Not every artist has a chance to deliberately make a “final work.” It’s a rare thing, really, and obviously some who could have created one probably had no interest in doing so.
But I was thinking about how some movie directors have gone at this.
1. The Dead
I’ve read that director John Huston had always planned to make The Dead as his last picture.
The source novella, the best thing James Joyce ever wrote (yeah, it is) is wonderful (go read it if you never have), and Huston does it justice, though he directed parts of it from a wheelchair and parts from a hospital bed, with his son Tony, who wrote the screenplay, acting as his surrogate on set.
I won’t describe it — no telling of the “plot” will explain what it’s like to see it — but I will say one thing that I like particularly about it.
In the original story, there’s a character named Freddy Malins. He’s a drunk, and there’s a good deal of conversation at the holiday party of whether he’ll be sober when he arrives (he apparently took the pledge a day or two before) or whether he’s fallen off the wagon (again) already.
Well he shows up drunk and remains so, and in the story that’s pretty much the end of it.
In the movie, though, he rallies in the end. He rebukes another guest who makes a rude comment in front of his (Freddy’s) mother, and when a novice cab driver doesn’t know where to go, it’s Freddy who gives him the directions.
I always feel that this is because The Dead was a young man’s story, written when Joyce was in his thirties, but this is an old man’s movie. A little more forgiving, a little more willing to see complexity in everybody.
(I stole the name “Malins” and used it — I lost the “s” somewhere — for my character Christy Malin, who’s also Irish, and an alcoholic, and many more things as well.)
Robert Altman did not intend A Prairie Home Companion to be his last picture — but he must have known it might be. He’d had a heart transplant a decade earlier, and the only way he could get insured for this picture was to have another director on set at all times in case he couldn’t complete the picture.
(By the way, imagine, for a moment, the terrible torment of Paul Thomas Anderson, the backup director, forced to spend weeks watching his friend and mentor direct a film. Talk about a master class. Did he take notes or just watch and learn?)
One character in the movie is called “the Dangerous Woman” in the credits, but she’s actually the angel of death and there is a question throughout most of the movie about who she’s come for.
At the end, several of the characters are so sitting in a diner, and they see Asphodel, the dangerous woman, come in and slowly approach the table. Who is she coming for this time? We never find out — appropriately, because in real life you don’t know.
Lola Johnson: This isn’t really going to be your last show, is it?
Garrison Keillor: Every show is your last show. That’s my philosophy.
Rhonda Johnson: Thank you, Plato.
3. Family Plot
Hitchcock was not planning for Family Plot to be his last film, but apparently he knew he was slowing down and couldn’t do a lot of things he’d done before.
But, intentionally or not, he ended his final movie perfectly.
A fake psychic and con artist goes into a “trance” and convinces her accomplice that she’s had a real revelation for the first time, and then, as he scurries off to retrieve the treasure she has just “located,” she turns to face the camera, smiles, and winks.
A great film? No, not even close. Definitely not in the top ten Hitchcock films. But a perfect ending, and there’s one other great moment, too.