Noir Nook: The Ends of Noir

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)

Double Indemnity Fred MacMurray and Barbara StanwyckBarbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity.

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)

Gun Crazy John Dall Peggy Cummins 1950Peggy Cummins and John Dall in Gun Crazy.

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)

The Killing (1956) Sterling Hayden & Coleen GraySterling Hayden stars in The Killing.

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

You can read all of Karen’s Noir Nook articles here.

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.
If you’re interested in learning more about Karen’s books, you can read more about them on amazon here:


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18 Responses to Noir Nook: The Ends of Noir

  1. Mark Brown says:

    I’ve only seen Double Indemnity of these so far.

  2. Gloria Elizabeth says:

    I agree that the strongest Noirs include painful endings. DETOUR ends with Al Roberts walking along in stunned despair until he’s picked up by a slow-moving cop car. IN A LONELY PLACE ends in a lonely place, the two lovers alive and gazing at each other across an impassable breach. THE STRANGE LOVES OF MARTHA IVERS ends in classic tragic opera fashion: everybody dead, nobody wiser.

  3. Woody Woodrum says:

    I like the ending line of “The Maltese Falcon.” Humphrey Bogart cradles the fake Falcon in his arm as the police take Mary Astor into custody and are rounding up other Falcon chasers in Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, and Elisha Cook, Jr. Bogart’s response is made to my top “Second-Banana” of all time in films, Ward Bond, who asks what the bird is. “The stuff that dreams are made of,” said Spade (a quote that is a nod to William Shakespear) to Bond’s detective Polhaus, whose responds only, “Huh?”
    Any film is made better with the cast of The Maltese Falcon: Humphrey Bogart (Sam Spade), Mary Astor (Brigid O’Shaughnessy; Astor would win Oscar’s Best Actress for “The Great Lie”), Gladys George (Iva Archer), Peter Lorre (Joel Cairo, professional criminal), Barton MacLane (Police Lt. Dundy), Lee Patrick (Effie Perine, Spade’s “Girl Friday”), and Sydney Greenstreet (Kasper Gutman, Falcon hunter/scholar, and Oscar nomination for best-supporting actor for his Gutman. Nickname of “The Fat Man” was used for one of two atomic bombs dropped on Japan to end WWII) – seriously, they could make a first-grade primer an Oscar-worthy film! Even the supporting cast is full of talent beginning with Bond (Detective Tom Polhaus), Jerome Cowan (Miles Archer, Spade’s partner), Elisha Cook, Jr., (Wilmer Cook-the gunsel, who has a relationship with Gutman), and the great Walter Huston as Capt. Jacoby (uncredited, unpaid role), who brings the bird to Spade with his dying breath. His son, John Huston, both wrote the screenplay and directed the movie (nominated for Oscar for the best screenplay and the best movie (losing to “How Green Was My Valley” in both), Huston’s first film in the director’s seat. With its low-key lighting and inventive and arresting angles, the work of Director of Photography Arthur Edeson is one of the film’s great assets, and the producer of the Falcon is Hal B. Wallis. The movie was released by Warner Brothers. Titans all!

  4. Karen says:

    What a great one for endings, Woody — you are so right. And I share your fondness for the film and its plethora of great and completely memorable characters1

  5. Brett Doze says:

    It’s interesting to compare the implications of despair you describe at the ending of these three films. In the first two, the killing of lovers is the ultimate hardship. But in “The Killing,” the failure of the job and the loss of all the money seems to be the final image.

    I’m not as well-versed in noir films as I’d like to be, but as I think back, I’m wondering how many noir films there are out there that do not end in some type of shooting or killing. This type of ending makes complete sense for these films, but I wonder how often film noirs broke the mold.

    • That’s an interesting notion, Brett — I never thought about it, but you’re so right — so many noirs that end with a killing. I can just think of a few offhand that do not: The Maltese Falcon and In a Lonely Place.

  6. KittyPride says:

    British Noir is great too, I remember watching a film late at night when I was younger about a man falsely accused of murder who had a green house off his living room where he grew dinner plate dahlias, b/w film, might have been Sir John Mills, so intense, great story, wish I could remember what it was called, would love to watch it again now that I’m older.

  7. David Hollingsworth says:

    I actually loved the ending to The Women in the Window because it was definitely unusual. I thought it was pretty daring to end the film with a dream (sorry for the spoiler).

  8. Sara Stewart says:

    Double Indemnity is definitely one of my favourites

  9. Laurie says:

    I just saw The Killing recently…oh my…all of that planning and he used a cheap suitcase and lost it all! What an ending!
    Gun Crazy was wild and crazy and believe it or not, I’ve never seen Double Indemnity! It’s been on my dvr forever, but I think I haven’t watched because I think Barbara Stanwyck and sweet Fred MacMurray a/k/a Steve Douglas are going to make me not like them…so I didn’t read that part of the blog so I can still be surprised at the end!

  10. Pingback: My Review of ‘Gun Crazy’ (1950) | I Found it at the Movies

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