In a recent edition of our regular Friday feature “Trailer Park,” we took a look at the trailer for the new Daniel Craig/Rachel Weisz haunted house thriller Dream House, and came to the following conclusion: “this is one of those trailers that gives you, about halfway through, the unsettling feeling that they’re showing you the whole movie.” Apparently, concern for that point was widespread enough that executive producer Rick Nicita was compelled to speak up, insisting to Entertainment Weekly that the revealed twist is “not the ending. The twist happens less than halfway through.” But Nicita’s damage control spotlights the fact that our film culture is increasingly dominated by discussion and fear of “spoilers,” and it’s a phenomenon that is only a couple of decades old. (Ever dive into your DVD special features and check out the original trailers for films from the ’40s? Talk about showing you the whole movie.)
We’re still obsessing over Jonah Lehrer’s fascinating study (and subsequent Wired piece) on the effect of spoilers on literary gratification. (The takeaway: knowing a story’s outcome ultimately does not prevent one’s enjoyment of the work, and may even increase it.) A couple of weeks back, we selected some of the books we still read, knowing full well how they end; now we’ve picked out ten movies that still play, even with precise knowledge of their narrative outcomes.
You can probably put this together yourselves, but just to be safe: plentiful spoilers after the jump.
That “Rosebud,” Charles Foster Kane’s dying word (though, as many a film fan has delighted in pointing out, a dying word that no one is in his room to hear), is a reference to his childhood sled — a none-too-subtle symbol of his lost innocence — is one of the worst-kept secrets in movies. And you know what? That’s just fine (and not just because the movie is celebrating its 60th birthday this year — seriously, you’ve had enough time to get around to seeing it). Jerry Thompson’s investigation of what Kane’s final utterance meant is a brilliant organizational device, allowing Herman J. Mankewicz and Orson Welles’s masterful screenplay to unwind in its innovative non-linear fashion, but it is not exactly Agatha Christie, as far as mysteries go. Knowing what “Rosebud” is (as most modern viewers do) allows Kane’s audience to focus on the pleasures of the picture, and there are many: the snappy dialogue, the groundbreaking cinematography, the ingenious story structure, and the radiant performances, particularly director Welles’s towering work as the title character.
“She’s my sister! She’s my daughter! My sister! My daughter!” Well, which is it, Evelyn Mulwray? “SHE’S MY SISTER AND MY DAUGHTER!” Oh. Yikes. The intense and emotionally exhausting reveal of the incest subplot in Roman Polanski’s breathtakingly accomplished neo-noir mystery must’ve been a jaw-dropper for 1974 audiences, but that clip — of Jack Nicholson browbeating the truth out of Faye Dunaway — pops up all the time. And sure, its familiarity blunts the impact of the big revelation. But it certainly doesn’t detract from the skill of Robert Towne’s narrative or Jack Nicholson’s performance, and if anything, the full knowledge of what Dunaway’s Mulwray is hiding adds rich dimension to her performance.
Long before your author finally got around to seeing Robert Aldrich’s atomic-age noir masterpiece (which was embarrassingly recently), its insane closing sequence — in which the lockbox that has served as the picture’s McGuffin is fully opened, revealing a blinding light and horrifying whispering sound, unleashing (depending on your interpretation) a dose of nuclear energy, a biblical reckoning, or some other force that sets the room afire and probably hastens the end of the world — was firmly entrenched in my cinematic subconscious due to countless film history documentaries, to say nothing of the endless analyses of the films that inspired Pulp Fiction (Tarantino has long noted that the mysterious light in the briefcase was an homage to Kiss Me Deadly). But in a strange way, knowing where the narrative is heading actually helps the movie over some of its rough spots; if approached as a straight-ahead detective story, the picture is buggy and uneven, but the knowledge of an upcoming lapse into near-surrealism renders its odder moments less inexplicable. When you’re heading towards a meltdown, anything goes.
When Alfred Hitchcock’s low-budget black-and-white shocker was released in 1960, audiences were shocked by the death, a mere third of the way into the picture, of its biggest marquee star, Janet Leigh. Hitch did his level best to keep the big secret under wraps, even insisting on a “no late admission” policy (at that time, moviegoers still came and went as the movies were in progress, often watching from a midpoint and leaving “where we came in”). The trouble with keeping that secret nowadays is that he went off and killed her in one of the most famous sequences in all of cinema; even those who have never seen a Hitchcock film have probably, at one time or another, seen the famed “shower sequence” (or, at the very least, one of its countless parodies). And for that matter, most of today’s audiences are also well aware of the film’s final twist—that Norman’s omnipresent “mother” is actually long dead, stuffed in the cellar, her voice in his head, driving him to kill. Knowing what’s coming doesn’t negate the skill and energy of Hitchcock’s storytelling, however; if anything, it frees you to look for the wry clues he’s left for you (“My hobby is stuffing things. You know, taxidermy”).
