October 8, 2008

Does knowing that the bad guy must lose in old movies affect the viewing experience?

I don't know how well-versed in film censorship history y'all are, but a long long time ago there was a system of censorship in American known as the Production Code. I wrote a massive research paper on it several years ago, but in a nutshell, from 1934 to the late 1960s there were a rigorous set of rules and standards of decency that movies had to meet. Have you noticed a lack of extreme violence, graphic sexuality, and obscenity in older movies? Well, it certainly wasn't for lack of directors trying - that was the Code's doing. I even argued in my paper that these restrictions forced filmmakers to be more creative and subtle, ultimately leading to more sophisticated films - but that's a story for another day.

One aspect of the Code that I've always found interesting is that the bad guys weren't allowed to win. To cite the actual text of the Code, "the treatment of crimes against the law must not: 1. teach methods of crime 2. inspire potential criminals with a desire for imitation 3. make criminals seem heroic and justified." Even in the era of gangster movies, where the audience secretly sympathizes with the gangsters the whole time, their behavior was not allowed to go unpunished. They must either repent, get caught, or die (or all three).

Now, perhaps you have not noticed that in older movies (and keep in mind that this does not necessarily apply to pre-1934 films) it never ends well for people working against the law, even if they are arguably the protagonists. I'm always very aware of it, and it can sometimes color my viewing experience. It's essentially knowing the ending - or at least the general outcome - of every crime movie made in a 30+ year period. I know that a good film should still hold up and be engaging even if you know how it ends, but a certain virgin quality is lost of going in totally unaware.

For example, I recently saw Stanley Kubrick's breakthrough film from 1956, The Killing. It's a taut crime noir about a gang of hoods robbing a racetrack. Even though I was totally hooked on the story, my mind started to wander a little and I couldn't help but thinking, "no matter how well they execute their plan, they will ultimately not succeed." Even though nobody explicitly spoiled the end for me, the truth of that era of moviemaking hung over me. To Kubrick's credit, he actually handles the mandatory disciplining of his lawless characters with deftness and grace, but depending on the nature of the story being told, often the endings just seem slapped on. Take Michael Curtiz's Angels With Dirty Faces (1938). The film features the incomporable king of the gangsters, James Cagney, thugging it up for almost the entire running time and clearly having his escapades glorified, but then shows him being executed at the end, and appearing afraid and pathetic in the face of death so that a gang of street urchins who idolize him will cease to do so. Most modern audiences - and in fact, even the audiences at the time - realized the incongruity of these endings and generally ignored them, but being a sucker for good endings, I still wonder how these movies would end if the directors were left to their own devices.

In trying to think of a film where the bad guys got away with it, the first one that came to mind was Ocean's Eleven (the Soderbergh version - I can't speak for the original). How could they not get away with it? Those guys are heroes! They're too cool to get caught! In modern films, because the possibility of success and failure exist in an equal ratio (unless it's based on a true story), there is actual tension and suspense as to the outcome. Again, the film should still stand on its own if you know who wins and/or loses, but with that knowledge a certain bite is lost.

What do you think? Have you noticed this phenomenon, and has it affected your viewing experiences?


Jordan Troublefield said...

I've never noticed it quite like the way you put it before but it's just like when you're watching a romcom and the whole time -no matter how escalated it gets- you know precisely how it's going to end EVERY TIME. Also, there are certain movies no days that are big trilogies-or-whatever-in-the-making and I can't freak out at the possibly demise of a character knowing full well they're already signed up to play that character again in the next one.

Ryan said...

That's why I love Korean movies. There's always a strong change the good guy is going to fail miserably, and the bad guy will win gloriously.

Mr. Placebo said...

This is certainly true of blockbusters. The only Arnold Schwarzenegger film I know where his character bites the dust is the first Terminator, also the only film he plays the antagonist. The recent "Dark Knight" is certainly an exception, as is "The Empire Strikes Back" (though, to be fair, that one was only a middle chapter). And if you include horror movies, Carpenter's "The Thing" is a great example: the actual ending is ambiguous and inconclusive as the two remaining men can't trust each other, and also when you learn that studios asked for a safe "phew!" ending that never got released, but was filmed anyway. Also, "Funny Games", "The Mist", "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"...actually, many horror films end badly. Maybe there's a trend?

Anonymous said...

Spoliers... (obviously)...

'Se7en' springs to mind.

Anonymous said...

Reading this makes me think of "Gilda": amazing film, but the ending does feel tacked on.


I mean, for the whole movie Gilda and Johnny insult and cheat each other, and in the end, they just say "...oh, the hell with it, I love you!", and everybody lives happily ever efter? Give me a break! One of the most anti-climactic endings I've ever seen.

LordMacGregor said...

To answer the question-title off course it does. As with romantic comedies, you're not wondering what is going to happen but how is going to happen.
Once in a while, the movie is good enough to make you forget the bad guy must loose.
I disagree with you, in most movies the rules still apllies and that's why it's so enjoyable to have movie where the rule doesn't. It includes Pyrrhic victory and statu quo to me.

Matrix revolutions, Death sentence, Usual suspects, Dark knight come to mind

End of spoiler)
About the trend of horror flicks, I would say that's a good way to make the bad guy scarrier. For the long time, it was made by the bad guy not being dead or being able to come to live again.

About ocean's eleveen, I would say that they win even though they are thieves but they're not the bad guy. So the modern rule still would be that the bad guy lose but the good guy can be a thief or a "good" criminal a decent criminal.
For the sinatra version (spoiler

They end up losing the money without being killed or being arrested


Anonymous said...

What about movies where there are no real good guys?

