Saturday, November 26, 2005


(Warning: Don’t read any further if you don’t want to know the endings of several movies.)

Last night I watched The Skeleton Key with Kate Hudson. Intriguing storyline steeped in Old Southern atmosphere. I was hooked. Then I reached the end. And the bad guys won. Ruined the movie for me as it did in Darkness. Didn’t like it.

There are only three possible endings: 1) Good guys win. 2) Bad guys win. 3) Nobody wins.

Back in the days of Old Hollywood, only two of the three endings were allowed. Good always defeated bad and, occasionally, nobody won. Examples of no one winning would be John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of Sierra Madre.

In the Sixties, the old Product Code was replaced with the Ratings Board and things changed. We saw new characters like the anti-heroes in Cool Hand Luke and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In those films, Law-and-Order destroyed Luke Jackson (Paul Newman) and Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) to protect Society. They played outside the rules and had to be stopped. The title characters in Spartacus and Braveheart rebelled against the corrupt powers in control and forfeited their lives for their actions.

In most movies the good-guys-win scenario is still used because it works. In Jaws, Alien, Aliens, Independence Day and countless others evil is defeated. The audience roots for the heroes to beat the bad guy (or thing) and they do. Usually at the high cost of supporting characters but they do. And we cheer. But occasionally (suspense-thrillers and horror movies being the prime culprits) evil wins out over good. Does it work? Does it make a satisfying story?

The answer: Sometimes. Or as my old novel workshop instructor used to say often -- Depends.

Chinatown, The Silence of the Lambs, Taxi Driver (yes, Travis Bickle is a bad guy), Witness for the Prosecution, and Body Heat are examples of the bad guys winning and the endings in these films are terrific. I don’t think they work in The Usual Suspects, Frailty, and Arlington Road. In The Godfather I and II, Michael Corleone defeats his family’s enemies but loses his soul in doing so. Look at Michael in the beginning of the first film – he’s a young, decorated veteran. Slowly he becomes worse than his enemies. (He was always smarter.) The Godfather films’ endings are much more powerful than if he’d been killed at the conclusion as would have happened in Old Hollywood. Other thrillers where the bad guys win include Basic Instinct, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Primal Fear.

In the horror field, the odds are even money on who will win between the good guys and bad guys. Sometimes the main good character survives but so does the bad guy. Examples of this type of ending would be Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Other times, the bad guys flat out win. Examples would be Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen (a personal favorite), Colossus: The Forbin Project, The Stepford Wives, Fallen, Jeepers Creepers, and Final Destination.

Do they work?

What was my point here? Whether good, bad, or no one wins the ending has to be perfect for that particular story. Robert Towne’s screenplay for Chinatown is a perfect example of excellent screenwriting. It’s beautiful. Still director Roman Polanksi rewrote the original ending and Polanski’s ending is on-the-money. It is the right ending for that story.

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