We are living in an age of lists, so I thought it was only appropriate that I threw my hat into the ring. Below you’ll find my top ten film endings of all time. I don’t intend for it to be exhaustive; I’m only human and I haven’t seen everything, but I hope you’ll enjoy this selection of the movie finales that I have found most impressive, or the ones that have left the greatest impact upon me. Selecting just ten was more difficult than I imagined, and there are an awful lot of brilliant conclusions that I had to leave out. A few honourable mentions include; Citizen Kane (1941), The Godfather (1972), The Shining (1980), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), The Wicker Man (1973), The Searchers (1957), The Italian Job (1969), and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).
Beware, spoilers below!
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
You might think I’m talking about the opening of the Ark scene, when a bunch of Nazis have their faces melted off by the might of God. But no, I’m talking about the last thirty seconds of the film, and that shot. Having been recovered by Indiana Jones, the Ark of the Covenant is sealed away and buried within a vast government facility, never to be seen or opened again. The effect is accomplished through an ingenious matte painting, and it manages to brilliantly conjure a sense of both intrigue and humour. Its mystery may have been diminished somewhat by the misjudged opening of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but it remains a powerful and thought provoking end to an excellent film.
Roman Holiday (1953)
Roman Holiday is arguably the definitive bitter-sweet ending. As much as we may wish that Princess Ann and Joe Bradley could give two fingers to the world, run from the palace, and be together forever, their separation was always inevitable. As she goes back to being a princess, and he a reporter, they are left with nothing but a few candid photos and cherished memories. In a film full of celebrated images and scenes, none is so lasting as the sight of Gregory Peck strolling towards the camera, an ironic smirk on his face, as he leaves the princess behind forever.
Drama, romance, suspense – the ending of Casablanca has it all. It’s a scene that has become almost laughably iconic, a symbol for tragic love itself. The brilliance of this ending is that it’s exactly the opposite of what the audience wants to happen; it’s a harsh, realist picture of love in a time of adversity, an ending that says, sometimes, love can’t conquer all. Painful to watch, it exists as a testament to the unmatched chemistry between Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart. Director Michael Curtiz shot this iconic ending without a finished script and unsure of how he even wanted it to end. Watching Rick and Louis walk into the mist, I think you’ll agree that he made the right choice.
Raging Bull (1980)
An aged and overweight Jake LaMotta stares at himself in the mirror, quoting On the Waterfront as he prepares for his next stage show. He psyches himself up, straightens his bow tie, and steps out of the dressing room. Once the screen has cut to black, Raging Bull closes with a quote from a biblical passage, specifically John IX, 24-26, followed by a tribute to Martin Scorsese’s mentor, Haig R Manoogian. An extract reads “ ‘Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know.’ / the man replied. / ‘All I know is this: / once I was blind and now I can see.’ ” It’s an ending that has stuck with me profoundly, ever since my first viewing. Having just seen the sum of this man’s life, we are forced to ask if it is really our place to judge. Indeed, seeing LaMotta backstage is a reminder that he is, above all, a man, as complex as he is formidable. And that’s entertainment.
Bicycle Thieves (1948)
Bicycle Thieves is a relatively low-key film; the tale of a man, Antonio Ricci, and his young son desperately searching for his stolen bicycle in post-war Rome, in which bursts of emotion are rare and potent. In the film’s final moments, Antonio’s exasperation boils over as he attempts to steal an unattended bike, only to be caught and condemned as a thief himself. When his son’s pleading causes the mob to let Antonio go, the pair disappear into the crowd, holding hands and unsure of their future. It’s a forlorn picture of life in Italy’s war-torn capital, giving a captivating and very sympathetic face to what was mass human suffering.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
It is difficult to consider the original Planet of the Apes now without thinking about the ending. It’s shock factor has largely worn off, as the final shot has become probably the most iconic image from the film – parodied in The Simpsons and showcased on the cover of the DVD. Nevertheless, the final, shocking discovery of the film – that the planet in question is, in fact, a post-apocalyptic Earth – is an excellent and unexpected twist. Playing on contemporary fears of nuclear annihilation, the closing image of a destroyed Statue of Liberty and Charlton Heston’s infamous cry of “Damn you! God damn you all to hell!” still resonates powerfully today.
The Godfather Part II (1974)
It was difficult choosing between the endings of the first two Godfather films, but the second entry just tops the first upon repeat viewings. With all of Michael Corleone’s enemies lying dead, including his brother, Fredo, the film flashes back several years to the morning of 9 December 1941, the day of the attack upon Pearl Harbour, and Don Vito Corleone’s birthday. The younger Michael’s patriotic dedication, and resentment of his family, draws a powerful contrast against his later, tragic descent into a murderous and patriarchal figure. However, the flashback also highlights Michael’s continued isolation; in 1941, his idealism had left him shunned, sitting alone at the dinner table. Years later, Michael remains a solitary figure, despite all his efforts in the name of family. Now greying at the temples, he continues to exist as an outsider to all those who loved him. A powerful and inspired juxtaposition.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
The only appearance of a Bond film on the list, the ending of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was not only a break from the series’ tradition, but a genuinely risky move for a franchise so steeped in convention. 007 had defeated the villain, destroyed a mountain-top base, and fallen in love. But this isn’t where the story ends; as Bond and his new wife, Tracy, drive off into the sunset, a botched assassination attempt leaves Tracy with a bullet in her skull. Instead of pursuing the villain, a tearful Bond cradles his dead wife and tells a passing policeman “It’s quite alright… We have all the time in the world.” Although now an iconic moment, it must be remembered how genuinely shocking such an ending would have been in 1969, depriving audiences of the triumphant conclusion that had become standard. It remains a travesty that subsequent Bond films would abandon this gritty approach for years to come.
The Third Man (1949)
The closing shot of The Third Man lasts for around two minutes, neither moving an inch nor cutting a frame as our hero, Holly Martins, stands waiting at the roadside for the heartbroken Anna to emerge from the horizon. As she walks past Holly and out of his life without so much as a glance, the camera lingers excruciatingly, forcing us to share in his pain and solitude. Although a desperately sad conclusion, there’s a wry humour in Holly’s resignation, as he lights himself a cigarette and tosses away the match. Anton Karas’ melancholy music perfectly complements Graham Green’s gorgeous photography, providing for a profound and lasting image.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)
The final sequence of The Good, the Bad and The Ugly is not only one of the greatest endings of all time, but one of the best examples of film making – ever. It plays out with almost operatic grace, a perfect blend of music, cinematography, acting, and direction. This concluding chapter begins as Tuco desperately bounds across a graveyard, searching for a buried hoard of gold, while Ennio Morricone’s Ecstasy of Gold swells in the background. It ends as three title cards contrast the fates of the titular gunslingers; one dead, one alive, and another on horseback with four bags of treasure. Sergio Leone weaves a scene that is both beautiful and unbearably tense, perfecting the western as only he could.