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July 29, 2010


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Kelli Marshall

Interesting post, Glenn! I taught a film noir class this spring, and my students -- like most everyone who sees GILDA, I imagine -- were completely flummoxed by the ending. I think one of them even used the same phrase you do above: "cop-out." Apparently, it wasn't Harry Cohn but the film's producer, Virginia Van Upp (second in command to Cohn) who insisted on an upbeat ending. Do you know if the film was having trouble passing the censors?

Fuzzy Bastarrd

"The trouble with Americans is that we all want a tragedy with a happy ending." -Hal Hartley, SURVIVING DESIRE

In a lot of Hollywood movies, the "happy endings" can be so out of left field that they end up being far bleaker, as if the movie were saying "There is no possible believable way in which this can work out, and you idiots still want to walk out with a smile on your face because you can't handle the horror." This has always seemed especially true of the 50s, where the conflict between the still-traumatized sensibilities of a generation of war vets was squeezed through the mandatory smiles of the McCarthy era. It always makes me think of the (deliberately?) unsatisfying and bizarre end of Shakespeare's Measure For Measure, which is so arbitrary and dependent on the whims of the powerful that it achieves a kind of tragic-absurdist grim chuckle.

D Cairns

Preston Sturges's happy endings -- The Miracle of Morgan's Creek in particular -- always make me think of The Last Laugh, and Kurt Vonnegut's religion of reassuring lies.

Gilda is so insane and seems set to deny deny deny all its own most interesting ideas -- notable a gay subtext which could take your eye out -- that the ending strikes me as wholly in keeping with the overall approach: cram in subversive material and then jam a lid on top and pretend nothing's happening. This schizoid approach may have something to do with Van Upp being both co-writer and producer. Her other credits, notably Swing High Swing Low, suggest a really interesting sensibility.

Quibbles department: Vidor, Ford and Hayworth also made Carmen at Columbia, in which at least one of the lovers ends up dead, and neither of them end up together.

The Siren

Such a terrific piece, a fabulous palate-cleanser.

Virginia Van Upp had also written Cover Girl, so you wouldn't necessarily peg her as someone with a noir sensibility. Van Upp did have a sense of what Rita Hayworth could and could not do as an actress, however. While I agree with our host that the fadeout deserves its place in the great annals of Hollywood "WTF" endings, I also agree with Otto Friedrich that the insecure and fundamentally wholesome Hayworth had a hard time portraying promiscuity when she was straight-up acting (although when she was dancing, she was sensuality to the infinite power). They even cleaned up Salome for Hayworth--she may do the dance of the seven veils, all of which stayed firmly attached to her, but by the end she's converted to Christianity.

Friedrich: "Miss Van Upp provided the rather diffident Miss Hayworth with the fake personality of a wanton. If the censors preferred that her wantonness be shown to be false, that was really quite reasonable, since Miss Hayworth's laborious efforts to mimic wantonness depended heavily on the audience's imagination."

I think David also makes an excellent point, that Gilda's febrile S&M atmosphere makes all sorts of endings possible, if not plausible.

Like just about everyone else, the ending of LA Confidential made me groan, but you could see it as firmly in this noir tradition of left-field happy endings. I am also perversely fond of the ending of The Postman Always Rings Twice, in which John Garfield gets a speech justifying the fact that state is killing him for the WRONG MURDER, and so good is Garfield that you can almost kinda sorta buy it. It doesn't qualify as happy, but it's my personal choice for the high-water mark of the Breen Office's Insistence That Society Is Always Right.

I also wanted to bring up, for the sake of argument, that an unhappy ending can feel unearned, too.

Michael Adams

Just watched Gilda yesterday for the first time in years, and in its defense, I don't see how else it could have ended, though I would have preferred Joseph Calleia giving them an hour to get out of town or some such. Because it isn't really noir but a romantic melodrama with noir touches, we perhaps shouldn't expect it to end like Out of the Past. It keeps dancing toward a cynical realism only to dance away at the last moment. Meanwhile, has no scholar yet written "The Other Woman: Homoerotic Tensions in Gilda"?

Chris O.

I'm somewhat indifferent to the ending of PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, though I lean towards "pat," as much as I like the film overall. I know Fuller wanted to end FORTY GUNS differently, but did he originally envision a darker end for PICKUP as well?


This topic has actually been much on my mind recently. While the Siren is correct, that unhappy endings can absolutely feel unearned, I think in film noir the reverse is more often the case, and it's hard to think of a film noir -- of the grim sort, more than the procedural sort -- that doesn't have a happy, or somewhat upbeat ending which doesn't feel tacked on (this obviously excludes those noirs like ANGEL FACE and etc. that have no such ending).

The first time I saw NIGHTMARE ALLEY, when Stan Carlisle said "Brother, I was born for it", I thought "Oh, please end now. Just end now!" And then it didn't. Obviously, NIGHTMARE ALLEY's coda is nowhere near as egregious as GILDA's, but it's still a bit of a let-down, because they had prefection right there, and the studio couldn't allow it (or so I understand). But even so, it's a magnificent film.


Stephen Whitty

Yes, "Brother, I was born for it" is the line I wish "Nightmare Alley" had ended with. There's actually probably an idea for a post here -- movies that should have ended early.

For example, I could have done without the usual tough epitaphs Warners generally appended to their gangster films. End "White Heat," please, with "Top of the world, ma!" Do NOT go back to Edmond O'Brien.

Of course, sometimes when I'm in a perverse mood, I even shut off "Meet John Doe" right BEFORE Barbara Stanwyck joins Cooper on that rooftop.

Anyway, lovely post Glenn. If you want to check out another odd noir "happy ending," look at "Human Desire" on that same Columbia boxed set, also with Ford escaping relatively unscathed. (Relative, at least, to poor Gloria Grahame...)

The Siren

Stephen, I am musing here on the idea that I can quickly come up with a lot more women's pictures with bittersweet, sad or outright tragic endings (Letter from an Unknown Woman, The Old Maid, Portrait of Jennie, Back Street, Stella Dallas, The House on 56th Street, even an epic like GWTW) than I can film noir. Romance did not necessarily require a neat, sweet fadeout, but crime often did. Odd. Interesting.

Stephen Whitty

Excellent point, Siren. In fact, I've always felt a tragic ending -- or, at least, bittersweet, Now-Voyagerish one -- makes for the best romances. What did Dorothy Parker write? "Lips that taste of tears, they say/Are the best for kissing..."

Tom Russell

"There's actually probably an idea for a post here -- movies that should have ended early."

I always turn off Donner's SUPERMAN just after Superman's flight/date with Lois. That is, with about an hour of gratingly campy Hackman scenery-chewing and Miss-Tessmacher-!-ing left. The film works best without a villain, I think-- as an origin story, an entertainment, a work of American iconography. For me, that first 90 minutes or so is really a perfect superhero film.

Stephen Whitty

I like that idea, Tom. The farcical Lex Luthor stuff always ruined that movie for me.

Of course, there's also the possibility of taking these things too far. A former friend of mine, when in a black Christmas mood, would always switch off the annual broadcast of "It's a Wonderful Life" as soon as Jimmy Stewart reached the bridge.

"That's it, he jumps, pretty sad. Oh well, at least his family gets that insurance money..."

Owain Wilson

Filmmakers who use an unnecessarily tragic ending under the misguided belief that it makes their film more 'dramatic' always disappoint me. Gladiator, for example. He should have walked off into the sunset victorious but heartbroken and completely alone. Much more dramatic. Not that I even liked Gladiator, mind you, but still.

As for Superman, I too always thought they should have dropped the nuclear missile story from the last hour and jumped straight into Superman II. So you'd have the three supervillains from Krypton turning up halfway through, teaming up with Lex Luthor, and giving us the most wildly entertaining superhero film we could ever hope to see. Superman and Superman II are wildly entertaining by themselves, though, I must say.

