Creating a satisfying ending to a movie is not for the faint of heart. Get it wrong and the audience will hate you for it. You’ll be mocked for years afterwards. Ok, it might not get that bad, but why take the chance?
Creating a satisfying ending to a movie that is heartbreaking, as well, is doubly difficult. The audience has to care. The story has to ring true. The ending has to sing. And, then, if you’re lucky, then, the heart will break.
These 10 movies do all that and then some.
1. Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981)
We kick off our list with an ending so heartbreaking that it will make you want to track down the filmmaker and plead him to change it. He won’t, though. He’s done it before and he’ll do it again.
Pilfering the hook of Antonioni’s “Blow Up”, Brian De Palma pushed his dynamic hyper-realistic style to its limits in crafting a dazzling, heart pounding thriller about a film sound man, Jack Terry, who believes he has accidentally recorded a political assassination.
John Travolta stars as a sort of exile who has fled the part of him that gives a crap. This goes back to his days wiring undercover cops. One job failed and a cop died. Reeling, Jack fled to a job doing sound for a scuzzy producer of blood and boobs spectacles. Now, though, teamed up with a girl, Sally (Nancy Allen), who is linked to the assassination, and with the tape in hand, redemption is so close Jack can almost hear it.
The dark genius here is that the story pairs Jack’s attempt to expose a crime with national implications to a lame request from his producer to find a better scream for a doomed cutie in his latest pic, called, “Co-Ed Frenzy.”
In a slow, dark descent down to a hell of an ending, Terry uses Sally as bait as he wires her up in an unconscious attempt to redeem himself and erase the memory of that disastrous wiring job that haunts him. But, his dream of playing hero is cut short by the ice pick of a deranged madman played, with creepy credibility, by a young John Lithgow. The nightmare of a failed wire job and a fresh corpse, this time Sally’s, recurs for Terry.
But wait, there’s one more tragic touch and it’s a doozy. Inside the projection room, at Independence Pictures Incorporated, Terry plays the scene from, “Co-Ed Frenzy”, where the doomed cutie is about to get sliced to bits. Her lame scream has been replaced. The new one is Sally’s very real scream mere seconds before her life was ended. The producer loves it.
For Jack, though he plugs his ears, there is no way he is ever going to stop hearing that scream.
2. Il Bidone (Federico Fellini, 1955)
Despicable characters deserve their own heartbreaking endings, too. It is earned, here, in an under-appreciated early Fellini gem about the sad lives of a group of aging petty con men.
A starkly rendered visual poem for lost souls everywhere, the movie’s main con centres on Broderick Crawford’s Augusto dressing up as a Monsignor. With his co-conspirators at his service, the gang head into the country where Augusto oozes authority and deftly dishes out divinely inspired wisdom to easily separate peasants from the little that they own.
Though an ensemble piece, in the end, it’s Crawford’s show. His sad eyed, puffy brute of a face is lost opportunity and wasted ambition made flesh. But, Augusto is ready to start anew. He’s even put the ball in motion. Sadly, it doesn’t roll for long.
Hoping to use the take from yet another round of the Monsignor con to help the daughter he’s recently reunited with, Augusto hides the cash in his shoes. To cover his tracks, he tells his cohorts that he was too moved by the latest family to take their money. They don’t buy it. Chasing him down a steep mountain slope, they throw fist sized rocks at him. One strikes him in the head and down he goes. They find the money and leave him to die.
There he lays throughout the night and into the morning. As dawn breaks, a desperately weak Augusto hears singing coming from the road up above. Gathering all his strength, he slowly struggles up the slope. Nearing the top, he calls out to a group of peasants with his hoarse voice. They don’t hear him and continue walking down the road.
Fitting that the final thing Augusto sees is a group of people he played for suckers walking away from his final request. Still, somehow, you feel for this man and you’re on that mountain side with him, clinging to those rocks, as the already faint light inside him slowly fades out.
3. Seconds (John Frankenheimer, 1966)
Few endings this devastating begin with a thoughtful talk from a kind grandfatherly figure, but this one does. Kindness sometimes carries a knife.
A box office bomb upon release, this visually daring adaptation of David Ely’s 1963 novel about a bored, middle-aged businessman offered a chance at a brand new life by a secretive corporation, is now considered a cult classic.
