Noir Nook: The Ends of Noir
In my first several Noir Nook posts of this year, I focused on beginnings – how some of our favorite noir actors and actresses got their big breaks in Hollywood. This month, I’m looking at endings.
As you know, films noir are characterized by a tone of cynicism and hopelessness, of circumstances that spiral irrevocably out of control. And some of my favorites are those noirs that carry that downbeat tone straight to the end of the film – no cop-outs, no tacked-on happy endings, no rainbows at the end of the clouds. Here are a few of my favorite noirs with what I view as perfect endings (and I’m offering a fair warning if you haven’t seen these – there are major spoilers ahead!):
Double Indemnity (1944)
This feature – my favorite noir of all time, incidentally – tells the story of Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), an unhappily married housewife who uses her considerable wiles to convince her insurance salesman lover Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) to help her murder her husband. (Not that he needs all that much convincing.) After successfully knocking off Mr. Dietrichson, Phyllis and Walter don’t exactly live happily ever after. Instead, their relationship is torpedoed by their mutual mistrust and paranoia, not to mention Phyllis fooling around with her stepdaughter’s boyfriend. Ultimately, Phyllis shoots Walter, Walter shoots Phyllis, Phyllis dies on the spot, and Walter’s injury ultimately prevents his desperate attempt to take it on the lam.
Gun Crazy (1950)
This first-rate feature centers on Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) and Bart Tare (John Dall), two sharpshooters whose first encounter takes place at the traveling carnival where Annie works and Bart bests Annie in a shooting contest. (Talk about a meet-cute!) Before you can say “Bob’s your uncle,” the two kids get hitched, but when they lose their meager savings in Las Vegas, Annie talks her straitlaced hubby into teaming with her in a series of small-time robberies. They snag a big payday when they steal the payroll in a meat-packing plant, but they also leave two dead bodies in their wake, thanks to Laurie’s trigger-happy tendencies. On the run from a state-wide manhunt, the couple holes up at Bart’s boyhood home, but they’re tracked into the mountains and surrounded by cops. When Laurie announces her plans to shoot it out with the law, Bart shoots her, just seconds before he himself is gunned down.
The Killing (1956)
In a classic case of best-laid plans going awry, The Killing depicts an intricately planned race track theft by a motley crew that includes Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), a small-time hood and recently released ex-con; beat cop Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia), who owes a gambling debt to some shady and none-too-patient characters; and George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.), a mild-mannered clerk who’s desperate to give his sexy but disdainful wife, Sherry (Marie Windsor), the lavish lifestyle he promised when they married. The heist comes off without a single hitch, but a massive monkey wrench is thrown into the plan when Sherry’s young lover (Vince Edwards) tries to rip off the cash, only to kick off a gun battle that results in the deaths of all concerned – except Johnny, who almost makes a clean getaway with the suitcase full of money, until he’s caught by police at the airport. Oh, and the suitcase falls off a baggage cart, scattering the bills to the four winds. Bummer.
What are some of your favorite noir endings?
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
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