All that ends in movies does not necessarily end well. Narrative films must, by definition, have an ending (nonnarrative films don’t— they just end), and yet endings remain the ultimate gauntlet for visual storytellers. Nothing else

is as contentious, or crucial, or susceptible to meltdown. Endings always have the potential of orgasm, death, jackpot, or at least the second shoe dramatically falling, but they’re very rarely as electrifying as beginnings, just as they aren’t in love affairs or meals. If every narrative is a question, a propulsive dilemma whose own fluid drama intends to be entrancing in and of itself and for the length of its journey, then the ending is its answer, the final puzzle piece, the end of the line without which the train passage, however provocative, would have been meaningless. Every ending represents a restless pact a movie makes with its audience, promising that our time spent in the darkness is spent getting somewhere worthwhile. (Even if an ending is not a narrative’s raison d’être, it should feel as if it is.) Needless to say, this unspoken pact isn’t worth the paper it isn’t printed on, and film narratives are often so complex and ambiguous, and just as often so banal and suppliant, that vital conclusions are as rare as two-pound pearls.

How should a movie end? With an ironic face-slap, a heartwarming wrap-up, a dangling anti-ending, a preposterous triumph, an existential retreat into shadows, a throat-clogging shock, a winking suggestion of a sequel, a the-end-or-is-it rally cry, a hug, a chuckle, a desolate emptiness? It depends on your perspective. A kind of temporal consciousness we enthusiastically share in, a movie’s experience conditions us as it unspools to expect the ending it seems destined for, and the first of a million options is whether to satisfy that conditioning or betray it. (Then there’s always the satisfying betrayal and the betraying satisfaction, and so on. How would you categorize the climax of, say, Thelma & Louise?) An ending can justify a film’s sallow ordinariness, or booby-trap its achievements. It can also stand alone, like the pioneering micromovie, borrowed by Martin Scorsese for GoodFellas, that winds up 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, in which one of the dead bandits reappears out of the story’s context and shoots the viewer down in cold blood.

In a sense, inevitable as they are, endings are almost always miscarriages of narrative pleasure, concluding and neatly labeling what has been up to that point mysterious, realistic, chaotic, or seductive. Consider how many evocative horror films have been squandered on explanatory climaxes. What’s more, in the Spielberg epoch when movie stories are forced to snowball like stock values toward their climaxes, the dubious elation of the finale rarely measures up. It could be said that a filmmaker’s choice of ending indicates a narrative philosophy— Spielberg and Capra are fascistic idealists, Hitchcock and Lang are Kierkegaardian dread-and-freedom nihilists, Antonioni is an agnostic libertarian, Peckinpah a Darwinian individualist. But the principles of resolution often override an auteur’s instincts, and an ending is often the least original or interesting aspect of a film; everyone, I’m sure, has a mental docket of endings that have failed their films. (Mine: M, The Scarlet Empress, Mouchette, Portrait of Jennie, Eraserhead, Diner, The Right Stuff, etc., and that’s not including the infamous, tacked-on studio endings of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Magnificent Ambersons, Detour, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.) On top of that, endings have little half-life; see them once, and whatever beguiling ferocity they first had is all but gone.

Critics, like the rest of humanity, cannot readily discuss movie endings without becoming pariahs; good or bad, a movie climax is ours to discover after investing ourselves in the story’s hopes and fears, and watching the film after the ending has been disclosed is like watching a taped ballgame after someone has told you the final score. American movies are spoilt by revealed endings in a way that is unique; consider how unaffected the more distinctively native French, Japanese, and Russian films (say, Pierrot le Fou, Tokyo Story, and Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors) would be by having their conclusions divulged. America is, after all, a culture obsessed with profit, results, and destination, and you can tell by our film endings that we value the experience of movie watching only insofar as it propels us in a coherent and efficient manner toward a better world, a fateful comeuppance, or an everlasting embrace.

