If knowing when to start and finish is important in life, it’s even more vital in the world of Movies. The first five minutes of a film has to pull you in and introduce you to the characters, while the ending has the even harder job of resolving everything, tying up all the knots, or shocking you into disbelief. The job of both elements, above everything else, is to make certain the story sticks in our minds- so join us, as we explore what makes beginnings and endings tick by looking at fifty of the greatest examples cinema has to offer…
25: SUNSET BOULEVARD
“The poor dope. He always wanted a pool- and in the end, he got himself a pool.” Not many movies can claim to be narrated by a corpse, but Billy Wilder’s blackly comic drama does it in style, opening with Joe Gillis (William Holden) stone-cold dead and floating in a luxurious Hollywood swimming pool. His premature death doesn’t, however, prevent him from explaining to the audience the events that led up to his unfortunate watery demise, and his beyond-the-grave voiceover is a perfect way to enter into the film’s pitch-black look at the highs and lows of life in the Movie world.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s ensemble drama breaks dozens of conventions in depicting the interconnections between its characters, and sets up the themes of fate, chance and ‘random’ events in a brilliantly stylized prologue. A self-contained set of tales, it veers from a silent movie-style depiction of a murder and hanging, to the weird story behind a scuba diver found dead in a tree after a forest fire, to- most memorable of all- a suicide that, thanks to a twist of fate, becomes a murder where the perpetrator is the victim’s own mother. And, as the Narrator (Ricky Jay) insists, “These strange things happen all the time.”
The first twenty minutes of Dario Argento’s hallucinatory horror masterwork features an unthinkably creative and lurid murder, but the viewer’s attention has already been hi-jacked by the first five minutes. As Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) is driven to a remote German Ballet school in the middle of a rainstorm, the thunder roars, the lightning cracks and the pounding prog-rock score is augmented with screams of “Witch!!” Combine this with Argento’s full-throttle visual style, freaky colours and inexplicable shots of rushing water, and its an opening that welds your eyes open before you’re even aware there’s anything to be scared of.
22: FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF
He may be smug, ceaselessly lucky and convinced of his own brilliance, but it’s hard not to agree with Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) when he pulls off a performance as richly over-the-top as the one which opens John Hughes’ barnstorming teen comedy. Absolutely determined to spend the day anywhere but school, Ferris fakes illness with a shameless display of blank stares and sweating, winds up his disbelieving sister, acts like a cute puppy dog for his concerned parents, and then turns to the camera the moment they leave the room in order to exclaim: “They bought it!”
21: THE GODFATHER
“I believe in America.” With these words, the legendary crime saga gets off to a quiet but utterly compelling start. A world away from the previous, slam-bang depictions of gangster life, Francis Ford Coppola’s stunning drama starts as it means to go on, in semi-darkness, as an undertaker asks for ‘justice’ to avenge his daughter, and crime lord Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) calmly takes the matter onboard, but not without delivering some harsh, important words on the subject of respect. A slow, graceful entrance for one of Brando’s pivotal roles, and a literate beginning for one of Cinema’s true classics.
It might feature blood, screaming, and a grotesque creature erupting from someone’s chest, but the first film in the Alien franchise has a beautifully restrained start. Heading through deep space, the commercial towing vehicle Nostromo receives a mysterious transmission, and we watch with almost documentary-style detatchment as the ship begins the slow process of waking both itself and its crew. From the activity of the computer reflected in space helmets on the bridge, to the quiet, bleary awakening of Kane (John Hurt) from suspended animation, space travel has never seemed so realistic and weirdly serene.
19: BLUE VELVET
Green Lawns. White Picket Fences. Happy smiling faces. All images of classic Americana, but it’s David Lynch sitting in the director’s chair, so the calming montage set to Bobby Vinton’s classic title song doesn’t take long before it turns seriously weird. A man hosing his lawn suddenly clutches his chest and collapses in pain. As his dog leaps over-enthusiastically at him, the camera heads down into the grass, transforming it into a jungle, swooping through until it finds the gleaming shapes of insects violently fighting each other- the perfect visual metaphor for the film’s journey into the dark heart of suburbia.
