : July 29, 2011 3:35 pm

How about The Graduate? It’s obvious those two would not live happily ever after. It ends with each one showing signs of regret. I think that might be considered a somewhat ambiguous ending.

Posted By Sam Juliano : July 29, 2011 5:20 pm

One of the most famous endings ever is the one that was tacked on by Allied Artists to Don Siegel’s sci-fi classic, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956). Afraid of frightening audiences beyond repair, it was implied that the pods would be apprehended and the invasion haulted after Dr. Miles Bennell warns the authorities. Though this is one of my favorite films ever since childhood, I always laughed at teh hokey premise of the “psychiatrist” barking orders, as if he were police chief. But the ending here is indeed an issue, as Finney’s original novel ended bleakly, as did the original film here before studio interference.

Posted By Sam Juliano : July 29, 2011 5:20 pm

One of the most famous endings ever is the one that was tacked on by Allied Artists to Don Siegel’s sci-fi classic, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956). Afraid of frightening audiences beyond repair, it was implied that the pods would be apprehended and the invasion haulted after Dr. Miles Bennell warns the authorities. Though this is one of my favorite films ever since childhood, I always laughed at teh hokey premise of the “psychiatrist” barking orders, as if he were police chief. But the ending here is indeed an issue, as Finney’s original novel ended bleakly, as did the original film here before studio interference.

Posted By morlockjeff : July 29, 2011 6:51 pm

Lots of great examples in the comments as well – Certified Copy, Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View. Zodiac.

Two more that come to mind – the frenzied climax to Kihachi Okamoto’s KILL! (1968) that ends in freeze-frame. And the ambiguous ending of CUTTER’S WAY (1981, aka CUTTER AND BONE) which is so different from Newton Thornburg’s novel (which might be the most chilling ending of any book I read in the seventies).

Posted By morlockjeff : July 29, 2011 6:51 pm

Lots of great examples in the comments as well – Certified Copy, Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View. Zodiac.

Two more that come to mind – the frenzied climax to Kihachi Okamoto’s KILL! (1968) that ends in freeze-frame. And the ambiguous ending of CUTTER’S WAY (1981, aka CUTTER AND BONE) which is so different from Newton Thornburg’s novel (which might be the most chilling ending of any book I read in the seventies).

Posted By Jenni : July 29, 2011 9:31 pm

A bit off topic, but a Simpson’s tv show repeat the other night had a tiny homage to No Country for Old Men. The Simpson’s clan was using another apartment’s address, in a better suburb, as their own address, so their kids could go to a better school, only to find out that Javier Bardem’s character from NCFOM was hired by the better school district, to check out new students’ addresses, and take care of lying parents trying to pull one over on the school district. Javier Bardem was a good sport in all of this, even voicing his character for the cartoon.

Posted By Jenni : July 29, 2011 9:31 pm

A bit off topic, but a Simpson’s tv show repeat the other night had a tiny homage to No Country for Old Men. The Simpson’s clan was using another apartment’s address, in a better suburb, as their own address, so their kids could go to a better school, only to find out that Javier Bardem’s character from NCFOM was hired by the better school district, to check out new students’ addresses, and take care of lying parents trying to pull one over on the school district. Javier Bardem was a good sport in all of this, even voicing his character for the cartoon.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 29, 2011 11:57 pm

“A sitting U.S. President nukes the largest city and that’s how it ends? There’s got to be more after that”

Duke, one thing’s for sure: There is no freakin’ way that guy gets re-elected!

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 29, 2011 11:57 pm

“A sitting U.S. President nukes the largest city and that’s how it ends? There’s got to be more after that”

Duke, one thing’s for sure: There is no freakin’ way that guy gets re-elected!

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 30, 2011 12:05 am

David, I’ve been recommended that movie by the esteemed blogger Peter Nellhaus, a veritable expert in Asian horror. Sounds quite stunning in many ways.

I watched The Italian Job again last night (it’s on Netflix Instant for the curious) thanks to CitizenKing’s mention, in which the movie ends with the visual joke of a literal cliffhanger. One never resolved, of course. Now, I think a viewing of Cure is in order.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 30, 2011 12:05 am

David, I’ve been recommended that movie by the esteemed blogger Peter Nellhaus, a veritable expert in Asian horror. Sounds quite stunning in many ways.

I watched The Italian Job again last night (it’s on Netflix Instant for the curious) thanks to CitizenKing’s mention, in which the movie ends with the visual joke of a literal cliffhanger. One never resolved, of course. Now, I think a viewing of Cure is in order.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 30, 2011 12:10 am

Sam, I love the original ending the best, which you can arrive at by stopping the movie before they get the call of the truck being stopped with all the pods in it. The bleak ending works best, especially as a warning to never let vigilance die in the face of cultural/political/enemy invasion.

By the way, on the subject of “Movies I decide where they end” my favorite there is The Magnificent Ambersons. After the camera beautifully pulls back from the weeping George Minifer as Orson intones that all who wanted to see his comeuppance were either dead or no longer cared, the movie ends. Right there. I stop it. It provides full and brilliant closure to the story and character. As Dylan might have said, he’s now a complete unknown.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 30, 2011 12:10 am

Sam, I love the original ending the best, which you can arrive at by stopping the movie before they get the call of the truck being stopped with all the pods in it. The bleak ending works best, especially as a warning to never let vigilance die in the face of cultural/political/enemy invasion.

