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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.