18: TOY STORY 2
Having spent the entirety of the original CGI classic Toy Story as a fish-out-of-water, there’s something truly satisfying about seeing square-jawed hero toy Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) where he belongs- zooming through the stars, and blasting the hell out of the minions of Emperor Zurg. Pixar’s animators pull out all the stops in this sequence, cramming in 2001 and Star Wars in-jokes, before Buzz is unexpectedly atomized, and the action pulls back to reveal that we’ve actually been watching neurotic plastic dinosaur Rex (Wallace Shawn) making a total hash of trying to complete the Buzz Lightyear videogame.
17: RAISING ARIZONA
From the moment habitual re-offender Herbert “H.I.” McDonogh (Nicolas Cage) poses for his mug-shot and falls for policewoman Ed (Holly Hunter), the pre-credits sequence of the Coen Brothers’ madcap comedy barely pauses for breath. A blizzard of events rush past at a dizzying speed, and there’s plenty of whacked-out Looney Tunes-style humour as H.I. bounces in and out of prison, finally marries Ed, and faces tough problems in their quest for a baby. Featuring more gags than some comedies manage in their entire running time, it’s a blistering tour-de-force that pitches you straight into the movie’s lunatic headspace, leaving you wondering what could possibly happen next.
Driving through the night, Ray Liotta, Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci hear a noise from the boot of their car. They pull over, Pesci opens the boot, discovers the presumed corpse inside isn’t as dead as he thought, and instantly starts stabbing it to finish the job. As Ray Liotta watches impassively, his narration tells us- “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Cue the opening credits, and this sucker-punch of exquisitely timed violence ushers us instantly into the world of the gangster, with the aid of Martin Scorsese’s fiercely controlled direction.
A genuine shock to rank with Janet Leigh being killed halfway through Psycho, the beginning of Wes Craven’s satirical slasher flick cranks the fear factor up to maximum as the cute and resourceful Drew Barrymore comes under attack from a savage sicko with a liking for prank calls and movie references. After a series of devastating jolts, it seems Drew is destined to escape and become the heroine of the film- until, moments before her parents arrive home, she’s caught, stabbed and disemboweled, making it absolutely clear to the audience that anything can happen, and nobody is safe.
14: ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND
On the first viewing, the pre-credits sequence of music video director Michel Gondry’s romantic mindwarp can seem ridiculously low-key, taking almost seventeen minutes to chart the initial meeting and flowering romance of introverted cartoonist Jim Carrey and blue-haired free spirit Kate Winslet. It’s only when you reach the ending, and realize that Carrey and Winslet have actually already had a love affair but have both had their memories of each other erased, that the true genius of the opening sinks in. As with the rest of this Charlie Kaufmann-scripted weirdfest, it’ll leave your brain gently fizzing for weeks to come.
13: A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
Proving that love really is all you need, this classic magical wartime fantasy from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger starts with a view of the entire universe, before zooming towards planet Earth, and finally focusing in on the desperate conversation between an American radio operator (Kim Hunter) and a poetic English Bomber pilot (David Niven) who knows he’s minutes away from death. Over a few short exchanges, they start to fall in love, and it’s impossible not to be swept up in the film’s wonderfully English romanticism as Niven leaps to his doom, only to find a very different destiny waiting for him…
12: THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING
The first ten minutes of Peter Jackson’s take on Tolkien’s fantasy classic have an almost insurmountable job. How do you introduce an unfamiliar audience to the insanely complicated world of Middle Earth without burying them under a pile of mythical references and unpronounceable names? The answer turns out to be a brisk prologue that races through Middle Earth’s history in double time, tracking the tale of the One Ring and finding time for a truly mind-blowing battle sequence, a cameo from a pre-Andy Serkis design of Gollum, and even some genuine giant monster-style bashing from the spikily-armoured Sauron, all narrated by the dulcet tones of Cate Blanchett’s Galadirel.
11: CITIZEN KANE
A film doesn’t get called “the Greatest Movie ever made” without good reason, and Orson Welles’ groundbreaking directorial debut sets out its desire to dazzle in the stunning opening sequence. Using models, composite shots, surreal lenses and bizarre editing, it shows the last minutes of legendary newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane as he expires in his colossal, castle-like retreat of Xanadu. A pair of lips say the word “Rosebud”, a snow-globe showing a tiny house rolls and smashes on the ground, and the mystery that drives the film begins- who, or what is Rosebud, and why did it mean so much to a man like Kane?