Nothing in American movies is quite as conservative as their endings, but American endings haven’t always been the same, and the blood, sweat, and tears of a movie ending in this country are prefigured as much by the thrust of the film’s story as they are by the cultural climate of that movie’s moment. You’d be more or less correct in assuming that cinematic narrative was from its beginnings saturated in what Henry James called “that time-honoured bread-sauce of the happy ending,” having inherited Victorian sensibilities directly from theater, vaudeville, and fiction. But Victorian aesthetics, down to their Elizabethan ancestral line, were too dramatic, too luridly moralistic to be satisfied with climactic anodynes. (That’d be more of a Reagan-era phenomenon.) Early moviegoing was for many an alternative to church, and so, pandering to middle-class guilt even before an American middle class properly coalesced, moviemakers conveniently strived to replicate the crash-and-burn scenarios of the Gospels. Sermon-heavy or not, tragic endings were still part of the narrative vocabulary deep into the ’40s; it’s startling to realize now how many popular movies of the era (Dark Victory, Camille, Captains Courageous, The Public Enemy, Waterloo Bridge, Angels With Dirty Faces, etc.) ended with the hero or heroine’s gasping last exit. (Biopics, like adapted classics, are exempt from consideration, ending as they often do with predetermined death scenes. Still, when else but in the ’30s did biopic subjects— Louis Pasteur, Émile Zola, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, etc.— commonly live on happily after the credits roll?) Such was the blithe confluence of melancholy and uplift that a climactic death could betoken a happy ending (Peter Ibbetson, Wuthering Heights) and a peaceful resolution could be read as a downer (Shanghai Express, These Three).

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.

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?

Suitably, the ka-boom endings of the ’60s and ’70s are our wildest (heading the list: Planet of the Apes, Night of the Living Dead, Bonnie & Clyde, Chinatown, Sorcerer, Martin, The Conversation, Wise Blood). Like the New Wavers, American filmmakers were revving on a chaotic naturalism that demanded the obliteration of golden-age happy/sad endings, just as neither Vietnam nor the Nixon administration nor the Civil Rights movement had a discernibly tidy climax in store for them. The great, searching American anti-ending had its Elvis year in 1974, and those despairing cliff-hangers look even more astonishing today, particularly when you gaze at them over the stagnant moat of the ’80s, when the revolutionary, expanded-brainpan cast of ’70s film receded into reactionary juvenilia.

For the Reagan ’80s and to a large degree the Clinton ’90s are distinguished by an atavistic retreat into the happy endings, if not quite the rampant crucifixions, of the ’50s. Popular movies no longer dare depress moviegoers laying out six or eight or 10 dollars just to get in the door; uplift, for some reason, is at an even higher premium in the last 15 years than it was during the Depression. Even the sinking of the Titanic, which is by most lights a rather unhappy ending, has been given a wax coating of romantic dross. The hostile, haunted grit of ’40s noir is certainly beyond us. Case in point: the otherwise mature and cruel remake of Kiss of Death, which spinelessly trades the climactic shot-in-the-back sacrifice of Victor Mature for David Caruso Hardy Boy­ishly tape- recording the corrupt DA. A few terminal-ward movies notwithstanding, contemporary movies are as phobic about death as children’s books, and most moneymakers, from Star Wars to Lethal Weapon 4, end victoriously by granting, genielike, their characters every wish and by attempting to feed us untroubled joy.

One suspects that the millennium, the largest ending in our lifetime, will— despite being the harbinger of so much bad news— bring only the maniacal rictus of idealized goodness in Hollywood. Isn’t that what movies are for? We know better, whether we like it or not, and have known at least since 1946, when down-and-out conman Tyrone Power glowered up at the carny offering him work as a geek and hissed, “Mister, I was made for it.” Knowing the truth and wanting it to linger in our skulls on our way out of the theater are related impulses barely on speaking terms. Was the 20th century our Age of Contrived Uplift, or is it a curse cinema will take to its grave?

One of five articles in our Film supplement.