The Sense (And Senselessness) of Endings – Or How to End a Movie

By October 20, 2015Main

Spoiler alert: this article discusses the endings of two great films, North by Northwest and Sharknado (yes, I said Sharknado).

The best advice that I have ever read on how to end a movie (and I have read a lot) is provided by William Goldman in his book, “Adventures in the Screen Trade”, which is often described as “the screenwriter’s Bible”. It comes in the chapter entitled, appropriately enough, “Endings”, as Goldman provides a superb case study of the conclusion of Hitchcock’s masterpiece, North by Northwest.  The screenplay was written by the great Ernest Lehman, who always claimed that he had wanted to write “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures”.  Arguably Lehman achieved that, and he certainly achieved the most memorable ending of any Hitchcock picture. 

As Goldman puts it, “Near the conclusion of North by Northwest, Cary Grant finds himself in something of a pickle”, in that he has to save himself and Eva Marie Saint from foreign agents (in particular, the menacing Martin Landau, who has a boot to his hand as he hangs on to Mount Rushmore), while simultaneously saving a stolen microfilm from being spirited out of the country and somehow resolving his uncertain relationship with Marie Saint (a genuine secret agent, who had saved him after he was mistaken for a secret agent).  What Goldman rightly identifies as remarkable is that the movie achieves all this action and resolution in just 43 seconds, as the camera closes in on Landau’s boot, a shot is heard, and then Landau (not Grant or Marie Saint) is seen falling to his death, but not before dropping the statue in which the precious microfilm has been hidden. Finally, the film brilliantly cuts from Grant slowly hauling Marie Saint back up towards him, and towards safety, to his hauling her up and into his double-bunk on a train, before addressing her as “Mrs Thornhill”, thus neatly informing the audience that he has married the spy who saved him. 

As Goldman says, “I don’t know a more adroit ending to a film”.

“Adroit” is one way to go; adrenaline-fuelled is another. The best – that is, simultaneously the most surprising and skilful – ending to a film in recent years that I can think of is the ending of Sharknado, “the ultimate TV movie”, which proved even TV movies can now harness the wonders of CGI to create worlds that would hitherto have been the preserve of the big-screen blockbuster.  For those who don’t know, Sharknado is the literally unbelievable tale of how a tornado lifts sharks out of the Pacific Ocean and then drops them on Los Angeles.  The ending is fantastic, and fantastical, as the hero, Finley, dives headfirst into a falling shark’s mouth with a chainsaw and then slices his way out, in the process rescuing the girl who the shark had just swallowed but mercifully not digested. As the bloodied and be-gored hero emerges from the remnants of the shark’s tail and then pulls the girl out behind him, the camera lingers for a moment on this incredible scene. Then one word appears on screen: “Fin”.  The French word for “ending” or “finish”, it is usually glimpsed at the end of deep and meaningful French movies; here, it is the perfect and perfectly astonishing ending to a perfect and perfectly astonishing film, capturing both the sense of wonder and the sense of humour that makes Sharknado so satisfying.

Two entirely different films; two entirely different endings. And that’s probably the most important lesson about endings – they should be the perfect way to end your movie, whether they make complete cinematic sense (as in North by Northwest, neatly tying up all the different narrative strands) or utter cinematic senselessness (as in Sharknado, where a wonderful movie in-joke ends the ultimate B-movie). Make your own endings as individual as either of those.

(p.s.  I couldn’t end a piece that mentions Sharknado without quoting my favourite Sharknado joke. “What’s the only thing worse than a Sharknado?  A Garthnado, where a tornado sweeps up Garth Brooks and drops him on Los Angeles.” Boom, boom!)