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Fifteen years ago yesterday, on July 16th, 1999, “Eyes Wide Shut” was released in theaters. It’s notable for a number of reasons—the last on-screen team up of then husband-and-wife A-list duo Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, being the longest continuous film shoot in history, and being an arthouse drama with strong scenes of sexuality released in the midst of the summer season that almost earned an NC-17 rating. But more than anything else, the picture is notable for having been the final picture of one of the most acclaimed and admired filmmakers in the history of the medium, Stanley Kubrick.
Kubrick had kept the film under wraps throughout the multi-year production (it had begun shooting in November 1996), but finally screened a cut to his stars and backers Warner Bros on March 1st, 1999. Six days later, he passed away of a heart attack at the age of 70, the director sadly failing to live to see the film’s release four months later.
With the film back in our thoughts thanks to that anniversary, we got to talking around the Playlist espresso machine about the last films of great filmmakers. Barring a few exception who take early retirement, like Steven Soderbergh or Alan Parker, directors tend to keep on working until they drop, which is great, but has the side effect of meaning that your swan song isn’t always planned: if the unthinkable happens, or if old age catches up with you, the film you just finished can be terrific, or terrible.
So, to mark the anniversary of Kubrick’s final picture, we’ve taken a look at the last movies from twenty-two of the greatest filmmakers in history. Were they fitting endings to glorious careers? Or ignoble ways to wrap up decades of fine work? Let us know your thoughts on the movies in the comments section, and let us know your favorite, and least favorite, swan song pictures too.
Alfred Hitchcock – “Family Plot” (1976)
Lights out, applause, curtain call. While not exactly meant to be his last hurrah, the deteriorating health of Alfred Hitchcock forced this light mystery-thriller to have the unwanted burden of being the final credit on a cinematic legend’s resume. The film’s reputation is pretty low as a result, but while its detractors aren’t entirely wrong (it’s no gem, just a bit unimpressive and prosaic), it’s enjoyable enough. “Family Plot” finds Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern as they search for the missing nephew/heir of Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt), an elderly women with a large fortune to squander. Their eyes set on the $10k reward/finder’s fee, the couple eventually sniff him out, though they get more than what they bargained for when he’s discovered to have changed his identity after committing a murder. But just add it to the list of red flags: he’s a successful kidnapper, wealthy jeweler, and last but not least, played by the eternally intimidating William Devane. If you hear anything positive about this movie, people usually reference the hilarious “car chase”—which is misleading, and not only because it only involves a single car charging down the road with its brakes cut. The filmmaker manages to play with conflicting tones here: he cuts like a maniac between the interiors of the car (where Dern and Harris banter) and the driver’s POV as they swerve and barrel down a mountain road. It was a somewhat new approach for the director (comedy was always present in his work, but it’s particularly entwined with the suspense here), and proved that even in ill-health he could deliver a highly thrilling sequence. Things wrap up with the inevitable bow at the end, and Harris gives a wink to the camera—perhaps too cute to close a movie, but a rather touching, playful final shot of a career. [C]
Andrei Tarkovsky – “The Sacrifice” (1986)
Completed shortly before his death from terminal lung cancer in 1986, Tarkovsky’s last film may be the apogee of everything he ever tried to achieve in cinema. Bergman’s fondness for Tarkovsky has been well documented and the feeling was mutual; the Swedish-set picture starred Erland Josephson—a key Bergman actor who led several of the Swede’s pictures including “Scenes From A Marriage,” “Autumn Sonata” and “Fanny & Alexander”—and featured the painterly cinematography of Sven Nykvist. Faith and the absence of spirituality were always central Tarkovskian themes and both are examined and tested in this hypnotic morality drama. Josephson plays a journalist and former philosopher whose birthday is interrupted by the news that WWIII has erupted and mankind is but a few short hours away from annihilation. A devout atheist, in his despair, Josephson prays to God, even offering up his son’s life if war can be avoided. He sleeps with a witch to show his fealty to God, but the next day all is well and it’s unclear if the preceding events were just a dream. Shot in Tarkovsky’s customarily long takes (some that reach almost 10 minutes) the film clocks in at just under three hours and is perhaps the filmmaker’s most dream-like, in a career characterized by hypnagogic films. A gigantic house was built specially for the production and when cameras failed to capture its incineration in one long tracking shot, the house was then faithfully reconstructed and once again burned down to ground—Terrence Malick and Jack Fisk would be proud. At the Cannes Film Festival that year, the film would received the Grand Jury award, and the FIPRESCI and Ecumenical Jury prizes, but by the end of the year, the filmmaker would be dead, passing away on December 29th. [A]
John Ford – “7 Women” (1966)
