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The Last Picture Show: The Ten Finest Final Films

By Martin Keady · July 5, 2015

Filmmakers stop making films for all kinds of reasons: they die; they lose funding; or they may just lose interest in the stultifyingly slow business of showbusiness.  But whatever the reason that actors, writers or directors stop making movies, the fact that they have stopped making films often gives their final movies an added poignancy. In effect, they become their cinematic epitaphs.

Here are the ten finest “final films." 

10. STOP MAKING SENSE (1984) 

(Directed by Jonathan Demme, Written by Talking Heads and Jonathan Demme)

The “one last concert” film has become the musical equivalent of the “one last job” crime movie: a record of a great band or performer at the height of their powers, before they stop performing live and either retire or just record in the studio.  The genre really began with The Last Waltz (1978), Martin Scorsese’s film of the final live performance by The Band, and has continued ever since, with its most notable recent addition being LCD Soundsystem’s aptly named Shut Up and Play the Hits (2011).

However, by far the finest “final concert” film is Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, precisely because it was not intended to be a “final concert” film at all.  When Demme filmed three Talking Heads concerts in 1984, neither he nor the band realised that the concerts would be part of Talking Heads’ last ever live tour, before the growing tensions between the band members first stopped them performing live and then ended the band completely.

Consequently, Stop Making Sense has none of the schmaltzy self-congratulation of The Last Waltz or the undercutting of its own importance that Shut Up and Play the Hits specialises in. Instead, it is simply a record of one of the greatest ever bands playing one of the greatest ever live shows, with a relentless focus on the band and none of the ridiculous “cut-aways” to the audience that ruin so many concert movies.  The result was not just the greatest “final concert” film ever made, but arguably the greatest concert movie ever made. 

9. THE HARDER THEY FALL (1956)

(Directed by Mark Robson, Written by Philip Yordan, Based on Budd Schulberg’s novel of the same name)

Bogart appeared posthumously in the Steve Martin detective spoof, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), but his final “live” screen performance was as a sportswriter who is reduced to promoting a hapless Latin American heavyweight and in the process uncovers the corruption endemic in post-war American boxing.  And it was a typically great Bogey performance, encompassing, as so many of his films did, both hard-bitten cynicism and unexpected kindness.  (Having discovered that the boxer he has been promoting has been ripped off by his manager, Bogey’s character gives him his own fee, so that he can return to Argentina and escape the ring forever.)

8. THE SHOOTING PARTY (1985) 

(Directed by Alan Bridges, Written by Isobel Colegate and Julian Bond, Adapted from Colegate’s novel of the same name)

The Shooting Party is a classic “end of an era” movie, not only because it depicts the end of the Edwardian era of absolute self-indulgence by the British rich (a period that would be brought to an end by World War One) but because it was James Mason’s final film.  (As with so many films on this list it was released posthumously, after Mason’s death in 1984.) 

Mason was just one of several British acting greats who appeared in The Shooting Party: among his co-stars was Dorothy Tutin, for whom it was one of her last films. But it is Mason, as the magnificently named Sir Randolph Nettleby, who is the undoubted leader of the pack.  Mason was so often the archetypal “English gentleman” on screen (even when he was playing foreign villains, as in North by Northwest), and his performance in The Shooting Party was one of the finest of his career, as the role gave him full range to explore his effortless ability to play a true patrician.

Incidentally, The Shooting Party was the second of a pair of films made by one of the great “late developers” of cinema, Alan Bridges. Having worked in television for many years, Bridges finally got the chance to direct features late in his career. First, he made The Return of The Soldier (1982), about a shell-shocked soldier’s return from the carnage of France, and then The Shooting Party, which is almost a prequel to The Return of the Soldier, showing the calm and easy complacency of so much of English life, which was shattered forever by the first truly industrial war.

7. 1984 (1984)

(Written and Directed by Michael Radford, based on George Orwell’s novel of the same name)

Richard Burton died in 1984 and the film 1984, based on George Orwell’s increasingly prescient novel about totalitarianism and state surveillance (if he had called it 2014, his vision of the future would have been entirely accurate), is a fitting epitaph for one of the finest screen actors. 

In 1984, Burton almost plays against type as O’Brien, the thought-police torturer who entraps and then mentally destroys John Hurt’s innocent everyman, Winston Smith.  Burton becomes the human equivalent of the “Big Brother” state apparatus that continually monitors even the most mundane act of individuals, before using it against them. 

Soon after the announcement of Burton’s death, the BBC showed an entire “season” of his films on television, including The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and probably Burton’s greatest ever screen performance, as the frustrated husband in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I, for one, still vividly remember seeing those films and discovering that Burton was not only Liz Taylor’s “ex” but one of the finest screen actors that Britain has ever produced. 

6. THE SHOOTIST (1976)

(Directed by Don Siegel, Written by Miles Hood Swarthout and Scott Hale, based on the novel of the same name by Glendon Swarthout)

Every Western ever made is, in effect, an elegy for the Old West, which almost certainly never existed, at least not in the beautiful, even hallowed versions created by so many Hollywood movies.  And within the Western genre itself, there are many sub-genres, including “the last gunfight”, in which an ageing gunslinger is typically called upon to bear arms one last time, usually in defence of an otherwise defenceless individual.  There are numerous examples, ranging from Shane to Unforgiven, but the finest “last gunfight” film stars the finest gunfighter of them all, John Wayne.

The Shootist is self-consciously elegiac, as the story begins with Wayne’s character, J.B. Books, being diagnosed with terminal cancer (the doctor who diagnoses him is played by another legend, James Stewart). Rather than suffer a long and painful death, Books takes stock, first trying to set his affairs in order, then trying to settle old scores, hoping in the process to get himself shot so that he can die relatively quickly and easily. 

In the end, Books is slain not by any of his fellow gunfighters, but by a cowardly bartender hoping to make a name for himself.  In this way, his death both echoes those of other legendary Western gunfighters (notably Jesse James, whose own death has been filmed many times, most recently in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)) and prefigures the death of a latter-day gunslinger, Omar Little, in The Wire. Having escaped death numerous times throughout the show’s five seasons, Omar is finally and unceremoniously dispatched by a kid with a gun who shoots him in the back. 

5. THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1956)

(Directed by Charles Laughton, Written by James Agee and Charles Laughton, based on the novel of the same name by Davis Grubb)

The Night of the Hunter is a truly great “final” film, as it was tragically the last (indeed, the only) movie directed by Charles Laughton, the great British actor who was one of the stars of the 1930s and 1940s, appearing in such classics as Mutiny on the Bounty and The Private Life of Henry VIIIThe Night of the Hunter was the only film he made while standing behind the camera, and despite being one of the most visually inventive and psychologically unsettling Hollywood movies ever made, its relative box-office failure was so devastating that Laughton never directed a film again.

What is particularly fascinating about The Night of the Hunter is that it is almost unclassifiable. It is variously described as “a horror movie”, “a thriller” and a “children in peril” film, and it is all of those things, but it is also a remarkable insight into the mind of a psychopath.  Robert Mitchum plays “the Hunter” – the career criminal in pursuit of two young children who know where the proceeds from a bank robbery have been hidden – and it is probably the best performance of his career, as he is alternatively charming and terrifying in pursuit of the two innocents.

Because The Night of the Hunter lost money, Laughton only directed plays thereafter, but theatre’s gain was cinema’s loss.  In eliciting a career-best performance from Bob Mitchum; in harnessing the talents of silent-era star Lilian Gish as the “guardian angel” who protects the children from the monstrous Mitchum; and in creating what was one of the last great movies indebted to visually ravishing silent-era film-making (the era in which Laughton began his career), Laughton made an absolute one-off movie, whose enduring influence (not least on the likes of Scorsese and David Lynch) has completely obscured its “failure” in its own time.

4. A PASSAGE TO INDIA (1984)

(Written and Directed by David Lean, based on the novel of the same name by E.M. Forster)

If Steven Spielberg is the father of “the blockbuster” (with JAWS, which is now celebrating the 40th anniversary of its release), its grandfather is David Lean, whose “epics” (the spiritual predecessor to the blockbuster) included the magnificent The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter.  However, such was the muted critical reception for Ryan’s Daughter on its release in 1970 that Lean, having made the aforementioned four classics in little over a decade, did not make another film for 14 years.  Fortunately, A Passage To India was worth the long wait.

A Passage To India, which Lean wrote, directed and even edited (he had originally been an editor before becoming a director, which he always regarded as the most invaluable training to become a director), was received as rapturously as Ryan’s Daughter had been viewed with suspicion, even hostility.  Its languorous, at times almost hallucinogenic, portrayal of the subcontinent and the individuals (both Indian and foreign) who occupy it is one of the finest last films made by any director, and a triumphant return to the themes and imagery of his early masterpieces. 

