For all of its impact, the Gettysburg address had only 272 words and ten sentences. How could such a short speech have such staying power? One reason might be the way it ended: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” President Lincoln, in his concluding words, took the consecration of a battlefield and made it into a reaffirmation of democracy itself. That line concluded the speech in a way that made it stick in the hearts of the audience in 1863 and Americans for the past 150 years.
A memorable last line, when done right, can lift an entire movie. It can give audiences an extra surge of satisfaction leaving the theater. Sometimes those words can sum up an entire film, and sometimes it’s more an encapsulation of the feelings the film evokes. I reviewed some of my favorites and learned that the line cannot just be clever or poignant on its own. The rest of the film, especially the moments immediately preceding, need to set the stage for greatness.
First, some films that just missed the cut. Goodfellas may have the best closing monologue of all time, as Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), talking directly to the audience, explains, “Anything I wanted was a phone call away. Free cars. The keys to a dozen hideout flats all over the city. I bet twenty, thirty grand over a weekend and then I'd either blow the winnings in a week or go to the sharks to pay back the bookies... Didn't matter. It didn't mean anything. When I was broke, I'd go out and rob some more. We ran everything. We paid off cops. We paid off lawyers. We paid off judges. Everybody had their hands out. Everything was for the taking. And now it's all over... And that's the hardest part. Today everything is different; there's no action... have to wait around like everyone else. Can't even get decent food - right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce, and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I'm an average nobody... get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” To Hill, that’s a fate almost worse than death. It was the perfect way to end the film, but it works as a monologue, with no one line standing out beyond the rest.
Say closing lines, and many jump to Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) telling Scarlett O’ Hara (Vivien Leigh), “Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn” in Gone with the Wind. Well written, well delivered and certainly what Scarlett deserves to hear. But it’s not the last line of the movie. Instead we have Scarlett bemoaning her fate for a while longer then proclaiming “Tomorrow is another day,” something a mother would tell a disappointed child and a rather pedestrian way to wrap things up.
James Cagney movies often seemed to end with a wallop, starting with his corpse being shoved into his mother’s house in The Public Enemy. Seventeen years later, another of his classic gangsters, Cody Jarrett in White Heat, yells “Made it Ma, Top of the World!” right before he’s blown to smithereens. A powerful image and fitting way for Jarrett to live his last moment, but then the film inexplicably lets a cop have the last word with “He finally got to the top of the world... and it blew right up in his face.” Thanks, but we got it before.
I nearly included E.T., ending with E.T. telling Eliot, “I’ll be right here” while pointing at the boy’s head. Masterful yes, but the scene works more through Spielberg’s visuals and John Williams’ majestic score. Although the line does add, the moment would have been nearly as strong without it.
Usually I like to keep my lists at ten, but there was just too much for me to include:
15. Narrator (Lee Richardson): “This was the story of Howard Beale: The first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.” – Network . The end of Network goes back to the beginning with the four TV screens playing. Now some of them are showing news coverage of Beale’s death, and some are showing commercials. The film grounded Beale’s histrionics and the public’s reaction in reality, so no matter how outrageous they all seemed, it could be seen as a natural outgrowth of media culture. Of course what appeared to be satire at the time now feels eerily prophetic. Richardson delivers the closing line dryly and dispassionately. In a way he and the film are telling us that there’s nothing special here. A man dies and 30 seconds later the TV is selling you cereal. This is just business as usual. Also, note that it’s the “first known instance.” Maybe there were others and there may be more to come. A film about the media draining away our humanity ends with a death being no big deal. After all, he had lousy ratings. What else would you expect?
14. Father Jerry (Pat O’ Brien): “All right, fellas ... let's go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn't run as fast as I could.” – Angels with Dirty Faces. Another ending taking you back to the beginning. As kids, Rocky and Jerry get into trouble and the police give chase. The police catch Rocky, who gets sent to juvenile detention and becomes a gangster. Jerry gets away and becomes a priest. When these friends reunite years later, the film contrasts Rocky’s (James Cagney) violence and corruption with Jerry’s kindness and integrity. The screenplay has depth and insight, showing that who we are is largely a product of our environment and the lessons we learned. When Rocky gets the electric chair, Father Jerry not only mourns his friend, he also acknowledges to himself and the kids he teaches that if he was a little slower and Rocky a little faster it may have been himself that was put to death. Life is fragile.
13. Panama Smith (Gladys George): “He used to be a big shot.” – The Roaring Twenties. Yet another James Cagney gangster movie with a stirring finale. This time he’s Eddie Bartlett, a former gangster trying to go straight. He gets into a gunfight with his former colleagues and tries to climb the steps of a nearby church, but he cannot and dies. It’s too late for his redemption. Director Raoul Walsh pans back to make Eddie seems small in the arms of his friend Panama, who carried a torch for him. Adding insult to injury a nearby cop doesn’t even know who he is. It’s when the cop asked who Eddie is that Panama answers this way. He used to be a big shot, but he’s nothing now.