Unjustly undervalued in the Great Man’s filmography, John Ford’s last film “7 Women” is not a subtle piece of work, but it is a powerful one. Ironically capping a career that more than most contributed to a definition of rugged American masculinity, by featuring an almost all-female first-billed cast, Ford also sets it in the confines of a mission in 1930s China, but these anomalies are purely surface. In fact, “7 Women” is demonstrably a Ford film, more a transposition of his prevailing concerns than a transformation, substituting barbarian Mongolian hordes for “Red Indians” and women for men (Anne Bancroft’s character, for example can easily find its equivalent in some of the more ambivalent, disillusioned-but-decent Western characters that Henry Fonda might have played). But more than any of that, it is a film about the unsexy topic of religious hypocrisy, with the starchy mission leader, played by Margaret Leighton emerging as a villain much more hateful than the raping, murdering, rampaging warlord. The insidious nastiness of her lip-service piety (that is hinted springs from personal psychological issues, especially regarding sex) versus the actual acts of heroic self-sacrifice on the part of the hard-smoking, earthy doctor, played by Bancroft, forms the real emotional through-line of the film–and it sees Ford, himself a devout Catholic, tussling with pretty weighty spiritual matters. It’s a little crude in its stereotypes: nagging harridan wife; sweet, gentle ingenue (Sue Lyons); bearlike, bellowing warlord, and we certainly wish there was more shading into Leighton’s character, as with the early hint of some not-quite wholesome obsession with the young Lyons, but this is still a pretty fascinating, unusual film. Especially for Bancroft, who seems so perfectly cast, it’s hard to believe that she was a replacement for Patricia Neal and that Ford was apparently unhappy with her performance. [B]
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Ingmar Bergman – “Saraband” (2003)
Unusually for this list but perhaps predictably for Ingmar Bergman, ever the most thoughtful and considered of filmmakers, “Saraband” was announced as the director’s last film even before it was shot. Ostensibly a made-for-Swedish TV sequel to 1973’s “Scenes From a Marriage” (which was also originally shot for television), “Saraband” was, in fact followed in 2007 by a TV-only recording of a Strindberg play, “Spoksonaten.” But “Saraband” is rightly regarded as Bergman’s final film, not just because it was the last to get a theatrical release, but also because of the fine-boned, sensitive way it returns to many of the director’s recurring themes, in a manner that could almost be self-parodic were it not for its inarguably hypnotic, sincere depth of feeling. Regulars Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson (the only actor, we believe to appear here twice; he also stars in Tarkovsky’s deeply Bergman-indebted “The Sacrifice”) reprise their roles as Marianne and Johann. But years later they have lost touch, each having married again in the meantime until Marianne makes the spontaneous decision to visit Johann, now in his eighties, and bears witness to the destructive, warped relationship between his son and cello virtuoso granddaughter. It’s tempting to classify these final films as either bang or whimper, but Bergman’s swan song neither reaches the towering zenith of his greatest work, nor is it disposable, and it is very far from the embarrassment some other directors suffered in their dotage. Instead it’s a lovely, regretful, questioning coda to a cinematic oeuvre of unparalleled humanism and heart, formally a little cramped but thematically expansive and full of grace; a symphony in a minor key. [B+]
Federico Fellini – “The Voice of the Moon” (1990)
In general, we’d suggest that if a great filmmaker’s final film acts like a whistle-stop tour of his/her back catalogue and just what made him/her great to begin with, that could only be a good and fitting final act, right? And yet here comes “The Voice of the Moon” to put paid to any such pat assertions. It’s picaresque, lively, spiked with astonishing imagery and a philosophical, lyrical tone of voice—it’s possible to see almost everything that’s every been described as “Fellini-esque” in this one film. But it’s also totally incomprehensible. Starring Roberto Benigni at his most aggressively whimsical as quasi-madman Ivo, the movie is based on an Italian novel and essentially features a whole Italian town getting nuttier and more unhinged in the throes of a kind of moon-obsession (the word ”lunacy” having its roots in the Latin/Italian word for moon, of course). Fellini’s trademark visual inventiveness had not abandoned him in this late stage in his career (he died just three years later, on the same day as River Phoenix, coincidence collectors). And in fact if anything it’s in full flight with the film’s dalliance with memory, dreams, visions, musings and insane ramblings giving him the remit to go from one bawdy batshit scene to another with no feel for progress or, you know, story. Now Fellini often established a kind of episodic, sometimes even circular rhythm to his films, but here it feels rather than string his scenes together like beads on a necklace, Fellini is chaotically grabbing into a lucky dip bag and throwing at us whatever pops out next. It’s exhausting. Absent the usual through-line of love for his characters (the leads are just too oddball, and the supporting characters too thinly drawn for that) watching “Voice of the Moon” is a curiously deadening affair: we can almost feel the maestro’s entire career flashing before our eyes but it’s all jumbled, confused, incoherent, as though randomly firing synapses were simply throwing up word after word, image after spectacular image with no real care to communicate their meaning. [C-]
Krzysztof Kieslowski – ‘Three Colors: Red” (1994)
