There’s so many different parts of a film that can make it memorable, an exciting beginning, a thrill-ride story, surprises and suspense, and sometimes the quietude of slow camera work can provoke reflective thought. It’s the endings, though, that leave people breathless and wide-eyed when the lights come-up and the people shuffle out into the hallways. It’s the endings that keep the viewers in their seats for a few minutes more, not necessarily to watch the credits (though that’s good to do), but to try to process what they just saw.
Famous endings can come in many shapes and sizes. There are fitting endings, like the close of the film, Shane (1953). There are twist endings, like we have at the end of The Sixth Sense (1999). And there’s grandiose endings, like we have in Star Wars (1977). But I’d like to turn your attention to a different kind of ending, what I call the Crisp Ending. A crisp ending is not quite the same as a surprise ending, a twist ending, or a fitting ending, though it could be any one or all of those things.
A crisp ending is one that doesn’t really start until it’s almost over. In other words, one minute the movie is going along, and then a minute later, probably seconds later it’s over–almost abruptly. It can leave you on the edge-of-your-seat, but more precisely, it leaves you moving toward the edge of your seat. In other words, the resolution begins and ends before you have a chance to register or fully process what is happening. The crisp ending is one that may rush over the view, leaving him or her in a type of Burkean delight, either out of awe, horror, or giddy joy. The crisp ending is remarkable, abrupt, and practically perfect.
Let’s break down some of the characteristics of this element in film. Each crisp ending doesn’t need to have all of these, but they are typical characteristics. The Crisp Ending . . .
- doesn’t start until it’s almost over.
- implies there is no, or almost no denouement. That’s part of what makes the crisp ending powerful.
- leaves the viewer with Burkean delight: awe, horror, and humbling joy.
- may leave the viewers on the edge of their seats.
- is remarkable, abrupt, and practically perfect.
- leaves one asking a fellow-viewer or one’s own self, “wait? . . .wow!”
Here are ten films with a crisp ending. The endings of these ten films range in emotional impact from joy, to revelation, to sorrow, humor, and tragedy. Which films with a crisp ending can you think of?
The Gold Rush (1925), This Charlie Chaplin film follows the Tramp (as The Lone Prospector) into Alaska as he searches for fortune, fights the cold, finds love, and avoids the wrath of others in the frozen tundra. The film has hilarious laughs, heartwarming moments, impressive comic coordination and timing, and the final few moments make for a spectacular and memorable ending.
Citizen Kane (1941), The ending to this film is so famous, many people who have never seen the film might be familiar with its resolution, or at least recognize it once they see it. The film’s ending is a poignant commentary of the wages of wealth, love, childhood, and one man’s quest to find meaning and peace in his life. Even if you know the ending before you view the film, it’s still worth watching.
Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) (1948), This Italian film is thought of as one of the greatest films of all time. It’s a simple plot but wrought with personal and social meaning that persists even into the 21st Century. A young father (Lamberto Maggiorani as Antonio) struggles to keep a job after his bicycle, which is his only way to get to work, is stolen. This film follows the father throughout the day, as he tries to keep his son (Enzo Staiola as Bruno) safe and retrieve his stolen bicycle. This might seem like an unassuming plot, but it has one of the most powerful and emotional endings in film history.
Some Like it Hot (1959), A raucous screwball comedy starring Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, who play two prohibition era musicians connected indirectly to the mafia underworld. After witnessing a murder, they have to flee to Florida, disguised as women. While in Florida, each one finds an unlikely romantic partner, and they can not easily escape their murderous pursuers. Along the way, they encounter Marilyn Monroe and Joe E. Brown, both of whom complicate the lives of these two runaways in hilarious ways. After a thrilling climax, there’s one last scene, with one of the funniest final lines in any film.
The Apartment (1960), A young bachelor (Jack Lemmon as CC. Baxter) is approached by his boss (Fred MacMurray as Jeff Sheldrake), who wants to use his apartment as a rendezvous location with his mistress (Shirley MacLaine as Fran Kubelik), who works with both of them. The boss is a louse; the girl is nice and charismatic, and the Baxter can’t help but fall in love with her. This is a film that ends with a famous line and an arguably ambiguous ending.
Planet of the Apes (1968), If there’s any film on this list that you’ve probably seen, dear reader, it’s this one. This ending recasts the entire film in a different light; the film’s resolution has implications beyond the plot. The ending’s subtext are the socio-political and international conflicts (namely, nuclear war) that quite understandably preoccupied public discourse at the time.
The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3 (1974), This film is an action-drama gem that has been mostly forgotten, but unjustifiably so. This is a tense, clever, dark action crime caper film. It stars Walter Matthau as detective, Lt. Garber. It also has Robert Shaw, Hector Elizondo, and Jerry Stiller, alongside more members of this all-star ensemble cast. The ending is quite possibly the most relevant for this list, as the punchline comes at the very, very last moment. It’s an exciting and hilarious ending.
Blood Simple (1984), This is the first film ever by the Coen brothers, a crime-thriller with an intense edge-of-your-seat ending. When I say it was an edge-of-your-seat ending, I literally mean it. I was on the edge-of-my-seat, when I first viewed this story. This early film shows the promise of the Coen Brothers.
Viehjud Levi (Jew Boy, Levi) (1999), This is a pretty rare film, but you can find it on Amazon. It’s set in the Black Forest in Germany in the mid-1930s. A traveling salesman and trade merchant (Bruno Cathomas as Benjamin Levi) comes to a village he frequents; he is Jewish, but the people of the village are not. It’s clear that the people of the village are friendly, and he has a love interest there. All seems to be fine, but for one change. The Nazis, having recently come into power, finally make their way into this small backwoods village. The Nazis slowly turn the village against Levi, and it all comes to head in one very powerful, edge-of-your-seat ending.
Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) (2006), Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, this German film portrays a crisis-of-conscience by a German Secret Police Office (Ulrich Mühe as Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler), who’s faith in his government is shaken by the shameless corruption of his superiors. As his professional duties and ideological beliefs conflict with his personal observations, he faces a set of enormous decisions that will change the trajectory of his life and those of many others. The film’s final few seconds have one of the most memorable and surprising final lines you’ll see in a film.