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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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser