Today’s 5 for the day pays tribute to that which comes just before the closing credits, the parting shot. Parting shots can be images that remain onscreen as the closing credits roll. Or they can be images that appear just before the screen goes black (or flashes the words “The End” or “Fin” or “Get the Hell Out”). They can also be a visual accompaniment or response to dialogue. But you won’t find “Nobody’s perfect” or “Shut up and deal” or “It’s the stuff that dreams are made of” on this list, because I’m focusing on cappers that are mainly visual.
Here’s a brief example: suppose you’re watching a movie about Oscar Wilde. Wilde says on his deathbed, “Either the wallpaper goes, or I go.” The next shot fades in, and it’s of an empty bed in the room. The wallpaper is still there; Wilde is not. Fade out, movie ends, critics boo, and the screen gets bombarded with Sno-Caps. This list would probably focus on the wallpaper shot, and would mention Wilde’s last line in passing, if at all.
The first item on my list is my favorite parting shot, and my favorite New York City movie from its era. The others are presented in no particular order. Spoiler alerts are in effect.
1. The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 (1974). You may not have heard of this film from the hardboiled detective/police officer phase of Walter Matthau’s career, but a certain American director with a penchant for cinematic five-fingered discounts certainly has. Four criminals (Hector Elizondo, Earl Hindman, Martin Balsam, Robert Shaw) decide to pull a million-dollar heist by hijacking the 1:23pm #6 train and holding its passengers for ransom until the city of New York pays up. They refer to each other as Mr. Green, Mr. Gray, Mr. Brown, and Mr. Blue. The movie intercuts scenes of the hijackers with sequences from within the train, where a slew of Noo Yawk semi-stereotypes utter colorful, entertaining, and not exactly necessary dialogue. The Noo Yawkers argue, panic, and, once the train starts barreling out of control, band together as only Strangers on a Noo Yawk Train can. The kidnappers are icy, competent and suave, and one of them (Balsam) sneezes a lot. Meanwhile, a detective nicknamed Z (or Zed, for fans of QT) interacts with them and tries to figure out how they expect to get away with such a feat, considering everyone knows where the 6 train goes. For most of the film Matthau, as Z, only hears the voices of Mssrs. Blue, Gray, Brown, and, in the case of Mr. Green, his horrifically odd sneezes. “Gesundheit,” says Matthau repeatedly in that unmistakable voice of his.
Z never sees the faces of the criminals until he meets them, and after dealing with three of them (one of whom deals with himself in a literally shocking manner), Matthau goes to the apartment of the last man standing, Mr. Green. As the suspenseful scene draws to a close, Matthau, satisfied that his lead came up empty, leaves the apartment. We see the door close, then we cut to Mr. Green, who sneezes. “Gesundheit,” says Matthau from behind the closed door…
...which then opens on a glorious, knowing closeup of Matthau’s face.
Freeze frame, roll credits. If this had been a bad 80’s movie, the soundtrack would have kicked up some Bob Seger: “Shakedown, breakdown, you’re busted!”
2. The Last Picture Show (1971). On separate occasions, I got to meet Larry McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovich, and on neither occasion was I bold enough to fully express how much this movie meant to me—and why I’ll never watch it again. It’s the most depressing movie I’ve ever seen. Bogdanovich creates a 1950’s movie with 1971’s freedom of expression; it is brutally honest in emotion and sexuality, and stifling in its hopelessness.
The movie theater in the town of Anarene, which we see functioning in the film’s opening pan, is a symbol of hope, a means of escape from the dreary lives of its citizens, citizens who pass the time getting involved in manipulative and costly sexual machinations just so they can feel some connection to humankind. When theater owner Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) dies, it removes the only character who seems to have come to some terms with his past regrets; in effect, the town’s figurehead, father figure and historical tie has disappeared. Eventually, the theater plays the titular feature, and when Bogdanovich comes full circle in the pan that ends this film, it rests on the theater which, like the life of its owner, has now gone dark. The last shot is like Nick’s green light of hope being extinguished at the end of The Great Gatsby.
