Seven magicians give us their top five picks.
You can’t talk about the surprise ending without discussing Hitchcock. Who can forget the moment when Mrs. Bates’ horrific taxidermy body and empty eye sockets spin around from the shadows under that bare light bulb, and Norman dashes in dressed as his mother wielding a knife? We buy into Perkins’ nuanced performance as the shy, lonely, “mama’s boy” so completely that it never occurs to us he might be the “psycho” and that the arguments overheard with his domineering and sadistic mother are the ramblings of a madman. [Buy]
It’s rare to find a great surprise ending outside of the horror, suspense, or mystery genres. In this bright and comedic Best Picture Oscar winner, we are on the inside of an elaborate con game, and believe we know all the players and their roles. Like a master illusionist, George Roy Hill withholds one vital piece of information—that Polk is not really a federal agent, and has been brought into the scheme to handle the increasing trouble caused by detective Snyder. In believing that Hooker has double-crossed Gondorf before being shot, we join Lonnegan and become victims of the ingenious sting perpetrated by Hill. [Buy]
The fantastic surprise ending to this film was completely watered down in the original theatrical release—so much so that many who saw the movie only once didn’t understand it. The dream of the unicorn and the little origami figures left by Gaff seemed only to be textural devices, and not crucial to the structure of the story. When Ridley Scott’s director’s cut was released in 1992 the V.O. narration was thankfully gone, and Deckard’s realization on finding the origami unicorn that he too is a replicant was strengthened and clarified. This stunning revelation leaves the viewer to grapple with questions about the nature of existence, the morality of creating machines that remember, feel, and are self-aware, and whether or not there is any difference between the “skin job’s” dilemma and our own. [Buy]
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
The Ambrose Bierce short story has been filmed many times, but the 1963 French version that took home an Oscar and was aired as an episode of The Twilight Zone is the best. It is also my earliest memory of being taken by a surprise ending when it was shown in my grade school classroom. For those that may not have seen it, a quick synopsis that doesn’t do it justice: A soldier is to be hung off of Owl Creek Bridge, and as the noose is tightened around his neck he thinks of his wife and family. When he is dropped the rope breaks and we share his heroic efforts to free his hands, swim to shore, and desperately struggle through wilderness to reach his home. During this he experiences odd psychological effects, hearing mysterious noises and feeling that he is sleep walking. Just as he rushes to embrace his welcoming wife, he feels a wrenching pain in his neck, sees a flash of white light, and is plunged into blackness at the bottom of a rope that did not actually break. It is this human longing for wife and family that the viewer identifies with, and our joy at his triumph is brought to a shocking end in a masterful version of “it was all a dream.” [Buy]
Christopher Nolan tells us a story in reverse with each sequence leading to the beginning of the one preceding it. Confused? You’re supposed to be. The device is not a gimmick for novelty’s sake, as Nolan’s smart and seamless use of nonlinear structure forces the viewer to see the world as Leonard sees it--through the eyes of one with anterograde memory dysfunction, who cannot make new memories—in snatches of narrative that almost, but don’t quite, make sense as we struggle to fit them together. The mystery Leonard is unraveling remains as bewildering and “just out of reach” to us as it is to him, until the moment where all the pieces suddenly fit together perfectly--and we realize the true horror and tragedy of Leonard’s condition. It is the most tightly wound and perfectly scripted film of this nature, and even after multiple viewings I’m still able to tease new surprises and revelations from a story I know backwards and forwards. [Buy]
Finally, narrowing down to just five films was difficult, so a nod of serious personal appreciation in this genre also goes to Primal Fear, The Usual Suspects, Wait Until Dark, The Sixth Sense and Jacob’s Ladder.