As one line in the film puts it, the “fraternity of strangers” might be the single unifying theme and obsession in Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski‘s work: how one person on the planet could be thinking something at the exact time as someone else in another part of the world and never know, but maybe could feel a curious sensation at the time. How deja vu or a ringing in the ears could mean something deeper. How those unknown to us are perhaps not strangers at all. A cynical person at heart, but with a deep curiosity of the human condition, some have suggested the theme of fraternity in “Red” were a self-critique of Kieslowski’s own selfishness. Whatever the case may be, the ravishing and sumptuous final conclusion of The Three Colors trilogy is haunting, poignant and unforgettable. Starring his muse Irene Jacob yet again, it centers on two polar opposite strangers who by chance—via an injured dog—become more and more connected, bonding far beyond they would ever imagine. Part time model Valentine (Jacobs) accidentally runs over a German shepherd and then eventually tracks down the owner, a reclusive and retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) soured by old age and the way his life has turned out. He’s a nasty man, who Valentine discovers is abusing his powers and secretly recording his neighbors’ phone calls for entertainment value (and to continue his former vocation in some kind of perverse manner). Though she is morally disgusted with him, the two find themselves inexorably drawn to one another suggesting a missed connection in some part of time they did not exist in concurrently. Typically mysterious, “Red” is even tentatively optimistic and is a striking, poetic meditation on alienation, connection, kinship and togetherness beyond our basic understanding. Widely expected to take the Palme D’Or at Cannes that year but beaten out by “Pulp Fiction,” the film was also nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Director. It proved to be the filmmaker’s final statement—he retired shortly thereafter and died less than 10 months later during open heart surgery. [A+]
Billy Wilder – “Buddy Buddy” (1981)
While there were a few misfires along the course of his career, none were ever quite as painful “Buddy Buddy,” the 1981 comedy that would prove to be Wilder’s last film. In theory, it should have been a home run: Wilder had a script, a remake of a French hit, with longtime collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, who worked on many of the director’s best pictures. And the project reunited him with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, with whom he’d had much success. But it’s a shadow of their finer work for all involved, unfortunately. Matthau plays a hit man, whose latest job is impaired by a suicidal TV inventor, whose wife has fallen in love with a sexual therapist (Klaus Kinski, who in typically Kinski-esque fashion would later deny being in the film at all). But the darker tone feels uncomfortable: Wilder would later tell Cameron Crowe that the film “was not the kind of comedy I had an affection for… Here is the problem. The audience laughs, and then they sort of resent it. Because of its negativity. Dead bodies and such. If you hold up a mirror too closely to this kind of behavior, they don’t like it.” Of course, Wilder was behind plenty of very black comedies that worked like gangbusters, but there’s something sour and charmless about “Buddy Buddy” and, more importantly, it’s rarely funny, bar a few good lines (Kinski’s “premature ejaculations means always having to say you’re sorry” being a stand-out). Perhaps the worst legacy of this hugely disappointing picture is that film’s critical and commercial failure clearly hit Wilder hard: he didn’t pass away until over twenty years later in 2002, but he never made another movie (though he flirted with other projects, including “Schindler’s List.”) [D]
Sam Peckinpah – “The Osterman Weekend” (1983)
The fallacy of free will, the manipulative influence of the moving image and the notion of surveillance and control as omnipresent forces—these are not ideas usually explored in the often macho, violent world of Sam Peckinpah movies and yet they are examined here. Peckinpah’s final film about a group of lifelong friends caught in a government conspiracy, that also features a twisted revenge narrative is one of his most ambitious. Unfortunately after an intriguing first act, “The Osterman Weekend” buckles under the weight of said aspirations with suspension of disbelief hampered by a hamfisted conclusion lacking any subtly. Featuring the excellent cast of Rutger Hauer, Dennis Hopper, Chris Sarandon, Craig T. Nelson, John Hurt and Burt Lancaster among others (the females in the picture are typically throwaway), the thriller centers on a investigative TV news reporter (Hauer), who generally grills his guests until they are blackened. A rogue CIA agent (Hurt) discovers that three of his college brat pack pals (Nelson, Hopper, Sarandon) are spies in a Communist plot against the government and convinces his CIA director boss (Lancaster) to use the current affairs host as bait during a weekend where the friends are meant to reunite. Without any choice, the newsman reluctantly must welcome these frenemies into his home alongside an alarmed family in the dark. What ensues is a suspicious interpersonal game of mistrustful chess as the players try to figure out how much the TV man really knows and his motives. But after this engaging intrigue—and the dramatic stakes of Hauer forced to put his family in danger—Peckinpah’s picture soon unravels into something less sophisticated than it reads, perhaps just designed to build to its inevitably explosive and violent conclusion. Strained as it is (with all the eggshell tension it’s hard to believe how civil and then uncivil everyone is and yet the ruse continues), the drama really crumbles when its third act motive “twist” is revealed. The clumsy handling of themes, inelegantly spelled out in the end (“everyone’s watching you!”), certainly doesn’t help. Peckinpah’s hard-living evidently marred the remaining years of his career (he died of heart failure a year later), but the picture is far less of a mess than the stories of his mental and physical acuity suggest. [C+/B-]
