Many years ago, Frank was once sitting in a screening room at the Chicago International Film Festival, and was amazed when the Festival’s jurors — trusted with adjudicating prizes and awards to select films from all over the globe — walked out en masse just as the opening credits of some, long-forgotten Danish title had just unspooled.
The jury (which included Italian actress Claudia Cardinale) was asked: how can they possibly judge this picture if all they saw was the opening credits?
One juror (not Cardinale) answered succinctly: “We can tell if it’s any good just by the quality of the credits.” Frank has often thought of that, and now agrees with that terse assessment.
You really can make the association. If the opening credits are long, boring, self serving and outright stink, so will the movie. Harsh, perhaps, but most often true. (One of the beauties of classic movies of the Thirties and Forties is that opening credits are minimal, usually over in under 60 seconds.)
Hello. everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, today considering — not opening credits — but the endings of movies. And, yes, we invite you, informed readers, to submit your choices for best movie endings.
We are inspired in this by a new column in the British publication Sight & Sound, which declares that how to end a film well is a difficult art. The magazine describes its column as a new series (examining) cinema’s most moving or ingenious finales.
First to get top kudos? The ending of The Third Man.
“Is (the film’s) finale the greatest in all cinema?” inquires Sight & Sound editor Nick James. I’d say it must be a candidate, if only for its visual simplicity and the elegant way one kind of romanticism is trumped by another.
You may not know this but British director Carol Reed’s 1949 classic was originally meant to end happily. At least that’s what the producers wanted. Reed had other ideas, and a bit of film history was made.
You remember the ending. It’s set in an enormous Vienna cemetery on a raw, bitingly cold day. Joseph Cotten (above) as “honest, upright” Holly Martins, stands near a cart full of logs in the foreground while a woman in the distance strides purposefully toward the camera.
She is Italian actress Alida Valli portraying the mistress of villain Harry Lime (Orson Welles), who has just been buried. The impression is conveyed that the woman and Martins will somehow connect in a romantic final scene. (At least, that’s how the producers saw the ending.)
Here’s how Cotten remembered that scene years later: The hero (Cotten), smoking a cigarette, was standing in the foreground waiting for her. Like the audience, he was confident she would join him, and they would stroll away happily together, arm in arm.
Valli walked on and on, closer and closer, until at last she was a life-sized figure in the foreground with the hero. And then, without turning her head, or even glancing in his direction, she continues her steady pace, out of the shot and into limbo.
At the time of filming, Cotten had no idea The Third Man would end this way. He wrote in his autobiography that I remained there (in the scene), as directed. My eyes followed Valli out of the shot…Nobody uttered a word. The camera kept rolling. The special effects men from their high perches continued to drop toasted autumn leaves from above.
I continued to puff on my cigarette, and began to get quite panic-stricken. Was there more to the scene? Had I gone blank? What was Carol waiting for me to do? I took one more puff, then in exasperation threw the cigarette to the ground, at which point Carol shouted through his laughter the word I had been waiting desperately to hear — ‘CUT.’
The Third Man’s bitter-sweet ending runs worldlessly for about 90 seconds, a long time onscreen when nothing is said and there’s little action. Anton Karas’ signature zither music plays poignantly on the soundtrack. That’s it.
We agree with Sight & Sound. The ending of The Third Man certainly is in the running as the best ever. Do you agree? Do you have favorite movie endings to toss into the competition? By all means, let us know.