A film noir doesn’t have to have an unhappy ending … but it helps. Here are 10 film noir endings that pack an emotional wallop.
- I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang
“How do you live?” asks the girl. “I steal,” replies the wrongfully accused fugitive (Paul Muni) as he backs away and is swallowed by the darkness. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy 1932). Director LeRoy’s other 1932 proto-noir, Two Seconds, has an equally devastating ending which I described here.
- Scarlet Street
Homeless and psychotic “Chris” Cross (Edward G. Robinson) wanders down the street, surrounded by Christmas shoppers, but the shoppers slowly fade from view leaving Chris alone in a world of his own, eternally tormented by the voices of the woman he killed (Joan Bennett) and her lover/pimp. Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang 1945).
- Kiss Me Deadly
Pandora opens the nuclear box. The beach house explodes, presumably taking Mike and Velma and most of Southern California with it. Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich 1955).
- The Killing
Standing by an airport runway, Johnny (Sterling Hayden) and his girlfriend watch in helpless horror as the propellers of an airplane scatter all of their stolen money to the winds. “Johnny, you’ve got to run,” she says. “What’s the difference?” he asks, as two cops, moving in perfect synchronization, approach to arrest him. The Killing (Stanley Kubrick 1956).
James Stewart on the ledge. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock 1958).
- In Cold Blood
Perry Smith (Robert Blake) is led to the gallows. A hood is placed over his head. A rope around his neck. The body drops. Cut to title card: In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks 1967).
Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) is shot through the head. Her frightened daughter is left in the grasping hands of the monstrous Noah Cross (John Huston). Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown (Roman Polanski 1974).
- Night Moves
The crime is solved. Everyone involved, other than the private eye investigating it (Gene Hackman), is now dead. A motorboat spins in futile circles. Night Moves (Arthur Penn 1975).
- The Human Factor
Double agent Maurice Castle (Nicol Williamson) has betrayed his country and his friends, all for the sake of his beloved South African wife and their son. Exiled now to a shabby Moscow apartment, thousands of miles away from either of them, Maurice exchanges a last few words with the woman he loves. The conversation is abruptly terminated. The telephone hangs from its chord. The Human Factor (Otto Preminger 1979). Screenplay by Tom Stoppard. From a novel by Graham Greene.
- Blow Out
Jack, the sound effects man (John Travolta), sits in a screening room, listening to the dying scream of poor Sally (Nancy Allen), dubbed into the soundtrack of a cheap horror film. “It’s a good scream,” he agrees. “A good scream.” He covers his ears. Blow Out (Brian De Palma 1981).