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John Huston – “The Dead” (1987)
Faithfully adapted from James Joyce’s “Dubliners” short story “The Dead,” John Huston’s final film was directed from a wheelchair with oxygen tubes protruding out of his nose, according to critic Pauline Kael. She loved the movie, and while it divides Playlist staff a bit, most of us are with Kael and the consensus in considering it one of the filmmaker’s best across a career that stretched over forty years. Joyce is generally considered all but unadaptable, and Huston and his son Tony (who wrote the screenplay: this was a family affair in general, with daughter Anjelica taking a lead role too) certainly didn’t have an easy task, given the interiority of the source story, which is set at an Epiphany party in 1904 Dublin, where academic Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) discovers that his wife (Anjelica Huston) still mourns a dead ex-lover. Intimate to the point that some find it borderline stagy, and defying almost all screenwriting maxims in its fidelity to Joyce, it’s not exactly high drama. But it’s a testament to Huston’s titanic status that he was able to experiment this late in his career, and as the camera glides through the party, picking up details and nuances, it builds towards the quietly devastating conclusion, as Huston’s Gretta recalls her lost love. What’s perhaps even more remarkable, given the caliber of performances across the board, and the general feel for Irish culture, is that Huston, too ill to travel, shot the whole thing in a warehouse in California. It’s hardly a crowd pleaser, but the whole thing ultimately gives the suggestion that Huston has just thrown his old wake, and you mourn for him (the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1987, less than a week after Huston passed away). [B]
Francois Truffaut – “Confidentially Yours” (1983)
French New Wave pioneer Francois Truffaut‘s final film is undeniably something of a minor work, but in retrospect feels terminally underrated (including by the director himself, who dismissed it), and perhaps his mostly fully-achieved and enjoyable experiment in crime noir. Based on “The Long Saturday Night” by Charles Williams (who also wrote the book that “Dead Calm” was based on), it’s a sly upending of the mystery-thriller, which sees Barbara (Fanny Ardant), the secretary of estate-agent Julien (Jean-Louis Trintignant), step in to clear her boss’s name when he’s accused of killing his wife’s lover. Nodding more to something like “The Thin Man” and even screwball comedy (Truffaut asked Ardant to perform her lines at top speed), it’s also a return to the Hitchcock influence that had taken a back seat among the filmmaker’s more recent pictures. But whereas something like “The Bride Wore Black” sometimes had the ring of imitation rather than homage, here, “Confidentially Yours” feels like its own beast, and 100% a Truffaut picture. The black-and-white photography gives it all the more authenticity, too—it sometimes seems like it could be a lost gem from an earlier era that’s somehow only just been unearthed. It’s perhaps all the more touching as the film is clearly a deeply felt love letter to Ardant. Truffaut had relationships with many of his leading ladies, but none are more glowingly paid tribute to than Ardant (who was in a relationship with the director from the early 1980s until his death). And as such, while it’s tempting to wish that Truffaut had ended his career on more of a note of summing-up, it’d be hard to deny him this one, even if it wasn’t so much damn fun. [B+]
Robert Bresson – “L’argent” (1983)
Though he lived on to the grand old age of 98, passing away in 1999, “L’argent” marked Robert Bresson‘s final film, and it’s one of his most disheartening and darkest. But to simply describe it as cynical or a moral censure is to miss the filmmaker’s coolly objective distance (and its caustic sense of irony). Earning its maker the Best Director award at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, “L’argent” is loosely inspired by “The Forged Coupon,” a Tolstoy short, and illustrates how greed sets off a chain of events that affects the lives of dozens. A counterfeit 500 franc note is used by a pair of callow and well-to-do middle school students at a photography and camera store, but instead of tracking down their parents, the unscrupulous photo manager vows to pass off the note himself. Yvon, an honest, unsuspecting gas man (Christian Patey) pays the price when he comes in contact with the bill, is duped, and then is later arrested for trying to buy dinner at a restaurant with this phony note. While he is spared jail time at the trial, the desperation of losing his job and means of supporting his family eventually leads this victim to become the getaway driver in a friend’s attempted (and foiled) bank robbery. During his three-year prison sentence, Yvon learns that his young daughter has died and his wife is now leaving him. And it only gets bleaker and more heartbreaking once Yvon is released from prison. While its mordant take on class, social injustice, and arguably the evils of money can be viewed through a Marxist lens, as Vincent Canby wrote in 1983, its outlook is actually “far too poetic—too interested in the mysteries of the spirit.” Ultimately, “L’argent” is one of Bresson’s late-career astringent, cruel jokes; deeply depressing and haunting, it’s an unsentimental and dissociated look at amorality, and how its effects trickle downward. [A-]
David Lean – “A Passage To India” (1984)