12. Alex (Malcolm McDowell): “I was cured, all right!” – A Clockwork Orange (clip only for mature audiences). Alex is a violent monster, and the government tries to “cure” him through a radical therapy. Alex swings the other way and cannot even defend himself. Once he is attacked by the many people who have score to settle, the government realizes it has failed. The Minister tells Alex what his concern is really about: public opinion. The government does damage control, and showers Alex with gifts. Alex gladly plays along, as he realizes it’s all a joke. What matters is the appearance that he’s fine. Alex thinks of sex as he says those immortal closing words. He’s now back to being the same monster he was. But if others want to pretend he’s cured, fine with him.
11. Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd): “Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads.” – Back to the Fiture. On a practical level, Doc’s reemergence, and reteaming with Marty (Michael J. Fox) set up the film’s later sequels. On an emotional level, Brown’s line, and revealing that the DeLorean can fly, captures the optimism and exuberance of the whole film. We can do anything, whether it’s fixing the past or making a better future.
10. Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart): “The stuff that dreams are made of.” – The Maltese Falcon. Just seconds earlier, Spade referred to the Falcon casually as “the little black statuette that all the fuss was about.” He knows it’s fake. But, when he gets another chance to describe the Falcon, Spade takes it more seriously. He caresses it and slowly, almost mournfully, says the last line. After all, people stole, cheated and murdered for the Falcon. The bird was fake, but the dreams were real.
9. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong): “Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.” – King Kong. It’s no secret that Kong is the most human, sympathetic character in the film. He grows to love Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), and wants to be with her. Even when he takes Ann and climbs the Empire State Building, he is trying, in his own way, to protect her. On the top of the building, Kong cares more about Ann’s safety then even trying to defend himself from the airplanes. Denham, for most of the film, is only concerned about his own fortune and glory. Finally, at the end, he has enough insight to realize that it was this “animal’s” human qualities that led to its demise.
8. Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman): “There wasn't anything I could have done to save them.” Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener): “Maybe not. But the fact is, you didn't want to.” – Capote. True friends can tell you the hard truths. Capote befriended the killers, but on another level, knew that these men had to die to get the perfect ending for the book he so desperately wanted to write. While Capote does care about these men, he in the end manipulated them to give him what he needed. Hoffman’s talents help illustrate how Capote getting what he wants also eats him away inside. He cannot reconcile these two parts of himself and, like many torn men, wants to resolve the conflict through a lie. Lee has always been loyal to Capote but can also see through him. She is Capote’s and, by extension, the film’s conscience. She tells him what he doesn’t want to hear, but what he needs to know. He has to live with the consequences of his choices.
7. Grandpa (Peter Falk): “As you wish.” – The Princess Bride. The film begins with a grandfather reading a story to a sick boy (Fred Savage). The boy is skeptical and resists hearing the tale, but then becomes enraptured, just as we all do in the audience. Throughout the film Wesley (Cary Elwes) replies to Buttercup’s (Robin Wright) requests with “As you wish.” It becomes a symbol, and then a reminder, of their love. At the end, when the boy asks his grandfather to read him the story again tomorrow, he in effect shows a new openness to accepting his Grandpa’s affection and care. When the grandfather replies with those three words, he reciprocates these feelings, culminating the film’s other love story, the love between and a boy and his Grandpa.
6. Bill McKay (Robert Redford): “What do we do now?” – The Candidate. After entering the U.S. Senate race believing that he has no shot, McKay improbably pulls off the upset victory. It should be the greatest night of his life. McKay doesn’t say anything for a while, but Redford’s face illustrates the anxiety and fear. Director Michael Ritchie stages McKay’s well-wishers as an overwhelming onslaught, so you feel anxious too, and very trapped. Finally McKay grabs his campaign manager (Peter Boyle) and goes to an empty room. He then asks that question, but then the wave of people burst in. Bill repeats the question, softly, dejectedly. There’s no answer. The Candidate served as a prescient indictment of the U.S. political system, maintaining that campaigning had become much more important than governing. The film holds the voters liable too, as we all root for McKay to win. He’s handsome and charismatic, but then we too have the same question when it’s over: “What do we do now?” Forty-five years later we still don’t have an answer.
5. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart): “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” – Casablanca. Arguably the most famous closing line of all-time from arguably the most quotable film of all time. Legend has it that the line was a last minute addition that the filmmakers had Bogart dub in long after shooting completed. For most of the film, Captain Renault (Claude Rains) sees himself as Rick’s friend. He admires Rick and speculates on his past. But it’s completely one-sided. Rick bribes Renault, lets him win at gambling, and turns a blind eye to his discretions so Renault will let him stay in business. That changes when Renault witnesses Rick kill Major Strasser, and quickly has to decide what he will tell the police. Rick gives him a pleading look, and Renault pauses before telling his men to “Round up the usual suspects.” He then makes plans to go off and fight in the resistance with Rick. Before, it may have been a friendship for Renault but it was an arrangement for Rick. Now Renault has sacrificed for Rick, just as Rick did before for Ilsa and Victor Lazslo. Rick understands the magnitude of Renault’s actions and acknowledges to him, and to all of us, that now, at long last, it’s a real friendship.
4. Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey): “And like that ... he is gone.” – The Usual Suspects. One of the many aspects of Christopher McQuarrie’s brilliant screenplay is how the same lines, when repeated, have a different meaning. Kint says this line earlier describing the legendary Keyser Sose. He has grown into a mythic figure, but no one knows who he is or if he really exists. Of course Agent Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) thinks Sose is Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), the leader of a group of criminals. Kint pretends to push back, appearing like he’s trying to protect Keaton when really taking Kujan exactly where he wants to go. After Kujan releases Kint, he realizes that Kint’s entire story was a lie. Kint was Sose, the man he wanted all along. He had him. As Kujan desperately tries to recapture Kint/Sose, he replays what he heard. Those lines that were a description earlier are a taunt now: “After that my guess is that you will never hear from him again.” “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.” And of course, that last one. Kujan had his chance to capture the man he should have been looking for, but he blew it. Now he’ll never have that chance again.
3. Walsh (Joe Mantell): “Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.” – Chinatown. Chinatown may be the film’s title, but it doesn’t actually go there until the last scene. Instead “Chinatown” represents a way of doing things. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) recalled that when he was a District Attorney’s investigator in Chinatown he was directed to do “as little as possible.” Jake repeats those words at the end when the police have killed Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) and delivered her daughter back into the arms of her abusive, grotesque father (John Huston). Jake tries to stop this, but is powerless. When his partner tells him to stop, it’s not because they are in Chinatown, but that it’s the Chinatown way. Wealth, power and corruption prevail. The system wins.
2. Hannibal Lecter: (Anthony Hopkins): “I do wish we could chat longer, but ... I'm having an old friend for dinner. Bye.” – The Silence of the Lambs. When I first saw this film in 1991, the audience roared when Lecter said that line. Lecter really has a supporting role in the main narrative: Clarice Starling’s (Jodie Foster) quest to catch the serial killer Buffalo Bill. But Lecter is the drawing card, and, even though Starling has stopped Bill, there had to be some resolution, some payoff to finish the story. The “old friend” Lecter refers to is Dr. Chilton, formerly the sleazy warden of the prison where Lecter was imprisoned, and soon to be Lecter’s main course. No one would be sorry to see Chilton go and we laugh when we realize that Lecter is on his tail. Of course, the broader meaning is that Lecter is still out there.
1. Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown): “Nobody’s perfect.” – Some Like It Hot. Any list of the best closing lines would have to end with this one. It’s also the perfect example of the setup building up to the spectacular finish. Jerry (Jack Lemmon) as Daphne, was engaged to Osgood. As our heroes make their getaway, and Joe (Tony Curtis) gets Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), Jerry/Daphne tries to break off the engagement by, for once, telling the truth. For each reason Jerry/Daphne gives, Osgood effortlessly swats it away:
Jerry/Daphne: “Well, in the first place, I'm not a natural blonde.”
Osgood: “Doesn't matter.”
Jerry/Daphne: “I smoke! I smoke all the time!”
Osgood: “I don't care.”
Jerry/Daphne: “Well, I have a terrible past. For three years now, I've been living with a saxophone player.”
Osgood: “I forgive you.”
Jerry/Daphne: “I can never have children!”
Osgood: “We can adopt some.”
During all of this director Billy Wilder holds the camera on a two shot of Brown and Lemmon, so we can see both Jerry’s frustration and Osgood’s blissful determination. Exasperated, Jerry/Daphne pulls out what he thinks has to be the trump card: “I’m a man!” Osgood gives his famous reply, and we end on Jerry’s face of stunned disbelief. The line and the reaction work because of everything that came before it. In a film filled with characters deceiving each other, Osgood is the genuine article. He loves Jerry/Daphne and nothing else matters. His response carries even more resonance now, as our society has gradually accepted lesbian, gay, bisexual, and now transgender relationships. Love is love, and nobody’s perfect.
April 1, 2017