I value every single detail of the movies from the opening moment, to the titles, to the introduction of the characters, to the dilemma, to the third act and then, of course, the parting shot. The elements that bookend the movies are always the most fascinating to me. If the opening shot tells us what we need to know, then the final shot emphasizes how our brains carry the story beyond the screen – often we are left to fill in the blanks. The final shot, I think, is the one we remember most because this is the image that we leave the theater with. Also, it is the clincher. This is the moment that the entire film has been aiming for and when it arrives, we find ourselves leaning forward in anticipation.
Periodically, right here on this blog, I am going to examine several parting shots, closing moments of movies that made an impact. They will be divided into categories wrapped in a particular theme.
They are listed in no particular order with no ranking at all.
It is my belief that a movie should leave us with something to ponder. Despite the crazy inevitability of sequels, prequels and other intrusions, a self-contained film can leave an impact when the screenwriter leaves a film open enough that we can concern ourselves with the fate of the characters after the final shot has faded out. What I have here are some examples of those moments, listed alphabetically, these are some of the most effective.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Thomas Harris’ 1988 novel “The Silence of the Lambs” ended with Clarice Starling becoming a full-fledged FBI agent and then summarily receiving a telegram from Dr. Hannibal Lecter, now on the lam. The 1991 film adaptation wisely changes that conversation to a long distance telephone call. During her graduation party, Starling receives a call from Lecter, who is sitting at an airport in The Bahamas. Catching up on the progress of Starling’s most enduring childhood trauma (she tried and failed to rescue a lamb from a slaughterhouse), he asks if the lambs have stopped screaming then assures her that he has no plans to call on her, but that he is “having an old friend for dinner.” We then see that this “friend” is Dr. Frederick Chilton, the pompous director of the sanitarium that housed Lecter for years. He hangs up the phone, gets up and then disappears into the crowd.
Lecter, to me, is like a dangerous spider trapped in a jar, most interesting when we only ponder the horrible things he’s capable of. Now he’s out and the venom is introduced on an unsuspecting public. This is a deliciously brilliant manner for Lecter to exit the picture (assuming you are able to put the awful gore-fest Hannibal out of your mind). We know how brilliant and how tactful Lecter is. We’ve seen him escape. We’ve seen the methods he uses to get free. We know that he won’t be easily caught. We know that this dog will have his day . . . and his dinner.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
It may be the most famous, most recognized and most studied closing moment in the history of the cinema. It is also the most hopeful ending of all time. In a film that chiefly deals with evolution: man has touched the unknown reaches of the universe and arrived at the next plateau of his development. Traveling through the star gate, our hero David Bowman finds himself in a place that it neither here nor there. There, in a place where time and space have no meaning, he ages rapidly and then, elderly and bedridden, reaches out to touch the monolith. We then see a celestial baby in a womb staring back down at the earth. He then turns to regard us in the audience. What is this scene all about? Why does this baby regard us? What is it asking of us? This mysterious ending has us asking many questions on the way out; questions about man, nature, science, evolution, and all without words. A single glance asks a thousand questions, hopeful questions still waiting to be answered.
The surface of Bambi is cute and cuddly, no doubt, but the substance of the film could fill volumes. This is the story of the birth and maturation of a forest creature living under the threat of outside (and unseen) forces that come crashing into the beauty and tranquility of his world. The ending brings full-circle, something that took place earlier in the film. Bambi, having encountered his father, The Great Prince of the Forest, just after his mother’s death, takes on the world alone without his mother’s nurturing. The final scene, in which father and son look over the ruins of the burned-out forest at Bambi’s new family is brilliantly finalized as The Great Prince steps aside and disappears into the woods. Bambi oversees the remains of a burned out forest and we are left to ponder, with all of man’s destructive intrusions, what will become of him.
The Truman Show (1998)
The premise is probably the most current and relevant of any film that I can imagine (even more now than it was in 1998): a reality show dealing with a man who doesn’t know that his entire life is a reality show. Don’t devalue that idea, it isn’t so far-fetched. Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) lives in a can, a gigantic closed set that contains not only his hometown of Seahaven (built under a giant dome) but, in effect, his entire life. His blissful ignorance is broken when cracks begin to form in the ruse. Most of the film is Truman’s growing awareness that he is an unwitting television star.
