Many of my favorite films do not, in the classic, absolute-ist, sense have a happy ending. But the ending is satisfactory for the world or universe of the film – for the characters, for their time, and for their place.
For example: Casablanca. Casablanca is about a guy, Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, who “sticks his head out for nobody”. He’s a cynic. He owns a bar — and never drinks with customers. He evens lets a friend get killed right in front of him, without lifting a finger to stop it. Bogart’s Blaine is an old-fashioned, film noir, protagonist. Then his old girl-friend shows up, with her husband, resistance leader Victor Laslow. Suddenly, we find out why he’s such a cynic — he lost his true love in the German invasion of Paris. But when Ilsa arrives in Rick’s “gin joint” – she’s shocked to find him there, and she explains – she never joined him as he left Paris because she discovered that her husband was still alive, not dead. The film, among other threads (all executed beautifully – another hallmark of great films) then focus on what will happen between Ilsa, Rick, and Victor. And with one of the best final scenes in the history of film… Rick puts Victor and Ilsa on the plane to Lisbon, and he walks off with Louie (Claude Rains), the corrupt French police official – who’s also found his way, through Rick’s actions. Rick sacrifices his own feelings for Ilsa – for the greater good, saving her husband, and doing what’s right for Ilsa — when she can’t make up her mind.
This is a satisfactory ending. Rick has grown, no longer the man who won’t lift a finger to help someone, even a friend, he sacrifices his feelings for Ilsa because he knows it’s the right thing to do. Along the way he inspires Louie to stop just putting up with German occupation of French Algeria, and suggests the two will do something. The happy ending would have Rick and Ilsa together, perhaps with Victor dying, perhaps with Victor urging her to be with the man she loves, but the actual ending is much better.
Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy, and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings three-film adaptation of a single work, all have elements that, in the end, aren’t in the strictest sense – happy. People die, characters don’t get together, or a hero inspires others at the cost of his own life.
At the same time, some of the genres of film I really don’t like – the “rom-com”, the Western – tend to have trite, tacked-on, happy endings that are very fake and unreal.
It is true that there are some happier films I love – the Star Wars Trilogy, the Indiana Jones films, Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals. All have spark, wit, fun – and happy endings.
Certainly, a steady diet of depressing films would be bad for anyone’s psyche. It would be like listening to 90s alternate-rock all the time. But also a traditional romantic comedy where the couple don’t end up together would be very unsatisfactory.
Still, Powerful, moving films, often have endings that are satisfying, moving, and filled with the suggestion of hope. This is why I love films like Les Miserables and Moulin Rouge, even with the Major Character Deaths – in the world of the film, as sad as that is… it’s also brings the film to a satisfactory closure and even if you cry as the credits roll, it’s a good cry.