There’s nothing like a great last line to pull a story together, fulfill its promise to enlighten, to bring you joy or sorrow or wonder, to leave you with interesting questions or ideas, or simply bring on a smile and a nod.
The “last line” is not always a grouping of words or dialog. It can be a final camera shot that is “worth a thousand words.” A great example of this is Le notti di Cabiria, or Nights of Cabiria (probably my favorite Fellini movie). Cabiria, after a series of setbacks is ever hopeful. She has sold her little shack, her only real possession, and given all the money to a man who has promised to marry her. There is a walk in the woods, a cliff, and by now suspense is building and you fear the worst. Cabiria saves herself but loses all her money. It is a grand finale heartbreak. Cabiria walks along the road to town downtrodden, alone, crying. Then she is overtaken by a group of young people some wearing party hats, many of them playing instruments, one couple is riding a scooter, some are dancing. One young boy playing guitar turns and walks semi-backwards and plays to her, he barks smiling—not an ugly bark. Another young man follows suit but sings some lines of the song to her. One young woman smiles and says “buonasera” (good evening, which is in fact the last spoken line of the film). The camera moves into Cabiria’s face, a mascaraed tear falling along Cabiria’s cheek and at the same time her inner fire, her pure joie de vivre slowly fuels her resilience and she looks at us with a slight smile, a nod. Her eyes and spirit fill with dance and music and hope Final scene “The Nights of Cabiria”. What a last scene. I can’t imagine any other actress pulling this movie, this scene off so perfectly as Giulietta Masina. I strive for Cabiria’s resilience.
One of my favorite last lines in film of all time?
Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown.
Take any hint of emotion out of ennui and it comes close to describing that line. A perfect last line to a flawless film noir by Roman Polanski (1974).
Then there are epilogues delivered by a narrator. A perfect example for me is Sam Elliott as “The Stranger” who has presented The Big Lebowski (1998). At the end of the movie he is seated at the bar in the bowling alley and not only wraps up the story, but sets up a great last line. Elliott is as key to the story as any choir in a Greek Tragedy. His pacing along with his voice are perfect delivering these lines over The Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers” as covered by Townes Van Zandt:
I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowin’ he’s out there. The Dude. Takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners. Shoosh. I sure hope he makes the finals. Well, that about does her, wraps her all up. Things seem to have worked out pretty good for the Dude and Walter, and it was a pretty good story, don’t ya think? Made me laugh to beat the band. Parts, anyway. I didn’t like seein’ Donny go. But then, I happen to know that there’s a little Lebowski on the way. I guess that’s the way the whole darned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself, down through the generations, westward the wagons, across the sands of time until we–aw, look at me, I’m ramblin’ again. Well, I hope you folks enjoyed yourselves. Catch ya later on down the trail.
… Say friend, ya got any more of that good sarsaparilla?
This “really tied” The Big Lebowski together for me, much like The Dude’s rug.
The Apartment (1960), leave it to Billy Wilder, along with screenwriter I. A. L. Diamond, to bring us a story that moves us to anger, pathos, and joy all in one well-told story. There is plenty of drama in this story, well-balanced with humor. Wilder and Diamond end the film with humor and a new beginning. This is a last line I often recite along with Shirley MacLaine who plays Miss Kubelik. It always brings me tears of joy:
C.C. Baxter: “You hear what I said, Miss Kubelik? I absolutely adore you.”
Fran Kubelik: “Shut up and deal…”
To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), the movie has a different lead-in to the last line from the novel, each fitting for its genre and how the story was told. Both have an almost identical perfect last line.
In the movie, an older Scout as narrator remembers:
I was to think of these days many times. Of Jem, and Dill, and Boo Radley, and Tom Robinson, and Atticus. He would be in Jem’s room all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.
In the book, written by Harper Lee (1960), Atticus is reading a story to Scout at her request. A story she already knows, she falls asleep, when he wakes her to put her to bed she insists she wasn’t asleep and summarizes to prove it, which leads us to the last line:
”An’ they chased him ’n’ never could catch him ‘cause they didn’t know what he looked like, an’ Atticus, when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things…Atticus, he was real nice….”
His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me.
“Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.’
He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.
I’m going to cheat a little now and share what I consider a final line, but isn’t. One of my favorite Ridley Scott films, the fabulous noir science fiction movie Blade Runner (1982). There were technically seven different releases, each varying somewhat from the preceding version. These include a few different endings. One of these is referred to as the “made for each other” ending, one known as the “happy ending” and the, perhaps more realistic “ambiguous” ending leaving more to each viewer’s imagination.
Rachel speaks the last line of the Final Cut Alternate ending,
You and I were made for each other.
I’ve never actually seen a version with this ending.
In another ending Deckard narrates,
Gaff had been there, and let her live. Four years, he figured. He was wrong. Tyrell had told me Rachael was special. No termination date. I didn’t know how long we had together… Who does?
Gaff delivers the last line of Scott’s director’s cut,
It’s too bad she won’t live! But then again, who does?
While these do give the film a final close, when I think of Blade Runner, and think of the moment the story delivers its full noir punch and poignancy to me, I see replicant Roy Batty and hear his lines beautifully delivered by Rutger Hauer (who also improvised them). He is speaking to Deckard as he dies on a rooftop in the rain with Vangelis’ haunting, bluesy score adding to the power of this scene. For me, this is a beautiful end to the story:
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.