You may not know this but British director Carol Reed’s  1949 classic The Third Man was meant to end happily.

At least that’s what the producers wanted. Reed had another idea, and thus a bit of film history — and perhaps the best movie ending ever — was made.

You remember the ending.

It’s set in a Vienna cemetery on a raw, bitingly cold day. Joseph Cotten as “honest, upright” Holly Martins stands 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 that the woman and Martins will somehow connect for a romantic finale. 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 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.'”

Cotten didn’t know it then but he had just completed one of the greatest single scenes in one of the greatest classics ever made.  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.

Is this the best movie ending ever? Can you find a better one?

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