If you’re watching a sports movie, there’s a pretty good chance that you can guess at the ending: they (or he, or she) win the big game/bout/match/whatever. Once you’ve seen enough of them, the logic becomes fairly clear: audiences want a big lift, a happy ending to cheer for, and besides, who would go make a movie about a bunch of losers who fail? Though there are occasional exceptions (the first Rocky leaps to mind), for the most part, the big win is all but assured in sports movies, so the film becomes less about the destination than about the journey. Few cinematic athletic journeys are quite as involving as Hoosiers, David Anspaugh’s 1986 small-town basketball fable, in which the eight-man squad from tiny Hickory High goes all the way to the state championship under the hand of coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman). Hickory’s victory at state may not come as a shock, but Hoosiers is an infinitely watchable movie (your author has probably seen it a dozen times) thanks to the keenly felt small-town atmosphere, the thrilling on-court sequences, Hackman’s brilliant performance (few actors have ever been so gifted at showing you everything and telling you nothing), and the joy of Dennis Hopper, whose drunken character’s on-screen arc mirrored his own off-screen recovery (he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for the film, which came out the same year as his other comeback picture, Blue Velvet).
The last-minute turn of Bryan Singer’s 1995 breakthrough thriller — that weak-willed and physically hobbled narrator Verbal Kent (Kevin Spacey) was in fact Keyser Soze, the arch villain of his terrifying tale — was, in many ways, the beginning of the modern obsession with the shocking “twist ending” embraced, in later years, by everyone from Fincher to Shyamalan. And though there’s nothing more fashionable in film circles these days than to bash poor M. Night, we will admit heartily to thoroughly enjoying The Sixth Sense — it is a well-acted, atmospheric, and surprisingly emotional movie. But it doesn’t really stand up to multiple viewings, because the second-time viewer becomes obsessed with looking for plot holes and obvious tip-offs. Conversely, The Usual Suspects loses none of its impact once the turn is known; instead of looking for flaws, the return viewer finds little clues scattered throughout the movie, hints and mentions that tighten up the twist. It’s a subtle difference, and one we can’t quite explain, but there it is.
Spacey’s other fall 1995 film had a plenty powerful surprise of its own: Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box. That brutal revelation was kept well under wraps, of course (in the film’s initial theatrical run, Spacey’s appearance itself was a surprise — he was unbilled in the print ads and unseen in the original trailers). But knowing that David Fincher’s dark and harrowing cop thriller is heading there doesn’t diminish the picture’s considerable power; if anything, it increases the tragedy of Tracy Mills’s fate (that diner scene with Somerset is considerably more poignant). And knowing exactly whose blood is on John Doe makes his first appearance all the more terrifying.
Spoiler: Harvey Milk dies. That’s the thing about biopics — if it’s a movie about somebody famous enough to make a movie about, then chances are you know how it ends, and in many cases, it ends with the death of the protagonist, particularly if part of the reason you’ve heard of the protagonist is because they died at a tragically young age (see also Lenny, Malcolm X, Amadeus, Silkwood, Basquiat, La Bamba, The Buddy Holly Story, etc). But, as in those examples, Harvey Milk’s life was about more than his death; it was about breaking down barriers, raising a voice, and making a difference, and Gus Van Sant’s biopic is a vibrant and intelligent recreation of a very particular time and place that throbs with heart and humor and (occasionally) real anger and anguish.
With very occasional exceptions (amongst our entire staff and readership, we only came up with Annie Hall, (500) Days of Summer, and My Best Friend’s Wedding), the romantic comedy is the most reliably predictable genre in film. Here’s the ending to basically every romantic comedy ever: they end up together. Oh, sure, there’ll be some hitches along the way, a misunderstanding or two, maybe a handsome jerk or a crazy hottie to provide distractions and petty jealousy, but never fear, your charming couple will end up in each other’s arms/beds. Since there’s rarely any genuine suspense, then, a good romantic comedy becomes about style: the chemistry of the leads, the charisma of the supporting players, the wit of the dialogue (and that is where such recent train wrecks as Something Borrowed, When in Rome, and Life as We Know It come up very, very short). So we’re gonna go with our favorite modern-era rom-com: the funny, sweet, and utterly charming When Harry Met Sally, which boasts a marvelous Woody-lite script by Nora Ephron, a well-developed “friends first” narrative, warm direction by Rob Reiner, and winning performances by Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan (neither of whom were ever better in a movie, ever). Hell, the movie’s biggest single laugh (above) has been spoiled by its sheer pop culture ubiquity, but we’ll be damned if it still doesn’t get us every time.
And finally, we come to An Affair to Remember, a movie that is actually spoiled within an entire other movie. Ephron’s Sally-style 1993 romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle is openly inspired by the 1957 Leo McCarey tearjerker An Affair to Remember — not only in its broad strokes and Empire State Building climax, but in the scene above, in which Rita Wilson tearily explains the entire ending of the earlier picture (“That’s a chick’s movie!” Tom Hanks replies). So did that ruin An Affair to Remember? Hardly. In fact, for this one example, your author did some field work — I was employed by a video store the summer that Sleepless hit, and I can tell you this much: we could not keep An Affair to Remember in stock. After seeing a movie that not only functioned as a near-remake but that explicitly spoiled the entire ending, young moviegoers could not wait to get their hands on that 36-year-old film. “Spoiler”? Pshaw.
So those are our top picks—what about you? What movies still play for you, even if you know how they turn out? Let us know in the comments.