In the end, Truman disappears from the camera’s eye in a boat in an effort to find out what exists beyond the shores of Seahaven, while the show’s God-like producer Christof (Ed Harris) employs his cast and crew to find him. Eventually, Truman’s boat arrives at the edge of the set where he finds a small flight of stairs with an exit door at its apex. He takes a bow and steps through the door into the world for the very first time. Everyone remembers that shot, but it is what happens next that really brings the idea home. The whole world cheers Truman’s exodus, the screen turns to snow and we see two security guards grab the TV Guide to see what else is on. I applaud this ending which brings the elation of a global television event back down to earth and forces us to confront the idea that most emotional moments in television are only momentary, at least until we find something else to watch. It’s logical, it’s true, it makes sense, and it’s brilliant.
Modern Times (1936)
For me, Chaplin’s exit from silent films was fitting, melancholy and somewhat hopeful. His Little Tramp, once voted as the most recognized image on the planet, was a loner and in Modern Times has entered a mechanized world that is bewildering, dehumanizing, heartless and hopeless. The world, it seems, has moved past The Little Tramp. It has become too fast and too chaotic for even his gentle spirit to manage. In Modern Times, The Tramp finds a companion, a gamin with whom he builds a strange ersatz domestic existence made out of dirt-clods and cardboard. In the end, The Tramp and his companion head off down the road together toward an uncertain future. They’re not alone. This was the world of the depression and, very soon, a world war. What lies ahead for them? For The Tramp, we are hopeful because we know he won’t face the future alone.
The Terminator (1984)
Setting aside the entire business of the “franchise” (I hate that term) which now entails four sequels and a dull-as-dishwater TV show, let us simply focus on this film and this film alone. Most films end on a note that only suggests what we’ve just seen. The Terminator operates both on what Sarah Conner has been through and what she faces in the future. Stopping at a gas station, a Mexican boy informs her that a storm is coming. “I know”, she says and drives off into the desert toward a horizon filled with ominous storm clouds. She is literally the only person in the world who knows what is going to happen. Her only defense: A gun and a German Shepard who can sense the machines. Literally, the weight of the world is upon her shoulders and she heads into the mountains, ready to face it.
The Graduate (1968)
The point of The Graduate, from the title on down, is the initiation of one insecure young man into the strange and bizarre world of adults. That moment is isolated in a perfect shot in which Benjamin Braddock sits at the bottom of his parent’s pool in a dive suit. The ending of the film, however, turns the entire meaning of the film around, a moment that is done without dialogue. Benjamin has just rescued Katherine Ross from being married. The two run away from the church and board a bus filled with scowling old people. They move to the back and laugh about their victory, but as the minutes pass the elation in their faces falls away. There some disappointment, some sense of regret. What have they really accomplished? What was it all really for? Their expressions say it all.
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)
This was originally going to be the ending of The Empire Strikes Back but since we know have such firm mental inventory of how that story resolves itself I decided to move forward. I know I may be jumping the gun here, but at this point in time I am dazzled by the ending shot of The Force Awakens if only because, for once, I have no idea where this story is going. For those of us who have followed this epic for nearly 40 years it both encompasses all the things that have gone before and things yet to come.
“Luke Skywalker has vanished” the opening crawl informs us. Indeed, the Jedi are once again all but extinct. The search for this elusive legend have spawned a galactic war, Luke has underestimated the power of the dark side leading to his own self-imposed exile. As The Force Awakens draws to a close we find him back in a place similar where we met him almost 40 years ago, regarding the uncertain horizon only this time with much more experienced eyes. If I thought that the expressions in The Graduate spoke volumes, certainly the expression on Luke’s face speak a thousand words.
As our hero Rey arrives on the rocks of a far-away planet she approaches a mysterious figure shroud in a cloak. When he turns there are no words – we don’t need them. That weather-beaten face, crowned by the saddest eyes you’ve ever seen understand clearly what has transpired. It is almost as if Luke has been watching the movie with us, and he understands the situation more clearly than even those involved could possibly understand. Rey regards him with wonder and a touch of fear. In a galaxy that is tearing itself apart, he’s their only hope.