David Lean‘s last decade or so were frustrating ones: he was replaced as the director of the film that became “The Bounty” (initially envisioned as a two-parter), and couldn’t get his mooted final project, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad‘s ‘Nostromo,” over the line before he passed away in April 1991. As a result, his final project was “A Passage To India,” a grand-scale version of E.M. Forster‘s book, and while it was nominated for eleven Oscars and initially hailed by many as one of the epic-specialist’s most impressive achievements (Ebert called it “one of the greatest screen adaptations I have ever seen”), its reputation has faded somewhat since. And perhaps rightly so: it’s a decent film, but not one that stands behind Lean’s top tier of masterpieces. Set in the 1920s, as the fractures in the British empire’s hold on India are starting to appear, it centers on young British woman Adela (Judy Davis), widower Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee) and local superintendent Richard Fielding (James Fox), whose initial friendship collapses after Aziz is accused of attempting to sexually assault Adela. As you’d imagine with the director, it’s a stunning-looking piece of work, filming the landscapes of the nation in a way that puts the Diet Lean of “Gandhi” a few years earlier to shame, but it sometimes feels like a round peg in a small hole: it’s really quite an intimate story, and Lean’s filmmaking risks overwhelming it at times. In fact, he might have been the wrong director for the material on a number of levels: the book’s a fairly fierce attack on British colonialism, but Lean’s more rose-tinted in the way he looks back (not aided by Alec Guinness appearing in brownface as an Indian character), which leaves a sour taste. There’s still much to love here, not least the central performance from Judy Davis, but it’s a shame that Lean went out on what’s probably one of his weaker efforts. [C+]
Akira Kurosawa – “Madadayo” (1993)
Few directors get to choose the film they go out on, but some embrace their mortality with their final film more than others. Japanese master Akira Kurosawa didn’t actually intend “Madadayo” to be the final picture of his 57-year career: he spent the next five years writing scripts, but an accident in 1995 that confined him to a wheelchair prevented him from fulfilling his desire to die on a film set. But that just makes this quiet, tender little film, and its title (which translates as “Not Yet”) all the more poignant. Based loosely on the life of academic and writer Hyakken Uchida, it stars Tatsuo Matsumara as a German professor who retires on his 60th birthday, just as the Second World War gets under way. Every year from then on, his former students gather to pay tribute to him, with the professor beginning each celebration with the titular toast of “Not yet.” Like a sort of “Oldboyhood,” we see him age over decades, surviving an American air raid, adopting a cat, and sinking quietly into depression, and it’s a real outlier in Kurosawa’s career as a result: he was one of cinema’s greatest plotters, and yet has so little interest in narrative here that the film wasn’t especially well-received at the time (true of most of his work post-”Ran”). But it seems like a misreading: this is Kurosawa coming to terms with, embracing, and defying old age and oncoming death by, in part, paying tribute to another Japanese master, Ozu, with the film feeling like a very conscious nod to the “Tokyo Story” helmer. Perhaps there’s a reason it hasn’t entered the canon in the way “Seven Samurai” or “Yojimbo” did, but it’s nevertheless a lovely, lyrical and very personal way for one of the greatest filmmakers we ever had to bow out. [B+]
Fritz Lang – “The Thousand Eyes Of Dr. Mabuse” (1960)
The German Expressionist sci-fi master who went to Hollywood and carved out great success there, by the late 1950s Fritz Lang was ready to come home. His health was failing (he was going blind), and he’d become increasingly frustrated and furious with the studio system, and so, in 1959, Lang left his adopted homeland and returned to Europe, almost immediately making his two-part so-called Indian epic, “The Tiger Of Eschnapur,” and “The Indian Tomb.” But for his final trick, Lang would return to more familiar territory, reviving Norbert Jacques’ character of proto-supervillain Dr. Mabuse, who had appeared in Lang’s 1922 silent “Dr. Mabuse The Gambler,” and 1933’s “The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse.” Made on a B-movie budget for producer Artur Brauner, it brings this early franchise kicking and screaming into the paranoia-infused Cold War (it’s a precursor to ’70s thrillers like “The Conversation” and “The Parallax View” in some ways). It centers on a police inspector investigating the murder of a journalist (future “Goldfinger” star Gert Frobe), an American businessman (Peter van Eyck), and a beautiful woman (Marian Menil) with a sinister husband, as they are all drawn to the Luxor Hotel—a surveillance-happy locale where, it appears, the resurrected or revived Dr. Mabuse is keeping an eye on them all. Director’s final films, deliberately or not, tend to end up being personal, and on first examination, ‘Thousand Eyes’ appears to be an exception: it’s well-executed, unpretentious B-movie thriller fun, albeit in the spare style of late-period Lang. But Lang’s tragic history shoots through the film: the idea of a sinister villain in the shadows, long-thought vanquished, reappearing, has real weight as a result. Lang, nearly blind, would never direct again (though he played himself in Godard’s “Le Mepris” three years later, and he would pass away in 1976. [B]
John Cassavetes – “Big Trouble” (1986)