Emboldened by the success of Passage, Lean, who had spent many years after Ryan’s Daughter trying to film a new version of Mutiny in the Bounty, attempted to film another great novel, Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, but once again he ran out of funding, and ultimately out of energy.  It is fascinating to consider a parallel universe in which a post-1970 Lean made a trilogy of late, great films, but in A Passage To India at least we have one late great David Lean movie.

3. THE MISFITS (1961) 

(Directed by John Huston, Written by Arthur Miller)

The Misfits is the ultimate “epitaph movie”, as it was the final film of not one Hollywood legend but two – Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe.  Gable is superb as the inappropriately named “Gay” Langland, an ageing cowboy reduced to rustling wild mustangs (supposedly “The Misfits” of the title) in order to sell them as dogfood, but Marilyn steals his heart (and the movie) as Roslyn, the recent divorcee who is determined to make up for lost time and find real love – or die in the process.

Strictly speaking, The Misfits was not Marilyn’s last film: that was Something’s Got To Give, which she was filming just before she died in 1962 and which was subsequently recut and reimagined as a Doris Day vehicle.  But The Misfits is her real goodbye to the screen, and it is achingly moving as it seems to be Marilyn’s most autobiographical role, as a beautiful but troubled woman who cannot help but make every man she meets fall in love with her.  Written by her husband at the time, Arthur Miller, who was determined to write a role for her that was worthy of her talents, The Misfits, unlike most of Marilyn’s movies of the fifties, was not a box-office success. However, its reputation has grown steadily since and today it stands just behind Some Like It Hot as Marilyn’s finest movie – a testament to her skill as an actress, particularly a dramatic actress, who was so much more than her “sex-bomb” image suggested.

2. THE SON OF THE SHEIKH (1926

(Directed by George Fitzmaurice, Written by Frances Marion, Fred de Gresac,  George Marion, Jr. and Paul Girard Smith, based on the novel The Sons of the Sheik, by E. M. Hull)

As this list shows, posthumous releases of films featuring deceased actors have been part of cinema since the beginning of the art-form, but the appearance of actors in films after they have died has really gathered pace in the last two decades, with the increasingly sophisticated use of cinematic technology, in particular CGI, to bring actors back from the dead.  In fact, “epitaph movies” are often specifically marketed as such.  For example, The Drop (2014) and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) were the last movies of the great James Gandolfini and Heath Ledger respectively, and were otherwise largely unremarkable films elevated to a kind of grandeur because of the fact that they were the last films made by great actors. 

However, the most celebrated “posthumous performance” is that of Rudolph Valentino in Sons of the Sheikh, which was released less than two weeks after his early death and became his final box-office triumph, even as thousands of mourners were still queuing up to pay their respects to “the great lover”.

The Son of the Sheikh was a sequel to one of Valentino’s greatest hits, The Sheikh (1921), and his death soon after filming it fixed him in the public imagination forever as an exotic man of mystery.  There have been several attempts at biopics of Valentino since his death, including Ken Russell’s 1977 film, which featured the great dancer Rudolph Nureyev. But not even Nureyev could fully capture the grace and beauty of Valentino himself.

1. THE DEAD (1987) 

(Directed by John Huston, Written by Tony Huston, based on the James Joyce short story of the same name)

Having written “The Top 10 John Huston” films last week, Huston “tops the charts” again this week in the “finest final films” category, but he is deserving of the accolade, because, despite the competing claims of films such as A Passage To India, The Dead is the greatest final film made by any director.

There are several reasons for that.  One is that Huston had long wanted to film an adaptation of Joyce’s seminal short story (which is still, arguably, the finest short story ever written), and it was part of his fascination with “all things Irish” that eventually led him to become an Irish citizen.  At the very end of his career, when he was wheelchair-bound and breathing through an oxygen tank, he finally got to film his “dream project”.

But a more profound reason is that, by that stage of his life and career, Huston himself had entered the liminal state between the living and the dead that is the subject matter of The Dead.  Having once been one of the greatest Hollywood figures – a larger-than-life womaniser, drinker and (most importantly) great director – by the time he finally directed The Dead he was a shell of his former self.  But what was left was more than enough to make the uniquely funny-but-tragic elegy that is The Dead

POST-SCRIPT

Cinema is the fabled “seventh art form”, the art form that supposedly encompassed all other art forms.  But above all, it is cinema’s ability to convey immortality (or at least the closest to it that we humans can get) that sets it apart from all other art-forms.  And it is in their final films, such as these ten, that some of cinema’s finest actors, writers and directors achieved the finest and most lasting expression of their abilities.