Endings in film today take a much different approach to how it worked back in the classic era of film. Beginning in the silent era, there wasn’t one movie that didn’t utilize a “The End” at the very end to give a storybook feel to movie storytelling. While endings were perhaps more obvious in the actions of the characters, there was a real psychology to placing a “The End” title on screen to give some sort of closure or completeness. In the earliest days of film, it seems to be connected to a generation who’d grown up reading fairy tales where the “happily ever after” page gave a final punctuation mark to those assimilated tales.
Even in Europe where the rules were already being broken and invented right and left, you’d see a designation of a film ending. In France, the “Finis” or “Fin” is iconic now and sometimes still done out of artistic respect. Only Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane” managed to avoid a standard “The End”, plus a more bittersweet ending, perhaps merely to intentionally bring something different to the table.
“Kane” never stopped any other film from using “The End”, and we continued to see it used at the end of every movie until the 1960s when directors started to experiment with more ambiguous ways to end. And because 1960s movies were already using bleaker plot ideas, it was the perfect lead-in to eliminating “The End” and the evolution of a final scene fading to end credits.
Alfred Hitchcock seems to have started this with “The Birds” where the lack of a “The End” gave an innovative push forward into giving ambiguous endings that insinuate there really isn’t an ending. The terror of knowing the birds were possibly going to continue on their destructive path after the film’s ending was the epitome of Hitchcock and setting a new style of filmmaking.
“The Graduate” became one of the first movies to fade right into a credit scroll after the end scene. It was after this point when endings went right to the credits that would go on for 10 minutes.
This didn’t necessarily mean “The End” still didn’t get some tributes later, including a renaissance for the French “Finis” that still shows up in some independent films today.
The Occasional Return of “The End”, and Future Use
It’s ironic a film about the future was one of the few films in the 1980s that brought “The End” back into use. “Back to the Future Part III” managed to do that after the prior two brought back the “To Be Continued/Concluded” title card at the end as a different form of “The End.” Because this trilogy was already a standout from anything else in sci-fi, it’s no surprise they threw in some elements that audiences from earlier eras would appreciate.
Since then, “The End” has become more or less dormant in mainstream movies, yet you still see “Finis” and “Fin” used in indie films while trying to perhaps look hipster. Some movie fans frown upon this because it looks so pretentious. Others might think it brings back an insightful way to end films so it gives people a better sense of completeness.
Is it true that a “The End” card gives a psychological boost in making a story more compelling, or does a fade-out to end credits help us think for ourselves? We’re so conditioned to seeing fade-outs for endings that a “The End” might seem offensive to some people who can’t figure out where the ending actually is. Since we’ve moved beyond giving tidy endings, most directors probably avoid it because they want us to think beyond the movie and what happens beyond. We’ve even seen text before the end credits that told what happens to the characters in the future. While the latter gets seldom use now, what would the reaction be if someone revived “The End” in the near future?
While we wouldn’t expect the grandiose “The End” card with large cursive fonts as seen in the 1930s and ’40s, some films might benefit from using it in small lettering to make some plots settle better. Endings in films are very important, and some can leave a bad taste if they end with far too many questions unanswered. A “The End” gives a more definitive statement that what’s contained in the film is everything and shouldn’t be given more thought than necessary. Some sci-fi films could easily use that when the endings are a little too ambiguous.
So be brave and use “The End” in your own film if you’re making one. Test it out and see what the reactions are when it’s screened. Next might be the return of Exit Music where people exited the theater to a blank screen and the themes of the soundtrack playing over the sound system. In that regard, perhaps all movie credits should be given in the beginning to allow time to bring back a little artistry to the ending.