On The Ups And Downs Of Hollywood's Parting Shots

Of course, tragedy was made easy, even perfunctory, by the Hays Code's demands of cosmic retribution; the criminal, by virtue of his sins, was destined for an early grave and everyone knew it. But remember, movies then were smaller, shorter, less investment-heavy, consistently double-billed, much more numerous, and far less reliant on masculine triumph, so tragic finales were seen as less crushing experiences. With Shirley Temple, Alice Faye, Dick Powell, and Fred Astaire threatlessly plastering energetic smiles on our pusses, we could all stand to see Bette Davis die now and then.

The Depression ended with a triumphant combat holler, and with WWII the tone of American endings changed subtly. The happy ending— often so relentlessly happy the joie bordered on asylum cackles— became a government-regulated mandate, and musicals whose "plots" seemed winnowed down to simply delivering nationalistic ardor straight into audiences' frontal lobes, dominated the box office. Honky Tonk, My Gal Sal, Stage Door Canteen, Star Spangled Rhythm, The Gang's All Here, Thank Your Lucky Stars, et al. didn't even have endings, but like revues simply stopped at curtain fall. War films, equally popular and twice as freighted with propagandistic purpose, dared a not-quite-victorious ending only when it had a sacrificial, inspirational edge. This tendency went about as far as it could go with The Sullivans, the true story everyone knew beforehand of five lovable Irish brothers who all get blown up on the same ship; many times sadder than Saving Private Ryan, it attempted a we-will-fight-on coda, but some tragedies remain stubbornly immune to Hollywood.

As the war-struck American male began returning to a self-sustaining homeland of working wives, independent children, joblessness, and disillusionment, film noir began deep-throating the crime-never-pays arc of the Depression-era gangster flick and spitting out something altogether different. With noir, movie endings became the least vital and convincing act of the film. The noir universe obviated the salvation of the wrap-up ending; when it came, it felt brought in on a tumbrel. Still hamstrung into (usually) making their characters pay for crime with their lives and setting the innocent schmo free in the end, movies like The Blue Dahlia, Out of the Past, Kiss of Death, Force of Evil, The Dark Corner, Road House, and Thieves' Highway managed to make you forget their endings even as you watched them. That is, when they ended conventionally, happily. At the same time, suddenly, cold-blooded mobsters weren't the only ones dying in the last reel— luckless dupes, tramps, and scofflaws were doomed as well. Whereas a short death used to be the unavoidable fate for bottom-feeders doled out to them by the ethical set of the world's jaw, now, in They Live by Night, Brute Force, Criss Cross, Gun Crazy, The Asphalt Jungle, etc., a bullet is what you get because your choices have run out. (In Nightmare Alley, Tyrone Power got even worse: a life of hooch-soaked, chicken-biting geekhood in a shitcan sideshow.) In the '30s, you were meant to sense the equilibrium of justice when James Cagney got whacked; in the late '40s, all you felt was the continuing desperation of a country gone sick in its soil.

Thelma & Louise's cliff-hanger
Mark Gagnon
Thelma & Louise's cliff-hanger

Lacking in redemption, noir was never a big draw, not at least until borrowed neorealism morphed noir tropes into "meaningful" monsters like On the Waterfront and From Here to Eternity, Christ stories both. In fact, if the New Testament isn't quite the Greatest Story Ever Told, crucifixion remains a favorite redemptive climax, ladling out upmarket sacrosanctity and physical conflagration in equal measure. The '50s being the '50s, crucifixions were in, either literally cropping up in the giant Biblical epics that topped the charts or as a ubiquitous figurative undercurrent climaxing all kinds of movies, from Rebel Without a Cause, Detective Story, and Shane to Harvey, Jailhouse Rock, and I Want To Live! Whether Eisenhower Americans empathized with Christ or the Romans is debatable; what's more interesting when you glance over the decade's top moneymakers is the popularity of wide-screen nonnarratives like This Is Cinerama, Seven Wonders of the World, and Search for Paradise. Movies with no endings and no substance beyond scenery and vertigo, these Cinerama whales were the hot alternative to television, itself a medium in constant flow, with no significant beginnings or ends. Turn on the set, you're in the middle of something. TV series, if you watched them faithfully enough, would never end. Suddenly, visual media was quite like life— it just trundled on.

There's no itemizing in how many ways the '60s radically altered, for a briefer span than we had hoped, how American movies end, but the influence of the French New Wave is certainly where the hugger-mugger felt its first boil. If Truffaut and Godard could end their movies with a freeze-frame or an actor looking directly into the camera or a tracking shot to nowhere or a title or whatever, then why couldn't you conclude a movie with having its protagonists pointlessly killed (Easy Rider, Electra Glide in Blue)? Or with the film dissolving in the projector gate (Two Lane Blacktop— a template in a variety of ways for Monty Python and the Holy Grail), with some vaguely defined cosmic occurrence (2001), with a subjective glimpse of madness (Psycho, Shock Corridor), with the end of the world depicted (Dr. Strangelove) and implied (The Birds), with a single, ambiguous close-up (Wanda, Lilith, Scarecrow, The Godfather Part II, etc.) that concludes the film only in the sense of punctuating its hopeless lack of convenient clarity?

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