There might have been more unlikely ways for John Cassavetes to end his career than “Big Trouble”—a “Friday The 13th” sequel, maybe, or a breakdancing film. But as far as the final film of the pioneer of American independent cinema goes, “Big Trouble” was about as unexpected as either of those options. The “Killing Of A Chinese Bookie” and “Woman Under The Influence” director had been given six months to live by his doctors in the early 1980s, and had intended to go out with the acclaimed “Love Streams,” which won the Golden Bear at Berlin, but Cassavetes outlived his prognosis, and ended up with a surprising offer: “Big Trouble,” which was meant to reunite “The In-Laws” stars Peter Falk and Alan Arkin with that film’s screenwriter Andrew Bergman, who was set to make the project his second directorial outing. But Bergman and the producers fell out, and (presumably through frequent collaborator Falk), Cassavetes was offered the project, a lightly noirish comedy about a harassed father (Arkin) trying to raise college tuition for his three musical prodigy kids, who ends up in a double-indemnity life insurance scam with a terminally-ill acquaintance (Falk) and his wife (Beverly D’Angelo). The director found the backers almost impossible to deal with, and they recut the film without his input, causing Cassavetes to disown it, calling the project “aptly-named.” The film’s undoubtedly a giant mess, but he was being a little harsh on it. There are gaping holes, particularly in the lackluster third act (whether this was from the post-production job or already present in Bergman’s screenplay is unclear), and it appears that the director’s heart is barely in the proceedings: it’s such an enormous outlier in his filmography that you can hardly believe he made it. But the cast are a lot of fun, particularly Arkin and Charles Durning, and the film can, in spots, prove amusing. Does it even come close to the rest of the Cassavetes filmography? Not in the least. But given the circumstance, it’s tough to begrudge its existence too much. [C]
Sergio Leone – “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984)
A film that celebrated its 30th anniversary back in June (and guess where it places in our rundown of the Summer Movies of 1984?), Sergio Leone’s sweeping, sprawling “Once Upon A Time In America” has itself, as a final film, a story almost as grand and tragic and ironic as the one it tells. Subjected to an extended gestation period as rights issues (to the source novel “The Hoods” by Harry Grey) were sorted, then in development in some form for more than a decade before being released in a re-chronologized truncated form by Warner Brothers, it famously flopped hard both critically and commercially. Leone was reportedly deeply hurt, both by the struggles he’d had and lost with the studio over the theatrical cut and its subsequent failure to find an audience. He died five years later, with a host of unrealized projects to his name, too early to see ‘OUATIA’ start to make its critical resurgence. But, along with “Heaven’s Gate,” Leone’s swan song is now more or less the poster child for critical reevaluation, with the restored version—which reinstated the director’s vision of non-linear storytelling and reinserted nearly 2 hours’ of footage—playing to rapt adoration at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. An epic tale of brotherly love, brotherly rivalry, greed and ambition against the backdrop of the organized crime racket that sprang from a Lower East Side Jewish ghetto in the 1920s, it’s a fascinating, minutely detailed but grandly overarching film that somehow shows (if you compare it with the studio cut) just how much more there can be to a film than plot. After all, the outline of both films is the same, but there truly is a world of difference in how the story is presented, and therefore the effect it has, from one to the other. Finally restored to something approaching masterpiece status after a troubled production, release and then a few decades in the wilderness, “Once Upon a Time In America” is such a fitting finale to a spectacular, individual, spiky career that the only pity of it is that Leone himself would not live to see it rehabilitated, or even that such a thing might be on the horizon. [A-]
Douglas Sirk – “Imitation Of Life” (1959)
Douglas Sirk was barely into his sixties when he made his last feature film: despite living for another thirty years, he never again made a feature film, fed up of being misunderstood and underestimated by critics (he did make a handful of shorts while teaching at film school at home in Germany in the 1970s, but that was it). It’s fortunate, then, that “Imitation Of Life” might have been his finest achievement, or at least up there with them. A remake of the 1934 Claudette Colbert-starring adaptation of the Fannie Hurst novel, it sees Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) and her daughter Susie (child—Terry Bunham, teenager—Sandra Dee) take Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) and her daughter Sarah Jane (child—Karin Dicker, teenage— Susan Kohner) under their wing by hiring Annie as a housekeeper and providing them all with a place to live. Lora goes from being a struggling actress to a Broadway star, bringing prosperity to their makeshift family, though not much peace. While Lora is away shooting a film, Susie develops a crush on her mother’s would-be boyfriend (John Archer) and Sarah Jane struggles with her pale skin in a segregated world, in which she tries to pass as white until her race is ultimately uncovered. Sirk specifically had the film focus more on Annie and Sarah Jane than previous versions (its borderline experimental narrative takes an early subplot and eventually makes that the main focus—a trick that still feels fresh and innovative today) thereby creating one of the most compelling and moving racial commentaries up until that point. By operating with this soap operatic quality, “Imitation of Life” was able to bring the issue of race further into a more traditionally feminine, domestic sphere—and Sirk’s lush visuals and setting therefore become the spoonful of sugar that helps the “medicine” of racial commentary go down. Poorly reviewed on release, it nevertheless became a huge hit (the fourth biggest-grossing of 1959) and won Oscar nominations for both Kohner and Moore, but that wasn’t enough to keep Sirk in the game, sadly. [A]
