The greatest curtain line in movie history

9 Jan

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.

I’d like to thank Alec very much for contributing to The Jer Blog. You can visit Alec’s blog here: Alec Nevala-Lee, and follow him on Twitter: Alec Nevala-Lee on Twitter.

12 Responses to “The greatest curtain line in movie history”

  1. Gill Fraser Lee January 9, 2011 at 10:53 pm #

    Very many thanks, Alec, for a great post about one of my very favourite movie scenes.

  2. Mary January 9, 2011 at 11:14 pm #

    Yes, the final scene of Winslow boy. You would like it goes on and on, but really, if Jeremy Northam touches his hat with an unfathomable smile and says: Oh, do you really think so, Miss Winslow? How little you know about men. That says it all. Thank you for the contribution.

  3. Rosamond Tifft January 10, 2011 at 12:45 am #

    I could not agree more with this writer, although I have two other favorites: The last lines spoken by Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson in “Double Indemnity” and the final fadeout and the last lines from “Sunset Boulevard” spoken by Gloria Swanson and Erich Von Stroheim. And then there’s also Billy Wilder, they’re all Billy Wilder, aren’t they, “The Apartment” last lines spoken by Shirley MacLain and Jack Lemmon and of course “Casablanca.” However, the lines as spoken by Jeremy in “The Winslow Boy” speak the same volumes as the brilliant Mr. Wilder wrote or co-wrote. Since Jeremy Northam can really act, when he speaks volumes in simple pleasure alight from his lips. Mary is right his final lines seem like an entire paragraph for he is making love to her and to us and it just stops you cold and at the same time seems to go on and not have a stopping point. I thank this writer, for when I think of this film I think of Jeremy’s final line, he just stops the show. Who wouldn’t want to have a man reaveal his whole soul in two sentences and the entire world as well. He just casts a magical spell, cause the dude can act. Thank you all. xxxxx Rosie Tifft

  4. Gayle Cooley January 10, 2011 at 11:58 am #

    The last line in Winslow Boy has such power, and promise, that it left me hungering for the story to continue.I suspect it had the same effect on almost everyone who saw it.

    Wonderful post, I really enjoyed this.

  5. Ansie January 10, 2011 at 3:40 pm #

    Thanks for a wonderful post, Alec. I remember hearing that last line in the film for the first time – it gave me a little shiver (in the best way possible). Like Gayle, I wanted the story to continue. TWB was truly a marvelous piece of writing/film making.

  6. LauraP January 10, 2011 at 11:42 pm #

    I enjoyed reading this post a great deal!

    I couldn’t agree more about that last scene in The Winslow Boy: it makes us think about what has really been happening and brings to the fore emotions that have been simmering beneath the surface all along.

    And that grin of Jeremy/Sir Robert’s as he walks away is absolutely priceless!

  7. nevalalee January 11, 2011 at 3:02 pm #

    Thanks, everyone! And thanks to Rosamund, especially, for reminding me of some of the curtain lines of the great Billy Wilder (and his frequent co-writer, I.A.L. Diamond). I’m very glad that Gill offered me the chance to write this post, which was a lot of fun to put together, and I’m pleased that all of you enjoyed it.

  8. Martina Eisel January 12, 2011 at 2:17 pm #

    Thank you very much for this wonderful post about a favourite film of mine, Alec, that is very interesting! I can only agree to your brilliantly worded thoughts about the greatest curtain line, it is a great pleasure to read.
    Thanks Gill, for inviting the most kind novelists and persons to your blog.


  1. Tweets that mention The greatest curtain line in movie history « The Jer Blog, all about Jeremy Northam -- - January 9, 2011

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by gillfraserlee. gillfraserlee said: The Winslow Boy, the greatest curtain line in movie history? Wonderful guest post at The Jer Blog by @nevalalee Pls RT […]

  2. The last word « Alec Nevala-Lee - January 10, 2011

    […] If asked to name the greatest curtain line in movie history, most critics would probably go with Joe E. Brown’s classic topper in Some Like It Hot, which is a great line, but so famous an example that it nearly ruins the joke itself. Second place would probably go to the last line of Casablanca, which still retains all its magic, even though I’ve heard it close to thirty times. But my own favorite curtain line is from David Mamet’s The Winslow Boy, based on Terence Rattigan’s play, which the charming Gill Fraser Lee has kindly allowed me to discuss at greater length on her Jeremy Northam page. […]

  3. The Winslow Boys « The Jeremy Northam Blog - August 10, 2011

    […] may remember author Alec Nevala-Lee’s insightful post about David Mamet’s The Winslow Boy and its memorable curtain line. Alec said, ‘The greatest curtain line in movie history, as […]

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