The way a film ends can completely transform your experience as an audience member, for better or worse. A good ending provides excellent closure for characters that we’ve come to love, poses a fascinating conclusion for a complex set of themes or reverses our entire interpretation of the story in a unique and original way.
A bad ending does the exact opposite, frustrating us with a weak sense of closure, an unsatisfying resolution to complex themes or a silly gimmick of a twist ending. Instead of ruminating on the failed endings of films that drift off and fail to satisfy (like most Coen Brothers films), I thought I’d take the opportunity to celebrate four fantastic films and their perfect final scenes.
There are many great endings to wonderful films, but I would argue that there are four endings which are absolutely perfect. Spoiler warning ahead if you haven’t seen Doctor Strangelove, The Third Man, Melancholia or Magnolia, all of which are powerful, influential films and personal favourites of mine.
The Third Man’s ending is perhaps the greatest example of a simple but devastatingly effective summary of a complex plot brimming with resonant themes. After a hail of gunfire in a sewer ends a noirish story of faked death and organized crime set in a nihilistic and bleak world where selfishness and brutality govern the actions of a majority of the characters, our lone hero Holly Martins stands at the end of a long street. He’s waiting for Anna Schmidt, the girlfriend of the dead gangster Harry Lime. Holly has fall in love with Anna, but Anna cannot bring herself to leave the charismatic presence of Lime, a devilish and instantly likeable violent criminal played by the incomparable Orson Welles.
With Lime’s death, Martins sees a final chance at reconciling with Anna. The Third Man was released in 1949. As audience members, we expect a classic Hollywood ending, with Anna and Holly embracing, putting aside the horror that they’ve experienced together and running off into the sunset. Instead, Carol Reed gives us a lengthy shot showing Anna slowly walking down a long street towards Holly. Anna gets closer and closer to Holly before walking directly past him, not even deigning to glance at our hero.
Anton Karas’ iconic zither score plays as Holly reacts to the ice-cold spurn by dejectedly lighting a cigarette and throwing the match to the ground. The End. This ending is dark, unexpected, a brilliant subversion of the mainstream cinema of its time and the perfect cap on the central theme of the film: the world is uncaring. This is simply perfection, and it’s the scene I look forward to the most whenever I re-watch this classic of British cinema.
Melancholia and Doctor Strangelove have strangely similar endings
Melancholia and Doctor Strangelove have strangely similar endings. Both films end with scenes of mass destruction. Doctor Strangelove sees a group of politicians desperately attempt to avert nuclear Armageddon at the height of the Cold War, failing when a gung-ho Major literally rides a nuclear bomb rodeo-style into a small Russian settlement, triggering ultimate retaliation. The politicians react by deciding to live inside mineshafts until it’s safe to walk on the surface of the Earth again. Our titular character Doctor Strangelove is a wheelchair bound former Nazi, recruited to work for the American weapon program. In a final scene of comic genius, he stands from his chair and declares “Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!”. We then see the nuclear war play out, brilliantly represented by real-life footage of nuclear tests accompanied by Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’. The End.
Whereas The Third Man finds perfection in using a simple, wordless scene to summarise every theme of the film, Doctor Strangelove goes for the absolute height of dark extravagant comedy, finding humour in Nazi scientists and the death of all humanity, brilliantly lampooning the Blitz Spirit idea of gritting your teeth and making it through a war by playing the ultimate British wartime song over footage of millions dying. It’s an incredibly subversive ending, sharing a sense of nihilism with The Third Man but extending it past a small of group of characters to the fate of the planet. Humanity is doomed and all we can do is laugh.
Melancholia ends similarly but without any humour. This is a film inspired by a depressive episode and it clearly shows. After a frankly ghastly wedding at a gorgeous manor in which we see incessant squabbling relatives and a bullying, manipulative boss, we learn that the world is going to be destroyed in a collision with another planet. Our depressive hero Justine sees the truth when she says that “life on Earth is evil”.
After seeing the parade of wealthy self-absorbed, callous and cruel friends and relatives she’s surrounded by in the first half of the film, we’re inclined to agree with her. The film ends with Justine and her anxious and unprepared sister Claire trying to comfort Claire’s son by building a small fort of sticks on a golf course and sitting inside as a group.
They hold hands as Melancholia, the out of control planet of the film’s title, approaches Earth at a rapid speed. As Wagner’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’ reaches a crescendo, the planets collide, and Earth is destroyed. The End. We know exactly what will happen from the second that the film begins, as the film opens with a vision of destruction. Our characters are doomed, and they need to come to terms with it. Justine does, but Claire does not and cannot.
Lars von Trier’s film often have incredibly bleak endings that unleash a wave of cathartic energy
Lars von Trier’s film often have incredibly bleak endings that unleash a wave of cathartic energy. Melancholia is my favourite because it doesn’t feel too manipulative or misogynistic (as some of his other films can). It’s a total obliteration, equalising all in death. Perfectly directed, brilliant orchestrated and too cathartic and overwhelming to handle. Like The Third Man, Melancholia finds perfection through providing a single image that sums up the film’s main themes. In this case the destruction of the Earth validates our hero Justine. She sees that all life is evil, and the universe responds. The ultimate resolution is death.
To end on a more positive note, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Magnolia ends on a beautiful image of optimism. Magnolia is a lengthy and somewhat complex film concerning coincidences, fate, overlapping lives and tragic characters. One character that we follow is Claudia Gator, a woman who having lived through a childhood with an abusive father has become a drug addict.
During a night of confrontations and dark revelations she begins an almost unbearably sweet and sympathetic relationship with a policeman. Claudia is a tragic character, frantically anxious, desperate and close to destroying herself. She doesn’t smile. The final scene of Magnolia sees Claudia vindicated in her memories of her abusive father and reunited with her mother. Jim, her policeman boyfriend, goes to see her. The following scene is potentially my single favourite shot in any film.
Anderson masterfully shoots the scene from behind Jim’s shoulders, showing only Claudia’s reaction to finally being recognised
Aimee Mann’s beautiful song ‘Save Me’ plays as Jim approaches Claudia, telling her that she is a good and decent person, and confessing the depth of his feelings for her. Anderson masterfully shoots the scene from behind Jim’s shoulders, showing only Claudia’s reaction to finally being recognised, validated and cherished.
The camera slowly zooms as Jim talks, moving closer and closer to Claudia’s face. We slowly see her face change from confusion to something near appreciation. Jim moves towards Claudia and the camera moves to show us only her face. The music rises. Claudia’s face fills the screen. Jim’s kind words are drowned out by the music. For the first time in the film we see Claudia’s face register happiness. She lets out a small laugh and then she smiles.
The chorus hits an impossible height of catharsis. Black screen. We transition to the credits as the music continues. This scene is one of the most emotionally powerful and cinematically perfect moments that I have ever seen. It’s a sort of reverse Third Man. It gives a simple image, devastating in its emotional power but instead of validating a nihilistic worldview it inspires nothing but hope and optimism.
After a film about fate, chance and tragedy, we are seeing one of the film’s most tragic characters reject the cycle of misery that she’s been trapped in and reclaim her own agency and control. Claudia’s smile is the ultimate cinematic rejection of succumbing to the cruelty of fate and is instead the most simple and beautiful image of optimism and trust. It moves me more than I could possibly say. It twists the negatives themes of the film entirely and provides a perfect conclusion for an incredibly sympathetic character. I can think of no better ending to a film.