Brutal economy is the name of the game in the movie that transformed Steven Spielberg from promising newcomer into a directorial superstar. Combining prowling underwater shots, suspenseful views of the ocean surface and John Williams’ infamous theme, the film gets off to a horrifying start as innocent hippie-chick Chrissie (Susan Backlinie) discovers it’s unwise for promiscuous, drink-loving teens to go skinny-dipping when there’s a hungry Great White Shark on the loose. It’s also the perfect showcase for the style forced upon Spielberg thanks to failure of his mechanical shark, with the ocean-bound killer not even showing a fin while chowing down on its helpless victim.
9: THE SPY WHO LOVED ME
The pre-credits sequences in Bond films have evolved from mere teasers into fully-fledged stunt-heavy spectaculars that are often more memorable than the movies they’re introducing. Few of them, however, have reached the sheer exuberance of the opening of The Spy Who Loved Me, which sees Roger Moore’s debonair agent summoned away from a spot of rumpy-pumpy in a mountain cabin and suddenly encountering a gang of ski-bound KGB assassins. A high-octane chase follows, which ends with a charmingly ridiculous punchline as Bond skis off a cliff to escape, and then saves himself from a colossal drop by releasing a Union Jack-emblazoned parachute.
“Chapter One- He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Beneath his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. New York was his town, and it always would be.” With shimmering black-and-white widescreen photography and the sounds of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, the opening of Woody Allen’s masterful comedy drama is a cinematic love-letter to his favourite city. The towers and skyscrapers of Manhattan have never looked so magnificent, and Allen’s traditionally nervy voiceover gives the whole sequence a brilliantly ironic edge that perfectly sets the scene for the realistic, complex and romantic events that follow.
The film that kick-started the American slasher movie genre is given a brilliantly eye-catching opening by director John Carpenter and his devious taste for suspense. We follow the point-of-view of Michael Myers in what looks like one unbroken shot (actually three separate shots cunningly cut together) as he spies on his teenage sister having sex, dons a Halloween mask, waits for her boyfriend to leave, and then brutally stabs her to death. As if the creepy voyeurism of the sequence wasn’t enough to disturb, Carpenter then tops this by revealing that the perpetrator is actually a cute, blonde and seemingly innocent child.
6: RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK
Sometimes, all you need is one gigantic, rolling boulder. Throwing the character of Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) straight into what he does best- dicing with death in ancient temples- Spielberg marshals an opening sequence that’s an absolute masterclass in adrenaline and well-timed shocks, with gruesome rotted corpses, tarantulas, spikes, pressure-activated poison darts, and the vital “collapsing building” factor. Add in a chase by natives, Paul Freeman’s villainous rival archaeologist Belloq, and a close encounter between Indy and his least-favourite breed of reptile, and you’ve got everything you need to know about our battle-scarred hero in one audaciously entertaining package.
5: TOUCH OF EVIL
From Citizen Kane onwards, Orson Welles was always looking for ways to rewrite the cinematic rulebook, and this 1958 thriller gave him another chance to shine. Originally only contracted as an actor, Welles ended up in the director’s chair, and used the same adventurous visual style as in Kane to create the breathtaking opening sequence. Following a bomb as it gets primed, placed in the boot of a car and driven across the Mexico/America border to be detonated, the unbroken three minute and twenty second tracking shot was like nothing that had ever been seen before, and raised the curtain on Welles’ last major Hollywood movie.
4: APOCALYPSE NOW
War is Hell, but Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic opens with a look at its weirder, darker and beautiful side. A lush jungle bursts into flames accompanied by “The End” by the Doors, and as helicopters zoom past the camera, the sight of Martin Sheen’s Colonel Willard lying in a hotel room starts mixing through the images of warfare. Showing the character’s mind still drifting back to his time in the Vietnam jungles, it’s a slow, graceful and utterly compelling mix of visuals, music and eerie sound design, which is then subtly mirrored at the film’s bizarre and disturbing climax.
3: BLADE RUNNER
Los Angeles, 2019, and as a tiny ‘spinner’ craft zooms across the sprawling landscape, audiences are thrown straight into one of the most detailed visions of tomorrow ever realized. Blade Runner’s stunning cityscapes are still the benchmark for the “fantasy metropolis” over two decades later, and following such a visually stunning opening, it does the sensible thing by shrinking the focus to two people- replicant-hunting Blade Runner Holden (Morgan Paull), and nervy Tyrell Corporation employee Leon (Brion James). One clammy suspense sequence later, Holden has been blasted through the nearest wall, and the audience is fully immersed in a classic dark future.
