When you host a noir blog, it takes a bit of extra thought when an Ice Cream Social Blogathon comes your way (courtesy of Movies Silently) with the goal of spreading classic movie cheer. Quickly, however, I realized that this blogathon provides the perfect opportunity to talk about two of my favorite noir happy endings.
If you’re a noir fan, you likely know that the ending of the film isn’t what makes it noir. Noir is more style than genre, with key elements being cinematography and lighting, as well as themes, character types, and perspective. The contrast of light and shadow, dark urban settings, the underside of society, cops and private eyes and gangsters and femme fatales — but told from the criminal perspective, often with the suggestion that no one can be trusted.
Many of my favorite noir flicks feature ill-fated protagonists, violence and hopelessness alongside struggles to figure out the meaning of life for the downtrodden. But there are several noir flicks I can watch over and over, and one reason is for their happy endings. I can’t otherwise explain why I love Pick-up on South Street (1953) and The Big Sleep (1946) so much.
The latter has a hot mess of a mystery plot. It also features a grizzled Bogart as a Philip Marlowe that lacks the physique and the quickness of Raymond Chandler’s sleuth as written. The original novel is full of sex and drugs and nudity that get trimmed to the point of silliness in several scenes because of the Code. But Lauren Bacall is so deliciously tough that I surrender much of my cynicism, especially as relates to the ending. In the novel, Marlowe ends up alone, never doing more than using Vivian (the Bacall character) and actually going more for “Silver Wig” (Eddie’s wife) who won’t leave her man and proves it by shaving her head. I’ve read the novel and listened to a radio production that keep the original ending, but I don’t come back to them, time and again, as I do with The Big Sleep. I just love the happy ending the film hasn’t earned but I want it to have.
The ending of Pick-up on South Street is even more charming than that of The Big Sleep. Our odd couple of wrong-side-of-the-tracks lovers are Richard Widmark as a pickpocket and Jean Peters as the naive assistant to a dirty commie spy. The Cold War era plot is easy to forget as we enjoy just how low Widmark can go even as he is quickly smitten with Peters, who tries but fails to play him to get back what he stole from her purse. Why she falls for him, I have no idea, but by the end of the film, when the cops have to let Widmark go and Peters scoffs at their claim that they’ll catch him and fling him in jail soon, I’m cheering! (And it doesn’t hurt that Thelma Ritter has an awesome minor role as a fellow crook that breaks your heart in the best of ways.)
In short, while I’ll always enjoy the darkest noirs and their bleak, well-earned finales, I have a real soft spot for the occasional happy ending that is so great it erases weak writing, Code censorship, or imperfect casting.