In 1995 Roger Ebert made the following observation concerning film noir: “Film noir is a movie which at no time misleads you into thinking there is going to be a happy ending.”
One common thread that ties all noir together is that things just don’t work out the way you want them to work out. Often, as the noir hero unravels the mystery, the whole story embarks on an epic tailspin that gets more and more out of hand until the final climactic crash. We see this hold true across the entire expanse of the genre. These unhappy endings can result from a variety of factors including the main protagonist’s flaws, the betrayal of other characters, and completely uncontrollable outside circumstances. Often, several of these factors work together to create the final flawed conclusion to the noir story.
In Out of the Past, we see a man and woman whose love is doomed due to the inescapability of the protagonist’s past crimes and past loves. The film In a Lonely Place again shows us two lover’s who are torn apart; however, here we see the reckless flaws in Humphrey Bogart’s character combine with horrible timing to ultimately leave his relationship in tatters with no hope of mending. In the 1975 neo-noir Night Moves, Gene Hackman’s character finally unravels the greater mystery at play, but not as a result of great detective work, and not nearly in time for a happy ending.
It is this fact that makes these stories dark, that makes them noir. It is also this bleak unhappiness that casts an impenetrable cloud over the genre for many. Noir is not a genre for everybody. It is not a genre of happy endings. While in many non-noir stories, things seem to work out just perfectly right for the protagonist, noir takes the opposite approach where things work out wrong for the protagonist. Not just wrong, but just perfectly wrong.