Ah, Cliffhangers

Lynn and I watched the end of a movie the other night that really wasn’t an end, and even though I didn’t see any of the rest of the movie I find myself rather stuck on the ending.

The TV came up where it had left off: on Turner Classic Movies. “Classic” has now extended into the 1990s, which is kind of like hearing the music of your youth turned into elevator music.

I landed, that night, on probably the last half-hour or so of The Italian Job, a 1969 British film featuring Michael Caine, although the real stars appeared to be the vehicles, and “car chases” was TCM’s theme for the evening.

[Lynn and I went on to watch the subsequent car chase, Duel, featuring Dennis Weaver but most notable as the film that propelled Steven Spielberg into director stardom. But I have to say, we weren’t too crazy about the end of that one, either.]

I watched so little of The Italian Job that I can only give away the ending, without explaining a thing that comes before it. I am going to give away the ending, so if that will ruin your viewing enjoyment, you’d best watch before reading this.

I came in as three Mini Coopers, one red, one white and one blue (they’re British colors too, you know), were driving recklessly across Turin on anything that wasn’t a street, down stairs, into water, through a drainage tunnel, up onto the roof of some giant building and even leaping from one rooftop to another in what our affable host Ben Mankiewicz informed us was considered by the stunt coordinator to be one of his crowning achievements.

Eventually these three cars, who up until they finally reach a wide-open highway have been pursued fruitlessly by all manner of police, drive into the back of a moving bus (also red, white and blue). There, a bunch of gold bars are off-loaded and, as the bus heads up an Alpen road that seems both too steep and too narrow for this bus, the cars are ejected one at a time to tumble to grisly ends in a ravine.

By now the bus driver is enjoying himself so much that he is tossing jubilant robbers all over the back of the bus, until he nears the top of the pass and alllllmost skids the bus off the side of the road. It dangles precariously, back end over nothingness, as everyone huddles toward the front and Michael Caine tries to figure his way out of this.

Every time he gingerly tries to reach the gold, it slides farther to the back and the bus wavers more precariously, and this is the end of the movie: Michael Caine, lying on the floor of the bus between the gold and his compatriots, says, “Hang on lads, I have a great idea!” And then the credits roll as the shot pans out from the side of the still-stuck bus, a literal cliffhanger.

A cliffhanger that brings zero resolution to this disgruntled viewer, and I am a viewer who likes to be gruntled by my movie endings.

I had a friend, KT, who was a writer and also a storyteller, and she loved, especially to kids, to tell some story about a lady facing two doors, behind one of which was a live tiger. (I don’t remember what was behind the other door, but it was less lethal than a tiger.) The story stopped, every single time, before the lady chose a door. KT loved to tell that story, and insisted the kids loved it too, because they got to use their imaginations to come up with their own ending.

If I wanted my own ending, I would write my own story. If the ending really belongs to someone else, I want them to finish it. Not leave me hanging, waiting to hear Mr. Caine’s great idea.

The next day, then, I found myself at the Font of All Knowledge, Wikipedia. That’s where I learned this film is so beloved in England that it ends up on Top 100 British Film lists (maybe England has only produced 100 films?), it’s been remade a couple of times, homage has been paid multiple others, there’s a video game, and in 2021 a streaming series was planned.

According to Wikipedia (Font of All Knowledge), the cliffhanger was left in place to inspire a sequel. The TV show Soap did that to me, many decades ago: they propped Jessica Tate up in front of a firing squad and froze the picture as the guns fired, hoping to propel their production to another season. It didn’t work, and there’s another ending to disgruntle me, although Soap did spin off Benson, and Jessica made an appearance on that show as a ghost, so perhaps there’s our answer.

Wikipedia also said Mr. Caine maintained that the solution was to have been that his character turned the bus back on and they waited for hours until it ran out of gas, which would lighten the tanks enough for the men to disembark — although the gold and the bus would head to the bottom of the ravine.

In 2008 (according to the Font), the Royal Society of Chemistry offered a prize for the best 30-minute solution based in science. This was to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the periodic table, of which gold is a member, and well, you just can’t get wackier than Brits celebrating the periodic table.

This was the winning solution, which I have found myself pondering for the better part of a week as I try to decide how viable it really is:

One of the men on the bus (I would go with the lightest) breaks out the two windows just aft of the pivot point, pushing the glass out to lessen that little bit of weight. Then they break two more windows up front, but somehow have to keep that glass inside, again for the weight. The man is then lowered, but not to the ground (because they need his weight on the bus) on a rope to let the air out of the front tires for stability. He also has to empty the gas tank while he’s out there. Now he can let his weight touch the ground, where he collects a lot of heavy rocks to load in the front of the bus, enough to let the men and the gold disembark.

This solution ends by waiting for a car to come along to hijack it and complete the getaway, although as empty as the road seemed that might take more than 30 minutes, and it would have to be a very large car (no Mini Cooper) to haul away that many men and all their heavy gold.

Frankly, after thinking it through, I would opt for the solution Mr. Caine said the writers provided: run the bus out of gas, leap off, and if you had rope to let a man out of a window, presumably you can conjure up enough to lower men down the slope to haul the bullion up a bar or two at a time. You could even send a couple of men off to rummage up a suitable getaway vehicle while this is taking place.

I suppose on some level, KT was right: I have thought way more about the ending to this movie I barely saw than most of them I watch all the way through, and it’s kept me entertained for days. But I still feel disgruntled that they made me do all the work.

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