Tom Russell

Stephen-- Ouch, too far indeed!

That movie is bleak enough-- and I mean bleak in the deepest and best sense possible, it's one of my favourite Capras-- that without the fantasy angle, it would be nearly unbearable for me. I think the film's "happy" ending-- happy in that Stewart doesn't die and doesn't go to jail, yet not "tacked-on studio happy" because he remains in his social place with all his dreams deferred and the true villain still unpunished-- is in this case earned by the misery that preludes it.

Stephen Whitty

Good point, Tom.

I know that movie wore out its welcome with many people, thanks to those endless public-domain screenings. But I always thought it was full of surprising moments.

Like the erotic reaction to Gloria Grahame's stroll across the street. ("I gotta go home, see what the wife's doing.") Or the very early use of the freeze frame, in the luggage shop ("I want a BIG one.")

The one that still shocks me, though, is Stewart's "Why did we have to have all these KIDS?" to his wife. Pretty bleak thing to hear coming out of any movie dad's mouth -- not only for those times but for any times.

Michael Adams

Forgot all about the worst noir ending: Woman in the Window.

Tom Russell

Stephen-- Agreed on all counts. I was lucky to come to the film after it was "rescued" from the public domain, meaning that familiarity never had the chance to breed contempt.

And how about that love/kissing scene between Stewart and Reed, where his anger turns into tenderness, and there's all this rage and frustration about his life going into that dynamite of a kiss: passionate, emotionally-charged, complex stuff, positively smoldering.


"Brother, I was born for it?"

No, it's "Mister, I was made for it."


I do apologize.

Tom Russell

Have to admit, completely out of context, I kinda like the consonance/rhythm of Bill's version better.


According to the internet, Griff and I are both right. Various sources quote the line as: "Mister, I was born for it."


You know what's STUPID AS FUCK is in Double Indemnity when Fred MacMurray GOES BOWLING. RIGHT THERE is why OLD MOVIES SUCK, because NO ONE would put that dork-ass shit in a new movie. HE GOES BOWLING. It is the most ridiculous, absurdist shot in the entirety of cinema, and totally ruins the movie, so AGAINST ALL ODDS POWER... BODY HEAT POWER... CHINATOWN POWER... CHINA MOON POWER.

Can you imagine in the middle of THE DARK KNIGHT, Bruce Wayne was like YEAH THIS IS ALL INTERESTING, BUT I DECIDED TO GO BOWLING. Laughable.

They didn't have QC down yet back then.


Two gloriously trumped up happy endings to seedy preceedings:

Oliver C

Scenes of bowling never did 'The Big Lebowski' any harm. Are you ready to be fucked, LexG?


Not a noir, but anyone else feel this way about the end of BIGGER THAN LIFE? I mean, get real with that shit, the whole family hugging on the hospital bed? FAKE.


In Bigger Than Life it actually isn't so happy. Nobody in the film ever says that things will go happily ever after for the family. He's still going to be on medication, and the threat of other side effects or relapses is still there. They are just having a happy moment--but their future together as a "happy 1950s American family) is far from assuredly rosy.

Oliver C

Thing is, the original, fact-based medical article that 'Bigger Than Life' was adapted from succeeded in undermining 50s complacency without resorting to Ray's proto-'Shining' meltdown and (intentionally?) unconvincing reconciliation.

Kiss Me, Son of God

On the topic of endings, I have to say that while I was generally apathetic toward "Inception," I absolutely adored the final shot. It's the only moment of true visual cleverness in a film that largely feels like a studio-bland blockbuster with more technobabble than usual.

Badass Richard Conte


You could always mix the ending like in The Asphalt Jungle where Sterling Hayden dies -- but he dies just as he's gotten to the horse farm...

Though I'm still partial for complete nihilism like at the end of Night and the City, where Widmark is killed and dumped in the river...

Jeff McMahon

How many people read the article that Bigger Than Life was based on? Not as many as have seen the film, I'd bet.

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