Critical concept of closure

Construct a comparative analysis of the endings of two or more noir works, with detailed reference to the critical concept of closure.

From the earliest origins of both film noir and noir fiction to the later stages, the concept of closure is one which is constantly and deliberately toyed with. The majority of the novels and films which fall into the noir category often lack resolution in terms of both plot - which in itself is most likely to be convoluted anyway, adding to the complexity of most noir endings - and character, where the lines between good and bad, dark and light are often blurred. Therefore when looking at noir fiction and film noir, it is important to understand that there is no real cut definition for what a noir ending should be. Much like everything else involved in noir fiction and films such as the stylistics, narrative structure, characters and camerawork, the concept of closure is rather ambiguous. Because of the ambiguity of noir, to write about every noir work in order to reach a definite conclusion on the concept of closure would be an impossible task. However, it is possible to take examples from across the different noir periods and analyse the concept of closure from a general perspective. Taking examples from the later period known as neo-noir, such as the film Chinatown (1974) and the novel LA Confidential (1990), it is possible to see that the endings of these texts are extremely ambiguous and lack any real sense of resolution. On the same token, it is not possible to suggest that all noir fiction and films end without closure, because there are examples where a resolution is reached. The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Big Sleep (1946) are examples of classic film noir where the ending of the film sees a resolution, both in the plot and within the main protagonist. Looking at the ending of a noir text can provide to be useful in analysing what the message of a text is. Whether or not the text has closure usually defines if there is a suggestion for change through criticism of the status quo, or if the text is socially conservative. Therefore the concept of closure in noir is one that must be examined closely. Looking at the noir periods, it is possible to suggest that as noir developed, the desire to criticise society grows, especially between the classic noir and neo-noir periods.

Because of its unique form of favouring style and mood over content and matter, noir is Throughout Hawks' film noir adaptation of The Big Sleep, the name of Sean Regan is constantly mentioned by all of the main characters, yet Regan never even appears in the film. By the end of the film, it is suggested that Vivien Sternwood, Carmen Sternwood or Eddie Mars killed Regan, but who really killed Regan is still unclear. In fact the plot is so convoluted that Raymond Chandler himself recalls: ‘Howard Hawks…and Bogart got into an argument as to whether one of the characters were murdered or committed suicide. They sent me a wire…asking me, and dammit I didn't know either.' (Hiney and MacShane 2001: 105) This is with reference to the character Owen Taylor, again whose murder (or suicide) is brought up time and time again throughout the film, yet is never solved. The way in which the film ends with these unanswered questions demonstrates both the complexity and ambiguity of noir fiction and film noir. However, it is important to remember not to get bound to these unanswered questions and focus on how the concept of closure can be really defined. Throughout the film, Philip Marlowe is forced to question whether or not he can trust Vivien Sternwood. Although from a visual aspect she may be seen as a lighter version of a femme fatale, Vivien is revealed to be an innocent victim, and does not corrupt Marlowe. He is still his own man and the fact that Vivien cuts Marlowe loose when he has been kidnapped by Mars shows that she is in fact hardly a femme fatale at all. Since any crime committed in the film is somehow tied back to Eddie Mars, who is then shot by his own men, and Marlowe ends up saving his fair maiden, Vivien, it is evident that The Big Sleep does have a resolution, and classic film noir is not as socially radical as its successor, neo-noir.

Chinatown is another example of film noir that has an ending that does not see a resolution. Leighton Grist comments that ‘Made a time when Hollywood's staple genres were undergoing intense revision nostalgic evocation…Chinatown has been seen as a film that alludes to - and critically reworks - the conventions, ideology and mythology of the traditional hard-boiled detective film…' (Grist 2007: 314). This is evident with the scenes of violence in Chinatown, which are perfectly acceptable since by the 1970's the Hays Code had been abandoned. But in addition to this, the film's ending demonstrates how neo-noir has become even darker than classic noir by the 1970's; and it is perhaps this - the desire to deliver an extreme ending, leaving the audience completely isolated from any sense of satisfying denouement - that shapes the ending of the film. Throughout the film, the audience is led to believe that Evelyn Mulwray is a culprit in the crime that has been committed from her appearance and behaviour reminiscent of the femme fatales of classic film noir. Yet by the end she is shown to be an innocent victim of the events that have unfolded; and both her subjection to incest and her tragic murder turn the audience completely in her favour, leaving anything but a sense of resolution. Much how Evelyn Mulwray is a visual shade of previous noir femme fatales; from the first time he appears on screen, the film's protagonist, Jake Gittes, is a visual shade of previous private-eye detectives from film noir, such as Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon. However, Gittes' lack of charm, wit, and his naivety make him a more sympathetic noir protagonist, and so his failure to change the situation he has found himself in makes the ending even more tragic for the audience. One of the central traditions of the private-eye film noir sees the detective figure ‘retell and reorganise what has happened at the end', but when Gittes tries to talk to the police, he is fighting for a lost cause as the police have been corrupted by Noah Cross (King 2007: 63). So when the main protagonist fails to save the fair maiden and restore order, there is no real concept of closure. Noah Cross, a man who has raped his daughter, murdered Hollis Mulwray and plans to make a profit from land and have the people of Los Angeles pay without knowing, ends the film by snatching away his granddaughter Katherine and walking away stark free. The corrupt, patriarchal figure ending the film still in a position of power and the protagonist having failed are key reasons why Chinatown is a solid example of film noir with no resolution.

Academics often agree that John Huston's The Maltese Falcon was the first film noir in, as Jane Root puts it, the ‘major period of noir production' (Root 2007: 305). As such, the film is regarded by some to be a lighter version of noir. In his Notes on Film Noir, Schrader puts The Maltese Falcon along with several other films which he says ‘lacked the distinctly noir bite the end of the war would bring.' (Schrader ???: 231) As a result it might be considered that because The Maltese Falcon was more of a primitive work in the noir period, this is why the ending of the film sees a resolution and does not end in crisis like later noir films such as Chinatown. Like almost all film noir, there are some questions that remain unanswered. The true identity of Brigid O'Shaughnessy (or Miss Wonderly), Kasper Gutman and Joel Cairo's intention to make an expedition to Istanbul, and in fact the existence of The Maltese Falcon would lead some to argue that the film lacks resolution. However, Spade's report to the police indicates that Gutman and Cairo will be arrested before they can embark on their expedition. Thus the question of whether the Maltese Falcon exists or not becomes redundant because there are no antagonists left to search for it (although Spade's line ‘The stuff that dreams are made of' would suggest that the falcon and the subsequent chase for it is a metaphor for chasing dreams).

In addition, Spade's resistance of the femme fatale and subsequent delivery of her to the police indicates that the three main antagonists have been overcome by the protagonist and the plot has reached a resolution. Spade's lack of submission to the femme fatale may suggest that he is not a ‘true noir hero', but nonetheless, that does not change the fact that a resolution is reached (Reference website).

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