Charlie Chaplin – “A Countess From Hong Kong” (1967)
Ten years before his death, towering pioneer of cinema Charlie Chaplin directed the last film of his 50+ year directorial career. ‘Countess,’ starring Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando is not so much a bad film (though it tanked on release amid fairly poisonous reviews) as a pointless one, one of a few would-be frothy comedies that can now be seen as the hallmark of staid, late ‘60s Hollywood filmmaking badly in need of the shake-up that would arrive in the ‘70s. A contrived farce set mostly on a cruise ship, the story follows Russian aristocrat Natascha (Loren) who’s had a hard life and been reduced to a kind of genteel prostitution in Hong Kong, where she meets visiting American dignitary Ogden (Brando) and stows away in his cabin when he leaves. What follows is simply a film of too many doors—too much comedy that relies on one person dashing into the bathroom or a walk-in closet every time there’s a knock at the door, as Natascha makes Ogden an unwilling, but gradually thawing accomplice to her escape plan. The film does look great—it was Chaplin’s only foray into color and its ballrooms and suites are resplendent with technicolor gloss—but the plotting is nonsensical, and the characterization, especially of Natascha who veers from genuine desperation to whimsical insouciance, feels forced. And that’s not helped by the inherent broodiness of Brando (you can see why Chaplin originally wanted Cary Grant for the role) that just feels out of place in such an insubstantial farce. Despite the poorly written character, Loren fares better, or perhaps we were just mesmerized by her beauty—that’s a distinct possibility (both leads took the film without ever even seeing a script). In all, it really feels like there’s no air of finality to ‘Countess’ at all (and it had been originally written all the way back in the ‘30s as a Paulette Goddard vehicle). Twelve years prior Chaplin had made his last masterpiece with “Limelight,” followed by the very funny “A King in New York” in 1957, either of which would have made a more fitting farewell. But ’Countess’ feels like an interim bauble, a little nothing, really, that has only ever gained traction as the final film of a cinema titan, and otherwise, even with these stars, would have sunk altogether from sight. [C-]
Ernst Lubitsch – “That Lady In Ermine” (1948)
Most of the filmmakers on this list, regardless of the state of their health, were able to see their final movies through to completion. Sadly, the great Ernst Lubitsch joined the likes of Max Ophuls and Anthony Mann as those who weren’t able to complete their last projects. Unlike Ophuls and Mann, Lubitsch did shoot every frame of fantasy musical “That Lady In Ermine,” but had a fatal heart attack on November 30th, 1947, only eight days after the movie wrapped. Otto Preminger, who’d taken over from Lubitsch on 1944‘s “A Royal Scandal” when the filmmaker became ill, saw the film through, and it’s perhaps partly because of untimely tragedy that the film doesn’t quite rank among the finest of the German wizard’s comic output. His first musical since “The Merry Widow” in 1934, it’s a slightly silly trifle based on an operetta, with a curiously convoluted plot involving a European countess (Betty Grable) who, aided by dreams of her ancestors and magical paintings, falls in love with the Hungarian hussar (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) out to conquer her castle (not a euphemism. Well, kind of a euphemism). The film’s never even remotely dull, throwing all kinds of antics in the screen, including some that prove that the Lubitsch touch hadn’t deserted him this late in the game (the trickery that brings the paintings to life still feels magical). But it doesn’t feel as tight or effortless as the best of his work, partly because of a slightly scrappy, uneven story, and partly because of his absence from the editing room. Still, there’s more than enough here to demonstrate why Lubitsch was such a titanic loss to the art. At his funeral, collaborator Billy Wilder sadly remarked “No more Lubitsch,” to which fellow director William Wyler replied “Worse than that. No more Lubitsch pictures”… [C+]
Robert Altman – “A Prairie Home Companion” (2006)
Like we said, short of premature retirement, few directors get to definitively pick their final movie. But if financiers are forcing you to hire another A-list filmmaker to stand beside you on set in case you don’t make it through the day, you can probably be fairly sure that you’re making your final on-screen statement, and that was the case with Robert Altman and “A Prairie Home Companion.” 80 years old and suffering from leukemia, the great helmer was asked to pick out a stand-by replacement, and his friend and acolyte Paul Thomas Anderson happily stepped up. Fortunately, it never came to that: Altman was able to complete his film, an adaptation/homage of/to Garrison Keillor’s famous public radio show, and premiere it at the Berlin Film Festival in 2006 before passing away later that year. And, while it’s far from his finest hour, we’re glad that he could do it. An all-star ensemble piece that shares a certain amount of DNA with “Nashville,” it’s a curious picture: simultaneously a folksy crowd pleaser and love letter to Keillor’s show, and a meditation on Altman’s approaching final hours: the on-screen radio show is about to cancelled, and Virginia Madsen plays a literal specter of death who haunts the movie and its characters. The latter film is more effective than the former: it can sometimes feel a bit fan-servicey, and a little baffling to viewers who aren’t familiar with Keillor’s work. But the cast (which includes Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly and Lindsay Lohan (!) alongside Keillor and Madsen) all do terrific work, and Altman’s ability to juggle them is certainly not diminished. Indeed, as much as the film sees the director coming to terms with the Grim Reaper, it’s also, (like its underrated predecessor “The Company”) a tribute to a life spent working with artists, and a very fitting one at that. [B]