2: ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST
Hi-jacking the image of three criminals waiting for a train from 1952’s High Noon, the beginning of Sergio Leone’s epic Western turns into one of the longest (and quietest) credits sequences in cinema history. Over a near-wordless, muic-free ten minutes, three anonymous killers commandeer a ramshackle train station, and then spend their time cracking their knuckles, getting distracted by a drip in the ceiling, or trapping an irritating fly in the barrel of their gun. The silence is only broken by the arrival of the train, with Ennio Morricone’s creepy score heralding the appearance of Charles Bronson’s Harmonica, and the inevitable gunslingling showdown.
1: STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE
It’s 1977, and cinema audiences are sitting down to watch the latest film from the director of American Graffiti. Strangely enough, he’s gone from Fifties nostalgia to Sci-fi adventure, but nobody’s expecting anything remarkable. After the words “A Long Time Ago, in a Galaxy Far, Far Away” and a lengthy title crawl, the camera reveals a planet, and a pretty spectacular-looking spacecraft zooms into view, with laser blasts hitting it. Wow, think the audiences. That’s pretty good.
And then, the unstoppable, seemingly never-ending mass of the Imperial Star Destroyer slides into view over the camera, and an entire collective generations’ jaw hits the floor. In one single shot, for better or worse, a new era of Hollywood was ushered in, and the following ten minutes would rewrite the rules of Blockbuster Cinema.
With virtually all the story gaps filled by the Prequel trilogy, it’s hard to imagine exactly how daring the opening sequence of Star Wars was back in 1977. Not only did it introduce incredible new special effects, but it also dropped us into the centre of an intergalactic conflict with virtually no explanation, and made our only audience identification figures into a camp robotic butler and something that looked more like a dustbin than a person.
At the least, there was no doubting the white clad, feisty Leia was our damsel in distress, or that the heavy-breathing Vader was the black-hearted villain of the piece. The classically simple story was a fairy tale recast in different clothes, but the sharp editing, breathtaking images and bursts of humour from R2D2 and C3PO meant it didn’t matter that the real hero of the piece didn’t arrive until twenty minutes into the movie. There have been bigger films and better films, but no other movie has ever managed to open with such a concentrated burst of pure, magical storytelling.
The “It was all a dream” ending is the biggest cliché in storytelling, but Terry Gilliam makes it work like a charm in his fantasy masterpiece. Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) has been rescued from the Ministry of Information Retrieval, and reunited with Jill Layton (Kim Greist), the love of his life who he thought was dead. There’s just one problem- nothing we’ve seen has actually happened. Suddenly, we’re back in the torture chamber Sam was rescued from, and the film leaves him alone, insane and humming the title song ‘Brazil’, having found the only safe haven in Gilliam’s inhuman, soul-crushing bureaucracy.
24: DR STRANGELOVE
The End of the World isn’t meant to be funny, but nobody told master filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. His pitch-black Nuclear comedy was originally to end with a custard pie fight between US Generals in the War Room, but instead has Peter Sellers’ crackpot scientist Dr. Strangelove battling his rebellious Nazi-saluting right arm and accidentally calling the President “Mein Fuerer”, while the other Generals are more worried about potential post-apocalyptic sex than the oncoming doomsday. Add Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again” accompanied by a visual symphony of Atom Bomb explosions, and it’s one of the most beautifully lunatic endings in cinema history.
23: ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST
Rebellious psychiatric patient and convict Randall P. MacMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is a force of nature, making it all the more tragic when he’s transformed into a slobbering vegetable. Finally ready to escape, the Chief (Will Sampson) can’t bear to see his friend like this and quietly suffocates him with a pillow. Then, he achieves what MacMurphy failed at earlier in the film, wrenching a sink unit from the floor and hurling it through the window to escape, and the howl of sheer joy that comes from fellow patient Taber (Christopher Lloyd) is a perfect expression of this finally uplifting, memorable climax.
22: THE SEARCHERS
The ultimate example of John Ford’s Western filmmaking style also gives one of his most distinctive endings. After spending years hunting the Indians who wiped out his relations and kidnapped his niece (Natalie Wood), embittered and racist Civil War veteran Ethan Edwardes (John Wayne) is moments away from killing her for “going native” and joining the tribe- but instead, reclaims his humanity and takes her home. The final shot sees her reunited with her family, but Ethan is left outside and has to turn and walk slowly away into the epic landscape of Monument Valley, destined to remain alone.
