Happy Noir Endings

A couple of weeks back, in one of the noir-related Facebook groups that I frequent, a poster commented that film noir movies “don’t have happy endings.” This was disputed by several in the group, and I’m in agreement with them; while I love a downbeat noir ending as much as the next person, I certainly would never discount a film as noir if it didn’t have one.

Today’s post focuses on a few noirs that fall into this category – films that are indisputably noir, but don’t have an ending that sends you into a spiral of despair. Spoilers abound, so watch your step . . .

THE DAMNED DON’T CRY (1950)

What’s it about?

Joan Crawford stars as Esther Whitehead, who’s unhappily married and lives with her factory worker husband, her browbeaten mother, her disapproving father and, the only bright spot in her life, her young son. When her son is killed in a tragic accident, Esther sets out for the big city, finding work as a dressmaker’s model and finding companionship with an overworked accountant, Marty Blankenship (Kent Smith). Through a set of (maybe not so) fortuitous circumstances, both Esther and Marty find their fortunes improved when they become involved with a powerful mob boss, George Castleman (David Brian) – Marty becomes Castleman’s right-hand man, and Esther not only becomes his lover, but is also transformed into Texas heiress Lorna Hansen Forbes. Ultimately, though, Lorna learns that being the rich mistress of a gangster is not all it’s cracked up to be; when Castleman thinks she’s double-crossed him with one of his underlings, Nick Prenta (Steve Cochran), he murders Prenta, beats up Lorna, and when she flees to her parents’ home, tracks her there and guns her down.

What’s the end?

Esther/Lorna survives the gunshot. I suspect (though we don’t know for sure) that she winds up with Marty, but the happiest part of the ending is that her cold and judgmental father is seen sitting by her bedside at the film’s end, lovingly holding her hand. (So sweet.)

CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS (1953)

What’s it about?

Taking place on a single night in the city of Chicago, this film focuses on a mélange of characters whose lives intersect and intertwine. There’s Johnny Kelly (Gig Young), a disillusioned cop who plans to quit his job and leave his ever-so-faithful wife in order to skip town with his chick-on-the-side, Sally Connors (Mala Powers). And Gregg Warren (Wally Cassell), who has a job working as a “mechanical man” in a department store window and is also in love with Sally. And Hayes Stewart (William Talman), a former magician and current burglar, who is an increasingly bad influence on Kelly’s kid brother. And Penrod Biddell (Edward Arnold), a crooked attorney who hires Johnny to arrest Stewart (who, incidentally, is having an affair with Biddell’s wife). It’s quite the tangled web. Before it’s all over, there will be a pile of dead bodies: Biddell, his wife, Stewart, and Kelly’s father, who’s also a cop.

What’s the end?

By the time the night is over, Kelly’s experiences – which have included delivering a baby in the back seat of a car, and returning money to a group of men who were conned by an illegal gambling ring – have caused him to re-evaluate his plans. He tears up his letter of resignation and reunites with his long-suffering wife. And the voiceover narrator tells us: “Johnny Kelly’s home. Home to stay. While others are just getting up to go to work, for everywhere, every minute, of every hour in this melting pot of every race, creed, color, and religion of humanity, people are working, laughing, dying, some, like Johnny Kelly, are being born again, in the city that never sleeps.” (Wow.)

MILDRED PIERCE (1945)

What’s it about?

The title character, played by Joan Crawford, is a wife and mother of two girls, who finds herself responsible for her family’s life and welfare when her husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett), takes a powder. Desperate to secure an income, Mildred finds a job as a waitress, earning extra cash by baking cakes and pies for her employer. Spurred by her desire to please a self-absorbed daughter who’s never satisfied, Mildred opens a restaurant that turns into a string of successful enterprises, but she learns that, in the world of noir, sometimes your best just isn’t good enough.

What’s the end?

I won’t reveal what happens in the film’s climax, but I will say that Mildred and her ex-husband stroll off into the shadows together, and there’s no doubt that they will reunite. (A’int love grand?)

OUT OF THE PAST (1947)

What’s it about?

Gas station owner Jeff Bailey – who used to be a private dick named Jeff Markham – finds that his past has caught up with him after a fateful chance encounter. Instead of pumping gas alongside his deaf-mute assistant (Dickie Moore, known only as The Kid), and peaceful picnics with his girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston), he’s now ensconced in a world peopled by refined gangsters, cold-blooded killers, and a former lover who is the epitome of ruthless self-preservation.

What’s the end?

Leaving a spate of dead bodies behind, Jeff and his ex, Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer), set out for Mexico together, but Kathie shoots Jeff when she realizes that he is responsible for the police roadblock they encounter. In turn, she’s gunned down by the police. In the last scene of the film, Ann appeals to The Kid to find out if Jeff was still in love with Kathie and trying to run away with her. The Kid knows the truth – Jeff’s loyalties were firmly with Ann – but he indicates that Jeff had indeed planned to resume his relationship with Kathie, thus allowing Ann to permanently sever her emotional ties to Jeff. At the film’s end, we see The Kid give a salute the gas station sign bearing Jeff’s name, knowing that, by misrepresenting his employer’s intentions, he has given a future to the woman he loved. (Aw.)

99 RIVER STREET (1953)

What’s it about?

Former boxer and current taxi driver Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) finds himself in a world of trouble when his shrewish, unfaithful wife (Peggie Castle) is found dead in the back seat of his cab. As he strives to find the men responsible for the murder, while evading capture by police, he’s aided by an actress friend, Linda James (Evelyn Keyes), who has her own reasons for putting her life in danger to help Ernie.

What’s the end?

Ernie is shot while wrangling the no-good-doers he’s been tracking, but his boxing prowess is used to good advantage in subduing them until Linda arrives with the cops. In the film’s last scene, we learn that Ernie and Linda are blissfully married and owners of a gas station. At the very end, Ernie whispers to Linda that it’s time that they started a family, and we fade to black on Linda’s smile of delight. (Blecch).

What noirs can you think of with happy endings?

~ by shadowsandsatin on February 28, 2021.

11 Responses to “Happy Noir Endings”

  1. Tomorrow is Another Day is another

  2. Quite a few – Phantom Lady – Notorious – Deadline at Dawn – Dark Passage – Dark City – The Set Up – No Man of her Own – Impact.
    Love them all!

  3. Thank you for using the phrase “take a powder”!

    • Ha! So often I find these old sayings creep into my speech! I remember several years ago, a neighbor called to tell me a stranger was in my backyard. I opened the drapes and told him to ‘scram out of here!’ (And he did!)

  4. I’m glad you’re back.
    Interesting choices you have for a happy ending. I always had the feeling Crawford died at the end of The Damned Don’t Cry, but of course we’ll never know.
    Out of the Past to me is a sad ending, because Mitchum dies and Ann probably ends up with the stuffed shirt (as far as I remember).

    More upbeat endings for me are On Dangerous Ground, Kiss of Death and Phantom Lady. The happy endings work because they operate as a natural part of the overall narrative.

    Tomorrow is Another Day is, together with The Hunted, the contender for worst tacked-on happy ending ever. Both movies cried out for a bleak ending, but some rube gave us a happy reprieve in Act Three. No, no, no.

  5. All I can think of right now is that when a movie ends with a clinch my husband always says sarcastically “And they call that a happy ending?”

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