Everybody loves a good curtain line. An unforgettable closing line in a movie or play can send the audience out on a blissful high, so it isn’t surprising that everyone has a favorite—the final line of Casablanca, which was looped over the closing shot at the last minute; Joe E. Brown’s topper in Some Like It Hot, which has become such a classic example of the curtain line that it’s almost impossible to appreciate it on its own; and what else?
Surprisingly, there aren’t a lot of others. A great curtain line can be so powerful and memorable that it’s startling to realize how few of them there actually are. I can think of only a handful of movies from recent years with really good curtain lines: The Usual Suspects, Eyes Wide Shut, perhaps Memento. And none of these are curtain lines in the classic sense, which open up unexpected levels of meaning in a story we thought we knew. The very best, in their power to evoke new possibilities, can seem less like ringing down a curtain than like opening a door.
The greatest curtain line in movie history, as far as I’m concerned, comes at the end of David Mamet’s 1999 film version of The Winslow Boy, based on Terence Rattigan’s play. The line itself, which we’ll get to in a moment, is great, but much of its power comes from Mamet’s staging, as well as the actors involved: Rebecca Pidgeon as Catherine Winslow, the suffragette daughter of a family brought nearly to ruin by a quixotic legal case, and Jeremy Northam as Sir Robert Morton, the brilliant lawyer whom the family retains to argue its side before the Crown.
Most of the film appears to focus on the case itself, which revolves around the academic expulsion of the Winslow family’s youngest son for allegedly stealing a five-shilling postal order. Pidgeon and Northam share the screen for only a couple of scenes, and their interactions have an air of mutual suspicion: Northam is electrifying in the courtroom, but inscrutable elsewhere, and Pidgeon suspects that he has taken the case—which has already ended her own engagement—solely for the sake of publicity. Northam, in turn, seems dryly amused, but unimpressed, by Pidgeon’s feminist politics.
And then we arrive at the final scene, after a successful verdict has been delivered, as Pidgeon walks Northam out through the family garden. Pidgeon, who once believed that Northam was a man without emotion, was astonished to see him weeping at the verdict, and asks why he hid his true reasons for taking the case. Emotion, he replies, only clouds the issue. They spar lightly on the subject for another moment, and then we have the following unforgettable exchange, at the garden gate:
Northam: You still pursue your feminist activities?
Pidgeon: Oh yes.
Northam: Pity. It’s a lost cause.
Pidgeon: Oh, do you really think so, Sir Robert? How little you know about women. Goodbye. I doubt that we shall meet again.
Northam: Oh, do you really think so, Miss Winslow? How little you know about men.
With that, Northam walks off with a smile, leaving us to linger on Pidgeon’s face, whose pleasure and surprise mirror our own. Then, as we fade to black, we see that the film we thought we were watching was really about something else altogether—and it was happening right in front of our eyes.
by Alec Nevala-Lee
Alec Nevala-Lee is a novelist and freelance writer whose debut novel, Kamera, will be published by New American Library in February 2012, with a sequel scheduled for later that same year. (To read more about Kamera, an art world thriller centering on the enigmatic final masterpiece of the artist Marcel Duchamp, please see here.) He currently lives in Chicago with his wife, Wailin, and a frighteningly large number of books.