21: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
Gunfights don’t come more operatic than the final showdown in this Spaghetti Western classic, as Tuco (Eli Wallach), Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) and the Man with No Name (Clint Eastwood) duel each other for a cache of Civil War gold. The extreme close-ups of the characters’ eyes, or their hands hovering at their guns boost the tension, Ennio Morricone’s score hits stunningly lurid heights- and then, with the fight over, there’s a fabulous twist as Tuco finds himself double crossed and forced to stand with his head in a noose, as ‘No Name’ recreates the scam they ran earlier in the story, but with potentially fatal consequences.
20: EASY RIDER
After the gleeful, energetic opening to this counter-culture classic, with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda gunning their Chopper motorcycles along the highway to the sounds of “Born To Be Wild” by Steppenwolf, there’s something deeply upsetting about watching things go spectacularly wrong for them. Encountering prejudice and closed-mindedness almost everywhere they go, their journey to ‘find America’ is brutally cut short when they are killed at random by a group of rednecks. The sight of their prized motorcycles exploding in flames is a powerful symbol for the death of the Sixties ideals, and a moving coda to a wildly experimental movie.
19: STAR WARS: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
From Vader dropping the “I am your Father” bombshell to the final shot of Luke and Leia watching the Millenium Falcon speed off into Space, the climactic sequences of Episode V are Star Wars at its most propulsively exciting. John Williams’ score keeps the energy bubbling, while there’s a bumper crop of classic moments from Lando’s horrified reaction to the Lightspeed drive failure, to Luke and Vader’s eerie telepathic conversation, and R2-D2 finally saving the day. It’s also one of the first genuine serial-style movie cliffhangers, leaving audiences with questions that, at the time, wouldn’t be answered for another three years.
Film Noir thrillers have traditions when it comes to their endings- the case is solved, the criminals are punished, and the hero gets the girl- but Roman Polanski’s revisionist take on the genre upends this in one horrifying scene. Detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nichoson) looks on helplessly as a car crash kills his lover Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), and he’s unable to stop her shell-shocked daughter being taken away by the man who is both her and Evelyn’s father, the incestuous industrialist Noah Cross (John Huston). A brutally downbeat ending to a thriller that isn’t afraid to look at the darker side of humanity.
17: PULP FICTION
Quentin Tarantino’s second film ties the narrative into a series of exciting loops, no more so in the finale, where Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) encounter the fun-loving criminals Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honeybunny (Amanda Plummer) from the film’s opening sequence during a brilliantly tense robbery. Despite Tarantino ratcheting up the unbearable suspense, the sequence becomes less about imminent violence, and more about Jules finding his way in life, and choosing not to kill. A weirdly moving and powerful scene, which gets added bonuses in the ‘Bad Mutha Fucker’ wallet gag and Jules and Vincent’s brilliantly nonchalant exit.
16: DON’T LOOK NOW
The kind of finale that leaves you both terrified and scratching your head in bewilderment, Nicolas Roeg’s multi-layered supernatural drama climaxes with Donald Sutherland pursuing what he thinks is the red-coated ghost of his daughter through the darkened streets of Venice. Unfortunately, he’s made a fatal mistake, and in a horrifying sequence discovers the figure is actually an ugly dwarf wielding a razor who then violently attacks him. As Sutherland’s throat is slashed, we see a blizzard of images depicting his memories as he dies, and it’s a devastating shock ending that lends this mournful drama a nightmarish quality.
15: CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND
Spielberg’s natural talent for creating a cinematic sense of wonder gets its ultimate expression in the majestic appearance of the alien Mothership at the climax of his UFO epic. A near-perfect blend of light and sound, the sequence takes us from a freeform jazz-style communication with the ship, to hundreds of returning ‘abductees’ emerging from the blinding light, and finally, Richard Dreyfuss’ everyman getting to meet the child-like aliens and journey to another world. The Special Edition revealed the interior of the mothership to less impressive effect, but Spielberg has since snipped the footage from the DVD, restoring it to its full magical glory.
