Great Directors And Their Final Films

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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.

Family Plot

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]

The Sacrifice - Tarkovsky

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]

7 Women Ford

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]