Rock Hudson’s name is above the title, but he doesn’t show up until the 40 minute mark. Until then, it’s character actor John Randolph’s film. Playing the “before” to Hudson’s “after”, Randolph, as Arthur Hamilton, is a weary wonder as a man who is walking through life in a daze. He’s barely present at his job or in his marriage. His get up and go has got up and gone.
Arthur takes the offer and, after plastic surgery and a strict physical regimen, emerges as the handsome Antiochus Wilson (Hudson). From there, “Seconds” follows Wilson as he tries to adjust to his new life as a painter in an artist’s colony on the coast of Southern California.
Frankenheimer and celebrated cinematographer James Wong Howe went all out and captured the scarred emotional reality of the story while also playing to its’ more surreal elements. Hand held cameras and bizarre camera setups mix with fish-eye lenses and actors flown by wires to create an emotionally authentic and hauntingly off-kilter masterpiece.
Wilson bombs out in his new life and returns to the company for a third plate. But, the company has other plans. Strapped to a gurney, being wheeled to meet his maker, Wilson violently twists and turns in a too late attempt to escape his fate. Into the surgery room once more, but this time, he’s being prepped to play the dead body to another man’s attempt at a new life.
All the hope and all the promise contained within this stuck man vanishes in an instant in an ending that has you wishing against the worst even though you know it won’t do any good. You watch his glassy eyes, the surgeon’s drill move towards his head, and a superimposed image of a beach and a dream that never will be. You hope that ending will not stay with you for days – but it will.
4. City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931)
Conclusions of the cracked coronary kind can also leave you smiling and love struck with the entirety of humanity. To be seen for who you truly are and loved – that’s where it’s at.
One of two comedies to make the cut, “City Lights” is Charlie Chaplin’s most beloved film.
Here, as his world famous Tramp character, Charlie befriends a blind woman selling flowers on the street. She thinks he’s wealthy. The Tramp gladly plays along – just happy that someone, anyone, wants to be his friend.
In an ingenious parallel story, a wealthy man pals around with the Tramp as well, but only when he is drunk. When he sobers up, he discards the Tramp like an old rag. The wealthy man’s drunken episodes are akin to the flower seller’s blindness. He accepts the Tramp as worthy of his company only when he’s blind drunk.
Turns out, the lovely flower seller and her mother are in dire straits. They need money for rent. Snapping into action, the Tramp takes a job and enters a prize fight. Later, when he finds out about a free, revolutionary new eye operation that could restore the flower seller’s sight, he, once again, eagerly rushes off, this time looking for enough money to pay for the flight to get her there.
Mission accomplished, time passes and the Tramp and the blind flower seller lose touch. Months later, the Tramp returns to the sidewalk searching for her. Turns out, she’s no longer selling flowers on the street – she’s selling them inside in a nice shop. They lock eyes.
The ending to this film is perfect. You cannot improve upon it. It’s moving, exquisitely pantomimed and charged with an aching suspense. The suspense being that when the flower seller, who can now see, finds out that the Tramp is not a wealthy man, but a vagrant, will she accept him or will she reject him like all the others?
If you haven’t seen this film, yet, you are missing a key, early classic movie watching experience that flies way above the treetops of most films. Chaplin never made a film this funny or this wonderful again. It’s all about acceptance and a genius made it. That’s why this ending is one of the most heartbreaking the cinema has ever known.
5. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956)
How about two heartbreaking endings for the price of one? This, the granddaddy of all second chance films, walks you into the dark heart of devastation and leaves you there all alone and broken.
The late, great Jimmy Stewart plays retired detective John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson. Scottie is hired by an old college buddy, Gavin Elster, to keep an eye on his wife, Madeleine. Seems, Elster thinks she’s possessed by the spirit of a doomed woman, Carlotta Valdes, who killed herself long ago.
Scottie is just the man for the job. He has one fatal flaw, though. He suffers from vertigo.
What follows is a mesmerizing spiral into sexual obsession and mind bending betrayal. Scottie loses Madeleine and then himself in a hypnotically paced nightmare that has him struck numb with desire and desolation.
“You shouldn’t keep souvenirs of a killing.” Boiling with rage, cut down by desire unfulfilled, nakedly desperate and pleading, Stewart is a marvel in these final moments. All the suffering in this man is on display. He can hide it no longer.
The pitch black poetic ending is a doubly devastating heartbreaker due to the fact that Scottie brings it all on himself. His fatal flaw, it turns out, is not so much his vertigo as it is his willful walk into the shoes of his tormentor. Poor Scottie.