Gilbey on Film: the greatest movie endings ever

And how will Roman Polanski's The Ghost compare?

It's been a while since anyone discussed Roman Polanski as a film-maker, but let me put aside for now such words as "extradition" and "house arrest" in order to proclaim the giddy brilliance of his new thriller, The Ghost, which premiered last week at the Berlin Film Festival.

The picture is adapted from Robert Harris's scurrilous novel about a ghostwriter (played by Ewan McGregor), hired to produce the memoirs of a former British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan) who is accused of war crimes. Honestly, how do writers come up with such ludicrous and far-fetched stories?

I'll be reviewing the film when it opens in the spring, but let me say in advance that the ending is an absolute humdinger. (No need to avert your eyes: when it comes to surrendering secrets, I'm like Jack Straw at the Chilcot inquiry.) The final pages of the original novel were satisfying enough, but Polanski has conjured a closing image that stays true to Harris's prose while elevating it to the realms of cinematic poetry.

The director, you will recall, has form in this area. His creepy 1976 horror-comedy The Tenant closed on a devastating final image -- the screaming mouth of a figure wrapped in bandages. And it was Polanski who famously jettisoned the upbeat conclusion of Chinatown favoured by the screenwriter, Robert Towne.

The original script ended with Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) killing her revolting father, Noah Cross (John Huston), by whom she had borne a daughter. "You knew that Evelyn was going to have to stand trial and you knew that she wasn't going to be able to tell why she did it," Towne explained.

"But it was bitter-sweet in the sense that one person, at least, wasn't tainted -- the child."

Polanski was having none of it. In his autobiography, Roman by Polanski (later revealed, irony of ironies, to have been ghost-written), the director said: "I knew that if Chinatown was to be special, and not just another thriller where the good guys triumph in the final reel, Evelyn had to die. Its dramatic impact would be lost unless audiences left their seats with a sense of outrage at the injustice of it all . . .

"To this day Towne feels my ending is wrong; I am equally convinced that his more conventional ending would have seriously weakened the picture."

Good call. No, great call. Towne observed correctly that Polanski's ending "was like the tunnel at the end of the light".

It's a cert for one of the greatest movie endings of all time. But here is a handful of unsung sign-offs that deserve some love:

Brighton Rock (1947)

Admirers of the Boulting brothers' film of Graham Greene's novel, co-scripted by Greene himself (with Terrence Rattigan), tend to turn up their noses at the altered ending, in which Rose never discovers Pinkie's hatred of her -- the vinyl record on which he has recorded his malevolent message has a scratch on it, so she stays happy in her delusion as the needle gets stuck.

Greene saw it as a compromise, but a clever one: "Anybody who wanted a happy ending would feel that they had had a happy ending," he said. "Anybody who had any sense would know that the next time Rose would probably push the needle over the scratch and get the full message."

"But is the film version really softer than the original?" wondered the novelist Jake Arnott. "It has always struck me that it is much more cruel. Rose's horror is simply postponed." It'll be interesting to see how things are wrapped up in the forthcoming second adaptation, starring Sam Riley as Pinkie and Helen Mirren as Ida, which opens later this year.

Before Sunset (2004)

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, the garrulous romantics of Before Sunrise, meet again nine years later. He's married with kids now; she has a boyfriend. After 80 minutes of walking and talking around Paris, he ends up back at her apartment.

"Baby, you're gonna miss that plane," she tells him. He agrees she's right. Cue fade out -- possibly the most tantalising fade-out, in fact, in all of cinema.

Limbo (1999)

The over-praised John Sayles wrote and directed this oddity, which starts as a tentative romance between two middle-aged loners and darkens to become a cruel thriller. I still can't make up my mind if I like the ending but the fact that it still bothers me 11 years after seeing it surely counts for something.

It's not a widely seen film, so I'll hold back on the spoilers, apart from saying that the picture ends with all the jarring suddenness of an emergency stop.

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

River Phoenix, as a narcoleptic hustler, has passed out in the middle of a country road. In extreme wide-shot, his unconscious body is lifted into a car by a stranger. The car drives off. Cue "The Old Main Drag", the Pogues' finest hour. A perfect finish to an erratic film.

Ryan Gilbey blogs for Cultural Capital every Tuesday. He is also the New Statesman's film critic.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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