Posted by Greg Ferrara on January 23, 2013
No, not the movie with Hume Cronyn, but an actual question about the beginnings and endings of movies. Probably the majority of all movies ever made could be accurately described as having serviceable beginnings and serviceable endings. The movies might be great but the beginning or the ending or both are just, you know, serviceable. Like Casablanca. It has a great ending, one of the best ever. The beginning, however, is simply good, sturdy and, well, serviceable. There’s the narration, the fish-out-of-water couple being taken for a ride and our introduction to Rick’s Cafe Americain. It’s all quite good and necessary but not particularly over the moon. Other movies open with a bold stroke and sometimes even end with one too at which point you have to ask, which is better, the beginning or the end? To be clear, I’m not talking about grand finales, that’s a completely different animal (and one I’d like to post on soon). I’m not talking about the endings to big epics with special effects and explosions and the whole budget up their on the screen. I’m talking about comedies and dramas, horror and sci-fi and westerns and maybe a musical or two that really do a great job starting and finishing their stories.
Case in point: The Godfather. This movie has one of the greatest openings of any movie ever made. In fact, “I believe in America…” is such a great line to lead into a story about the Mafia and how they made the American system work for them that I would think it was great even if it wasn’t delivered by an actor who is not, in any way, a major player in the movie. That’s the second bold stroke. The entire opening shot, slowly pulling back from close-up to medium shot, is of actor Salvatore Corsitto, playing mortician Bonasera, and not of any major actor in the movie. I could probably go on about a few other things that make the opening so great but let’s leave it at that for now and focus on the genius of the ending. Now, I’m not talking about the lead-in to the ending – the amazing baptism sequence – I’m talking about the ending, where Michael lies to Kay and then, as she watches men kiss Michael’s ring, the door closes on her, shutting her out.
It’s not as bold in an obvious way as the opening shot but perhaps that’s what makes it better. The idea of a door shutting out a character as the movie goes to credits has its most famous representative in John Ford’s The Searchers but for different reasons. In that one, Ethan (John Wayne) is walking off into history, so to speak. He walks away because he cannot remain, because his world is going away and retreating fast. Kay, on the other hand, is being disconnected, against her will and at the hands of men who do not have anyone’s interest in their minds except Michael’s. The message is clear: You are not welcome here. It’s a chilling ending and the perfect bookend to an immigrant’s profession of faith in America. The beginning is great but the ending is unsurpassed.
Sticking with the seventies for a moment I can’t help but mention Jaws. There’s a beginning that shoots adrenaline into the viewer’s heart from the moment the swimmer lets out her first gasp and doesn’t let up until she submerges for the last time. The ending, on the other hand, of Brody and Hooper paddling back on a flotation piece, is good and satisfying but cannot match that opening.
Before we get too hung up on one decade, let’s swing back to the twenties and work our way forward. Sunrise has an opening that is simply magnificent. I describe it in detail here but to take it down to its most basic elements, director F. W. Murnau sets up shots of the city, a train station in particular, and through an exhilarating series of optical overlays takes everything from one step to the next until we are in the country, with each step along the way changing the pace until the slow countryside pace has been arrived at without a noticeable change in the action. The closing shot, no matter how moving, cannot match the opening for sheer story-telling genius.
Moving into the thirties we arrive at one of the greatest movies of the decade, I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, and a clear winner for the ending over the beginning. If you haven’t seen the movie I highly recommend it. Also, if you haven’t seen it, it would take too long to describe the ending’s impact. The scene is quick and simple and ends with two words by Paul Muni that are only meaningful if you’ve seen the whole movie. For those who have seen it, you know what I mean. For those who haven’t seen it, check it out as soon as you can.
Another great ending from the thirties goes by the name of King Kong. Again, we’re talking about the very end here, not the spectacular lead-ins (spectacular finales can be and probably soon will be its own post) but the part where Kong lays dead at the foot of the Empire State Building and the policeman says, “Well, Denham, the airplanes got him,” to which Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) replies, “Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.” Unbeatable.
Or how about The Bride of Frankenstein? The opening is a rather clever way of stitching the first film directly to the second but the end is simply amazing. One of best, from Pretorious anointing his co-creation “the Bride of Frankenstein” and the bride hissing at the monster to the monster giving Dr. Frankenstein a pass while declaring to Pretorious and the bride, “We belong dead.” Poetry.
Moving to the forties we find the movie used as a benchmark for all other films (well, except now Vertigo, I guess), Citizen Kane. And it’s got both a great beginning and a great ending but I’ve got to give it to the beginning on this one. The ending is justly praised as the camera moves in ever closer on the colossal pile of Kane’s physical memory until someone grabs a sled and walks it over to the incinerator. And we all know what happens next. But that opening is magnificent. The ever changing fences, the forbidding sign, the lit window always staying center screen until we finally go inside and see the dying man whisper his final word before dropping the snow globe that moments before was in focus, full screen.
To the fifties and we meet up with On the Waterfront, a movie with as powerful an opening and a closing as I can think of (whatever you may think of its politics and motives). The ending, with Terry walking beaten and injured to the cargo hold to do a day’s work and inspire his fellow dockworkers is a great one but I go with the opening for sheer power. It’s not often that a movie opens with the protagonist coaxing someone to their death.
The sixties brings us West Side Story and it’s a musical that ends with a mournful scene as the climax to the doomed love that anchors the story. But nothing, in my opinion, ever beats that opening, an opening so iconic upon arrival that director Robert Wise used it again in The Sound of Music though it didn’t really make much sense there. In West Side Story, it makes perfect sense. In fact, even though I’m not the biggest fan of the movie, I think the opening is one of the best there is. It begins from high above New York as we see the the buildings and streets in miniature, well below and anonymous. It could be anyone’s generic view from a window seat on an airplane. The camera moves and we go further back, away from Manhattan and the corporate skyscrapers and down to the neighborhoods, the personal buildings, the parks, the basketball courts until, finally, we focus our gaze on particular set of young men, snapping their fingers. It’s a brilliant way of saying, “Here is the city, always viewed from afar, its tourist sections populated, its poorer sections never viewed up close but now, we’re going to force you in to that view and start our story.” That’s why it doesn’t really make sense for The Sound of Music. The shot is all about forcing the viewer into an area of the city that the average person knows nothing about and generally avoids.
And that brings us back to the seventies which we covered at the top of the post. I suppose I could go on and list examples from the eighties, nineties, tens and today but I like to keep my posts here at the Morlocks firmly rooted in the pre-eighties time zone (not a hard-and-fast rule, just a personal preference) so I’ll leave it there. And I suppose I could come up with a really clever way to end this piece so you’d have to decide if the opening was better than the closing but I like the opening so much that I don’t even think I’m going to bother finishi
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