Article – Film Twists

Look Out! It’s Jeff Bridges!

(Originally published in TVS Magazine, December 1999)

Although Roald Dahl will always be the God, Hollywood has also had a tradition of stories with a sting in the tail. The Sixth Sense, which has just been released, is merely the latest in a long line of films that have attempted to convince the viewer that, just when you think everything has wrapped up nicely, there’s always a gap in the tissue paper.

WARNING! Don’t read this is you don’t want to know the ending to any of the films highlighted.

Of course it all starts with Rosebud. Before Citizen Kane (1941), movies merely concerned themselves with a beginning, a middle and an end – and in that order. If every plot strand wasn’t wrapped up in the the final reel, then it was because the makers had screwed up. But a lot of the impact of Orson Welles’s cinematic masterpiece – still voted the best film ever by critics – comes from the revelation at the end that Charles Foster Kane’s last words referred to the mouldy old sleigh he abandoned as a child.

And that’s what last-reel twists trade off: impact. The resolution of a mystery you hadn’t – or couldn’t possibly – guess, or the realisation that what you had assumed was completely wrong. Done well they can creep up on you totally unawares and land on your head with the same force as you kicking yourself there. Done badly – i.e. predictably – and they can be laughable. Rosebud may not be something you should have guessed all along, but it has a satisfying ‘rightness’ to it, and makes you want to watch the film again. But there’s nothing a viewer likes better than be able to say, “Oh, I guessed it all along.” The general public likes to be surprised, as well as delighted.

So filmmakers have essentially been playing games with viewers ever since. There will always be the obnoxious bore who delights in telling his friends how he knew what was happening all along, but they’re usually film buffs so just ignore them. These people tend towards horror films, which have laid claim to the twist ending. Justifiably, in most cases, since a lot of twists aim to shock.

Early ‘horror’ movies generally had no budget and sudden appearances by blokes dressed in silly costumes were more often laughed at than shrieked over. Les Diaboliques (1954), directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, was the film that changed the way a lot of filmmakers approached the power of shock. Essentially a murder plot conspired by two women, the twist in the tale is that the man they supposedly killed turns out to be alive, not through supernatural means but as a further plot to literally scare one of the women to death. It wasn’t just her who was scared; the audiences were too and that impressed a certain rotund ex-pat director.

Alfred Hitchcock was already renowned as the master of suspense but it wasn’t until Psycho (1960) that he used the shock twist to up the ante on his usual bag of sweaty tricks. Naturally, being Hitchcock, this could well be the best twist of all. For a start, we spend most of the film recovering from the shower scene (which is just as much a twist as, up until that point, the film was going in an entirely different direction) before the revelation that the Psycho of the title isn’t Norman Bates’s mother but Norman himself, in wig and funny voice. Who saw that one coming? Well, apart from the afore-mentioned obnoxious film bore.

By rights the unmasking – or should that be de-shawling – of Norman should be as famous as the shower scene itself (the image of the dead mother and the swinging lightbulb in the basement is just as imprinted on the audience’s memory as Janet Leigh’s unfocused eyes) but there is an element of not spoiling it for anybody else that still exists 40 years after the film’s release. Word of mouth on films like these runs merely to just “go see it”, and a crafty smile covers the twist that the recommender knows about that the recommendee doesn’t.

“Don’t give away the ending – it’s the only one we have!” ran the tagline to Psycho’s posters, and films have been trying to outdo it ever since. Even more than horror films, courtroom dramas are heavily dependent on What Happens At the End. And the more that ending surprises, the better. Witness for the Prosecution (1957), adapted by Billy Wilder from the Agatha Christie play, relies heavily on its surprise denouement, although the effect is somewhat lessened by the reliance on one of the most recognisable icons of cinema, Marlene Dietrich, being necessarily impenetrable in disguise.

A more successful surprise verdict in a courtroom drama occurred in Jagged Edge (1985), wherein the discovery that nice ol’ Jeff Bridges is the wielder of the said serrated implement heralded a whole new raft of twisty-turny films, after they had fallen out of favour in the more ‘realistic’ seventies. Jagged Edge writer Joe Eszterhas tried the same trick again in Basic Instinct, but the film is more remembered for Sharon Stone crossing her legs; a ‘twist’ everyone say coming, so to speak.

In modern times, audiences – used to the epoch-defining moment when Darth Vader ‘fessed up to being Luke’s dad – are more clued up on what to expect, resulting in filmmakers having to try that bit harder. The ending of Carrie (1976) may have had audiences leaping up in the air but it’s not really a twist, more a fine example of the un-earned blatancy Brian de Palma specialises in. A better example would be The Crying Game (1992), a film which entirely relies on its shock twist even if, in disregard of common practice, it doesn’t happen at the end. A triumph of Psycho-like marketing, its teasingly concealed gender twist suffered the unique fate of being ruined for millions when Jaye Davidson was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

This year’s The Sixth Sense is a classic twist movie, and the major reason for its unexpected success at the US Box Office this summer, beating many effects-laden blockbusters. It is proof that a good moment of “where the hell did that come from” can equal any amount of money.

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About klausjoynson
I'm a writer, editor, musician, DJ and cartoonist. Contact me at: klausjoynson(at)gmail.com or follow me on Twitter: @KlausJoynson

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