3. He Got Game (1998). Spike Lee has never met a cryptic ending he didn’t like, but he topped himself with He Got Game. Denzel Washington plays mean and nasty, in preparation for his turn in Training Day, and former Milwaukee Buck Ray Allen plays his symbolically-named son, Jesus. This Jesus’ passion is basketball, and Denzel’s Jake has been improbably furloughed from prison to convince him to go to the governor’s alma mater. Whether Jesus goes there or not is up to you to discover, but Jake winds up going back to jail. Once returned, Jake picks up a basketball and, as Aaron Copland plays on the soundtrack, throws it as far as he can. The camera follows the basketball as it leaves the prison and lands in front of Jesus, miles away, on a playground. The movie ends with a high-angled shot of Jesus looking up at a hoop in wonderment. “What the fuck just happened?” asked the woman seated behind me. I wanted to kiss her.
4. The Shawshank Redemption (1994). The WGA released a list of the top 101 screenplays a few weeks ago, and this film was ranked #22. It’s my favorite screen adaptation of a novel, and the movie ends with the same words author Stephen King ends his novella. Before Morgan Freeman became the spokesperson/narrator for human-destroying tripods and penguins on punany pilgrimage, he mused about his hopes for the future outside of Shawshank penitentiary. “I hope to make it across the border,” narrates Freeman. “I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as beautiful as it has been in my dreams.”
As Freeman speaks, director Frank Darabont fades to the Pacific, which is a very dreamy blue indeed. Then he fades to Freeman, walking on the beach alongside it. As Freeman approaches his aforementioned friend, Tim Robbins, Darabont cuts to Robbins looking up from his boat work to see Freeman, then cuts to Freeman acknowledging his recognition. Freeman walks into a close-up, smiling, then Darabont cuts back to Robbins jumping down from the boat to greet him.
I expected a reunion filled with a close-up of the two actors spouting mushy dialogue, and the film certainly had earned that. But the next and final image is a long shot that pulls back from some perch high above the scene on the beach. The dreamy Pacific takes up two-thirds of the screen, threatening to take up more as the camera continues to back away from this extremely personal moment. We can barely make out the two characters as they walk toward each other and hug. What I love about this shot is that it underplays the ending, allowing me to be moved by a simple majesty that no amount of dialogue, however brilliant, would allow. As I left the theater, I thought about what Red and Andy would have said to each other and why, like Sofia Coppola would later do in “Lost in Translation,” the film kept those words appropriately private.
5. Blazing Saddles (1974). “’Scuse me while I whip this out!” Blazing Saddles is Mel Brooks’s best movie, a savagely funny take on Westerns and racism that suddenly turns postmodern as the characters in the film interact with “real life” going on at the Warner Bros. lot. Like Porky Pig in “You Oughta Be In Pictures,” the freed movie characters wreak havoc. Hedy Lamarr, I mean “Hedley” Lamarr, foreshadows the film’s final image when, after running off the Warners lot, he flags down a taxi and says, “Drive me off of this picture.” He is pursued by our hero, Black Bart (Cleavon Little), to the premiere of Blazing Saddles at Grumann’s Chinese Theater. After vanquishing Mr. Lamarr, Black Bart and the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) settle down to watch the end of the movie from which they just escaped.
After saying his goodbyes to the townsfolk, Black Bart encounters Jim, the Waco Kid sitting outside. Ever the attendant to detail, Brooks shows Jim holding the bucket of popcorn we saw him eating at Grumann’s. “Where ya headed, cowboy?” he asks Bart. “Nowhere special,” Bart replies, “I always wanted to go there,” says Jim. “Let’s go,” Bart suggests. As in numerous Westerns before this, our heroes then ride off into the sunset, and as the absurd theme song reaches its crescendo, the camera follows them riding screen left; the shot seems to go on forever. Then, without warning, a ’70’s style limousine appears from the left side of the frame. Both Bart and Jim trade their 1874 horses for a set of 1974 wheels and ride off into the sunset in style.