By the way, on the subject of “Movies I decide where they end” my favorite there is The Magnificent Ambersons. After the camera beautifully pulls back from the weeping George Minifer as Orson intones that all who wanted to see his comeuppance were either dead or no longer cared, the movie ends. Right there. I stop it. It provides full and brilliant closure to the story and character. As Dylan might have said, he’s now a complete unknown.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 30, 2011 12:13 am

Jeff, I do so dearly love the ending of Cutter’s Way. SPOILER – For me, the ending isn’t so much ambiguous, though, as it is telling of Bone’s essential cowardly/non-committal personality. Note, as I’m sure you have, he never removes the gun from Cutter’s dead hand. He fires the final shot but can easily claim Cutter shot him before he died. It’s a brilliant way of showing that even in the face of evil – even while his friend lies dead – Bone will not take a full stand. Amazing. END SPOILER. Great movie.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 30, 2011 12:13 am

Jeff, I do so dearly love the ending of Cutter’s Way. SPOILER – For me, the ending isn’t so much ambiguous, though, as it is telling of Bone’s essential cowardly/non-committal personality. Note, as I’m sure you have, he never removes the gun from Cutter’s dead hand. He fires the final shot but can easily claim Cutter shot him before he died. It’s a brilliant way of showing that even in the face of evil – even while his friend lies dead – Bone will not take a full stand. Amazing. END SPOILER. Great movie.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 30, 2011 12:15 am

Jenni, I haven’t watched The Simpsons in some time but Javier Bardem reprising Chighur? That I gotta see.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 30, 2011 12:15 am

Jenni, I haven’t watched The Simpsons in some time but Javier Bardem reprising Chighur? That I gotta see.

Posted By Fantomex : July 30, 2011 6:05 am

@dukeroberts: SPOILER-New York is allowed to be nuked by the USSR as a way of atoning for the USA having a computer controlled system malfunction and send a bomber to nuke a Russian city. The USA obviously does not retaliate because that was the terms of the deal agreed between the USA and the USSR.-END SPOILER.

Posted By Fantomex : July 30, 2011 6:05 am

@dukeroberts: SPOILER-New York is allowed to be nuked by the USSR as a way of atoning for the USA having a computer controlled system malfunction and send a bomber to nuke a Russian city. The USA obviously does not retaliate because that was the terms of the deal agreed between the USA and the USSR.-END SPOILER.

Posted By dukeroberts : July 30, 2011 11:15 am

Fantomex- I could have sworn that the President ordered American bombers to bomb New York to make up for the mistaken bomb drop on Russia. I believe that decision was reached because he didn’t want to allow a Russian bomb to do it out of revenge. Am I wrong? It’s been over a year since I saw it.

Posted By dukeroberts : July 30, 2011 11:15 am

Fantomex- I could have sworn that the President ordered American bombers to bomb New York to make up for the mistaken bomb drop on Russia. I believe that decision was reached because he didn’t want to allow a Russian bomb to do it out of revenge. Am I wrong? It’s been over a year since I saw it.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 30, 2011 11:25 am

Duke, no, you’re right, that’s how it ends. I think Fantomex was saying that it’s not ambiguous since that is what happens and we know that is what happens.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 30, 2011 11:25 am

Duke, no, you’re right, that’s how it ends. I think Fantomex was saying that it’s not ambiguous since that is what happens and we know that is what happens.

Posted By morlockjeff : July 30, 2011 12:49 pm

Re: CUTTER’S WAY. Yes, I love the fact that Bone’s weak character is confirmed in that last shot though I’m not convinced he will hit his mark. He is a failure in so many ways. The ambiguous part for me is that even if the evil corporate deity is killed what has been gained? Justice does not play a part in the film’s downbeat view of a post-Vietnam America.

Posted By morlockjeff : July 30, 2011 12:49 pm

Re: CUTTER’S WAY. Yes, I love the fact that Bone’s weak character is confirmed in that last shot though I’m not convinced he will hit his mark. He is a failure in so many ways. The ambiguous part for me is that even if the evil corporate deity is killed what has been gained? Justice does not play a part in the film’s downbeat view of a post-Vietnam America.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 30, 2011 4:03 pm

I’m not convinced he will hit his mark. He is a failure in so many ways.

Ha, I never thought of it like that. He may well miss, you’re right. A terrific movie, I’ll have to read the book one of these days.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 30, 2011 4:03 pm

I’m not convinced he will hit his mark. He is a failure in so many ways.

Ha, I never thought of it like that. He may well miss, you’re right. A terrific movie, I’ll have to read the book one of these days.

Posted By Al Lowe : September 12, 2011 2:59 am

While reading this, I kept thinking of Danny Kaye’s great song, “Give Me a Happy Ending Every Time,” from ON THE RIVIERA.

Sylvia Kaye, of course, wrote it. I wonder if it was a reaction from the Kayes or Fox to the message picture mentality of Dore Schary at MGM. Kaye didn’t make a movie at MGM until after Schary left.

Posted By Al Lowe : September 12, 2011 2:59 am

While reading this, I kept thinking of Danny Kaye’s great song, “Give Me a Happy Ending Every Time,” from ON THE RIVIERA.

Sylvia Kaye, of course, wrote it. I wonder if it was a reaction from the Kayes or Fox to the message picture mentality of Dore Schary at MGM. Kaye didn’t make a movie at MGM until after Schary left.

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