Max Ophüls – “Lola Montès” (1955)
A lavish 140 minute opus in ravishing Cinemascope (the director’s only film in color), filled with countless extras and opulent sets, German director Ophüls‘ ambitious swan song was the most expensive French film made up until that time. Told in flashback, “Lola Montès” is a tragic and fictionalized biography of a scandalized 19th century courtesan reduced to being a dancer and circus sideshow freak because of her “outrageous and indecent” exploits (one too many paramours). In the present, the aged and ill-healthed Montès (Martine Carol) is exploited and put on display by a manipulative, P.T. Barnum-esque ringmaster played by Peter Ustinov. As the performance begins—the ringmaster regaling the audience with tales of her various lovers and sexual conquests—Montès flashes back on her past through the experiences with an assortment of men. Notoriously fond of long and elaborate tracking shots, dollies and cranes, while all of those elements are present, Ophüls rarely calls attention to cinematic flourishes, instead using such techniques to enrapture you beyond the gorgeous and plush visuals. Its technical radiance and production design brilliance are easily admirable, sure. But the gracefulness of each flashback and the building, cyclical nature of each spoiled relationship—each one featuring its own hardship and pain—forms to create an emotionally wrenching portrait of a woman distressed to the point of resignation. Audiences couldn’t handle the bold flashback structure at the time and the movie was quickly butchered into a more linear fashion, but a lovingly restored version was unveiled in 2008 cementing Ophüls reputation as the master who had awed Stanley Kubrick himself. Ophüls did embark on one more film afterwards, 1958’s “The Lovers of Montparnasse,” but he died midway through the picture and it was largely finished by his friend Jacques Becker who ultimately got the final film credit. [B+]
Orson Welles -“F for Fake” (1974)
Orson Welles‘ career, marred by his reputation for completion anxiety, is the stuff of classic, even mythic tragedy: the boy wunderkind of radio, given the carte blanche keys to Hollywood, creates a bonafide masterpiece, but through years of constant conflict, uphill battles and studio meddling, would end his career as a shell of a man; a joke known for drunken outtakes in trivial TV commercials said forever to be lamenting the butchering of his opus “The Magnificent Ambersons.” But what a way to end that checkered career, with the inventive, brilliant and mischievous masterpiece and faux doc “F For Fake” (his filmography has a few subsequent titles, but they’re mostly making-of docs and shorts). We’re told early on that it will contain only an hour of truth, with the rest existing as pure fiction. “Up to your old tricks, I see?” says a woman (Oja Kodar) leaning out of a train car as she watches Orson deliver this opening disclaimer—part of a whimsical, mysterious, and funny sequence that sets the tone for what’s to come. “Of course. I’m a charlatan,” replies Welles with a grin. Beginning as a BBC project about art forger Elmyr de Hory, and fabulist biographer Clifford Irving that Welles was only supposed to narrate, the filmmaker took over the project, and turned it into something quite different, and quite remarkable—a meta-tastic, undoubtedly self-indulgent and self-satisfied examination of fraudulence. Welles is on top impish form in ‘Fake,’ and his playfulness only enhances its themes, with the question of authorship used to highlight how we perceive art and its makers. It’s a dense, unclassifiable and grandiose lark, but hugely entertaining too, even as its digressions occasionally spin off into dead ends. “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing,” Welles recommends. And even though it occurs well over the hour of truth, the director poignantly shows you that sometimes reality doesn’t matter. There could be one more Orson Welles movie if “The Other Side Of The Wind” is ever released, but this bold experiment of form and puckish examination of the subjective nature of truth is one for the ages. [A]
Honorable Mentions: Of course, we could have gone on forever with these (and if enough people read it, we’d love to do a follow-up piece—you know where the share buttons are…). But to name but a few of the notables (all men, depressingly, but that’s the first 100 years of cinema for you) that nearly made the cut, there’s Ozu’s “An Autumn Afternoon,” Rossellini’s “The Messiah,” Renoir’s “The Elusive Corporal,” Kazan’s “The Last Tycoon,” Hal Ashby’s “8 Million Ways To Die,” Antonioni’s “Beyond The Clouds,” Visconti’s “The Innocent,” Howard Hawks’ “Rio Lobo,” Preston Sturges’ “The French, They Are A Funny Race,” Sidney Lumet’s “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead,” Visconti’s “The Innocent” and Bunuel’s “That Obscure Object Of Desire.”
And that’s without mentioning D.W. Griffith’s “The Struggle,” Eisenstein’s “Ivan The Terrible Part II,” Mizoguchi’s “Street Of Shame,” Claude Chabrol’s “Bellamy,” Resnais’ “Life Of Riley,” Bob Fosse’s “Star 80,” Pasolini’s “Salo, or the 120 Days Of Sodom,” Vincente Minnelli’s “A Matter Of Time,” Michael Powell’s “The Boy Who Turned Yellow,” Cecil B. De Mille’s “The Ten Commandments,” Otto Preminger‘s “The Human Factor,” and countless, countless others.
— Jessica Kiang & Oli Lyttelton, with Rodrigo Perez