14: THE WICKER MAN
A bizarre mix of Horror movie and Folk musical, this classic cult film saves the truly disturbing twists for its ending. After spending the film trying to prevent the pagan sacrifice of a young girl, policeman Edward Woodward suddenly finds out that he’s been manipulated, and it’s him who is the chosen sacrifice. Dragged into a colossal, menacing Wicker Man, he is finally burnt alive, screaming out prayers to God at the same time that his audience are singing lively harvest songs, which all adds up to a finale even more terrifying than the mustard-coloured roll-neck sweater sported by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee).
After the delirious excess of the sequences where tragic, telekinetic Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) takes spectacular revenge on her classmates, director Brian DePalma needed something to give the audiences a final jolt in their seats. He did this with a weird, unsettling dream sequence where Sue (Amy Irving) lays flowers on Carrie’s grave- only for a hand to suddenly lunge out of the ground to grab her. One of the most memorable cinematic shocks became one of the most copied, with the “hand from grave” surprise ending up as one of the biggest Horror Movie clichés of the Eighties.
12: BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID
Legends always have to come to an end, and the partnership between outlaws Butch (Paul Newman) and Sundance(Robert Redford) wouldn’t be as brilliantly mythic if they didn’t eventually fall in battle. It’s only a matter of when, and after escaping from various law enforcers and a seemingly unstoppable posse, our two heroes are finally cornered by the Bolivian Police. Bloodied, battered, and aware their number may be up, Newman and Redford’s star power maintains the winning humour, and charges the movie up for their final dash into a hail of bullets, and the brilliantly memorable freeze frame over the sounds of gunfire.
11: LIFE OF BRIAN
The Python team’s infamous take on organized religion and Biblical epics simply had to end with a crucifixion scene. As the hapless accidental messiah Brian (Graham Chapman) is raised onto his cross, there’s an unexpected emotional impact as he finds himself abandoned or rejected by everyone, even his mother Mandy (Terry Jones). It’s at this point, however, that fellow crucifixion victim Eric Idle reminds him to ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’, and the resulting cheery song is so infectiously toe-tapping that it ended up having a life as both a hit single and a football terrace chant many years later.
10: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
Proof that Horror can be as socially conscious as any other genre, George A. Romero’s microbudgeted Zombie masterpiece has a devilish final shock. The lone survivor of the besieged house, Ben (played by black actor Duane Jones) can see the local sherrif’s forces approaching, and it seems his nightmare is finally over. Instead, without being given a chance to react, he’s mistaken for a Zombie and shot through the head. The sequence of still images behind the end credits continues the chilling and mesmerizing impact, as Ben’s body is grabbed with meat-hooks, and dumped on a pile of corpses ready to be burned.
9: SOME LIKE IT HOT
Having dodged the mob and made good their escape, runaway musicians Tony Curtis and Jack lemmon can finally abandon their disguise as women- but for Lemmon, this means coming clean with the ageing playboy (Joe E. Brown) he’s accidentally gotten engaged to. After trying every conceivable excuse why they can’t get married (“I can never have children!!” “We can adopt!”), Lemmon finally tears his wig off and exclaims “I’m a man!”, to which Brown, without even a hint of a reaction, replies- “Nobody’s perfect!” , rounding off Billy Wilder’s brilliant comedy with one of the single greatest closing lines in movies.
8: KING KONG
Stop-motion animation had already featured in movies like The Lost World (1927), but nothing prepared 1933 audiences for the climax of King Kong, where the titular gorilla takes New York by storm, hi-jacks his lady love Fay Wray, and then dies in combat with a flock of bi-planes at the Empire State Building’s summit. The animation from SFX pioneer Willis H. O’Brien is astonishingly expressive, adding an unexpected edge of pathos and tragedy to Kong’s final moments, while the line from Robert Newton’s daredevil filmmaker Carl Denham- ” It was beauty that killed the beast” is just the icing on the cake.
Manipulated by nameless killer Kevin Spacey into a journey into the desert, detectives Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman discover the hard way how sick their captor is when a package containing the head of Pitt’s pregnant wife Gwyneth Paltrow is delivered, all so Pitt can kill Spacey, becoming the last of his “seven deadly sin” murders by embodying Wrath. David Fincher’s dazzling direction spares us any gore, keeping the horror purely in the mind, and as Pitt is unable to stop himself from fulfilling Spacey’s plans and blowing the killers’ head off, the bleakly nihilistic message of this pitiless thriller is rammed home.
6: THE GRADUATE
Benjamin Braddock’s (Dustin Hoffman) desperate race to the church to stop Elaine Robinson (Katherine Ross) from marrying someone else has been imitated and spoofed so many times, it’s easy to forget how iconic it is. As Ross and Hoffman battle their way through angry relations and finally leap to escape onto a bus, it seems like a classic feelgood ending- but then Simon and Garfunkel singing ‘The Sound of Silence’ appears on the soundtrack, and the film ends far more ambiguously, with both characters facing the future with unease, and trying to work out whether they’ve actually done the right thing.
5: PLANET OF THE APES
Few shock endings have been blown quite as comprehensively as Planet of the Apes, with the image of a ruined Statue of Liberty even turning up on the film’s DVD cover art. That it still works, despite the secret being known, is a testament to the film’s clever satire, as the astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston), having gone from cynical misanthrope to passionate defender of humanity, is confronted with proof of mankind’s folly, and the true identity of the mysterious Ape Planet. Heston’s near-biblical anger at the revelation is powerful stuff, and makes the attempted twist ending of Tim Burton’s ‘re-imagining’ look ludicrous by comparison.
4: THE SIXTH SENSE
Sometimes, it’s all about what the audience isn’t being told. All throughout M. Night Shyamalan’s ghost story, the fact that Bruce Willis’ psychologist hasn’t talked to anyone, successfully opened a door or changed his clothes hardly seems important. It’s only when Willis discovers his estranged wife asleep in front of their wedding videos, and he sees she’s been holding onto his wedding ring- the ring he thinks he’s still wearing- that it falls into place, and he finally realises he’s been a ghost all this time. A brilliantly devious surprise ending, and one that Shyamalan seems unable to top no matter how hard he tries.
A showcase of Forties-style Hollywood moviemaking at its finest, Casablanca’s ending is a marvel of storytelling, and yet wasn’t even written until halfway through the film’s production. As the hard-boiled Rick (Humphrey Bogart) sacrifices his chance for happiness with Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) for the greater good, the mixture of doomed romance and heroism is a potent cocktail, and both stars turn in iconic performances. The mix wouldn’t be perfect without the sardonic and sarcastic presence of Claude Rains as Captain Renault, and his walk with Bogart into the darkness at the film’s close is the stuff of cinematic legend.
2: THE USUAL SUSPECTS
Five minutes before the credits roll, and Customs agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) is convinced he’s gotten the truth about crime lord Keyser Soze from crippled con-man Verbal Kimt (Kevin Spacey). In fact, he couldn’t be more wrong, and the sequence that follows pulls the rug from under the audience in the most staggering way imaginable. Through Kujan’s perspective, we realize that everything we’ve seen in Verbal’s story has actually been invented using details displayed on a nearby noticeboard, and the shattering realization that Verbal is actually Keyser Soze is only narrowly matched by the fact that we’ve been comprehensively lied to for the entire movie.
1: IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE
A sentimental ending can be hugely important, and Frank Capra knew this more than anyone. One of the biggest filmmakers in Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s, Capra was behind a whole slew of hits like Mr Smith Goes To Washington, Mr Deeds Goes To Town, and the 1938 Oscar-scooping classic It Happened One Night.
Despite his reputation for corny, crowd-pleasing sentiment, Capra also knew that sentiment needs to be earned, and doesn’t work without hardship. His 1946 classic It’s A Wonderful Life proves this more than anything, spending the majority of its running time heaping disaster after disaster on the head of George W. Bailey (James Stewart), a dreamer who’s desperate to escape the small town of Bedford Falls, but finds life always gets in his way.
The harsh disappointments build to the point where George is contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve, and it’s only a helpful Angel giving him a nightmare glimpse of what life would have been like without him in Bedford Falls that finally persuades him to choose life. After some amazingly dark and intense scenes, and a genuinely disturbing performance from Stewart, Capra finally lets loose the sentiment, and the result is the working definition of “heartwarming.”
Returned from the flipside town of Pottersville, George is so full of life that he rushes home, barely caring about the policemen waiting there to arrest him for misappropriating bank funds, and it’s here Capra creates his greatest hymn to the community spirit of small-town America. Everyone in Bedford Falls arrives at George’s house having clubbed together with enough money to save him from his debt, George finds himself declared “the richest man in town”, they all start singing ‘Aud Lang Syne’, and not even the ear-piercing screech of nightmare ‘cute kid’ Zuzu Bailey can put a damper on the quintessential Hollywood feelgood ending.