(Mild Spoilers)

The Sting comes to mind. The protagonists are still thieves, and their efforts are rewarded. But they're going up against a bigger thief and murderer. Although Hooker does go up against a cop as well. The "heroes" profit, don't repent (not really, anyway), and survive. Is there a loophole somewhere?

kumaresh said...

I can think of many titles

The Good the Bad the Ugly: Though named Good, riding around and shooting people does not make you real good. I assume other dollar movies also fall here, I am yet to see them.

Interestingly, the Dollars' series falls in your so called Code period.

The Godfather: Though Corleones are protagonists they "refuse to be a fool dancing on the strings held by all of those big shots"

Kill Bill: No explanation needed

Taxi Driver, Chinatown and many more...

Anonymous said...

(spoilers maybe)

Primal Fear
Nick Of Time

not that the "bad guy" doesn't get outed, or caught, or reveal himself, but there are no real ramifications afterwards..its just they stopped them, but they're free to do all this crap again to someone else tomorrow.

Hired Goon said...

yes, there is definitely something special about watching a new film you know nothing about. anytime you can avoid previews or trailers that give away too much, it makes the film more enjoyable. knowing that the "good guy" is going to win can taint a filmgoing experience. personally, i tend to appreciate films that break that unwritten rule, but audiences in general do not. some of my largely overlooked favorites with "unconventional" endings include Fallen, Arlington Road, and Suicide Kings. To Live and Die in LA was another that preceded the modern masterpiece The Departed with a similar shocker. also, in response to Mr Placebo's comment about Schwarzenegger, check out End of Days. it was a little different than the governator's standard formula, and, not surprisingly, audiences conditioned by the standard hollywood conventions rejected it.
it's been said that all American movies are essentially westerns. it's generally true. i'd say that the Code has had a permanent impact on American film structure and directors that break the unwritten rules are few and far between. but it just makes me appreciate them even more when i find them.

Anonymous said...

It's a wonderful life.
Mr. Potter never gets his just desserts.

mithrandir said...

Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion jumps to mind as a movie where the ending suffered because of a tacked on happy ending. The entire movie points toward one ending, but the filmmakers seem to pause the film and say "just kidding," as if the previous two hours had not occurred.

Unknown said...

There are lots of movie types where you basically know how it's going to end. You don't go into an Indiana Jones movie thinking Indy might actually die, for instance.

In such movies, the joy is not in seeing whether or not it reaches a particular ending, but how it gets there. While you know the basic outcome, the method of getting there is what you pay for.

The journey is more important, ultimately, than the destination.

Unknown said...

So, the code ceased to be in effect from the late 60s did it? Can't say I'd noticed. Why is it that so many films that insist on separating characters into "goodies" and "baddies" then insist that the "baddie" must lose? They make for a more empty film. Of course, Jason has a good point when he says that directors that will break these rules are few and far between. I wonder, is it that there are few directors that will do this, or are they constrained by the studios?
Someone mentioned Kill Bill earlier. One of the things I love about Tarantino is that he refuses to label his characters as "goodies" or "baddies". You'd have thought that directors would have grown out of this before they hit puberty but, alas, no. Of course, as said, it does only detract from those films that insist on labelling characters so.

Anonymous said...

I think the guys from Ocean's Eleven aren't heroes. They aren't anything, but an attempt to be cool and in the world today that passes for heroic (then again it did back then in the original Ocean's Eleven as well). I think what you really point out is the moral ambiguity in most films today. As to whether or not the antihero gets away with it depends on your budget. If you have "cool" A-list stars your hero is "too cool for school" and he gets away with it or dies a tragic death bringing about the ultimate good. If your budget is not so hot, you probably don't get A-list stars and your hero is allowed to suffer in the end. It's economical (which makes me cynical). This also does not calculate in the Hollywood adoration for "happy endings".

Anonymous said...

Arlington Road.

Anonymous said...

Phone Booth

Anonymous said...

Anybody who is able to successfully rob/rip off Las Vegas is a hero in my eyes.

As for the "rule"... it's the main reason why I hate Vampire movies. I'm always rooting for the Vampire.

Van Helsing is the bane of my existance.

Anonymous said...

Hollywood has made a lot of money off of happy endings and that idea has been so engrained into our psyches that it is hard to escape from the idea that the bad guy gets it in the end. One reason why is beacuse when movies are pre-screened for ratings and test screened, the audience often decides whether an ending was satifactory or not. Sometimes the director goes with a 'happier ending' in-order to acheive greater veiwing succes with the film.

Also, one has to consider the themes in a particular film and whether the traditional good-guy/bad-guy motif can be applied. Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" is an example of where the protags and antags are completely up to your own interpretation. "Smoking Aces" also falls into that category.

The idea of moral ambiguity is why I love Tarantino's films so much. He usually doesn't write about regular people, his characters are mostly criminals. The only two films of his that I would say draw any real morality lines are "True Romance" and "Death Proof".

And I would agree that now being aware of these ideas, one can expect a level of predictability in most of today's films. I actully watch movies now to see if I can predict the ending and am pleasently surprised when I can't!

Some other films that come to mind are
"Perfect Stranger", the new "3:10 to Yuma", "Match Point", "The Bank Job" and "The Italian Job".

Anonymous said...

No Country - most people's negative reactions stemmed from precisely the fact that the "hero" was offed off-camera with 45 mins left 2 go

Anonymous said...

Anonymous (the one above me) - It's not that people disliked No Country because the protagonist died halfway through the movie, it's because the movie didn't go anywhere after that. A film can continue if the protagonist dies early on (Psycho) but it has to have somewhere to go from there.

Also, funny the writer mentioned The Killing. I think this one did a good job from the start of setting up that/how the characters would fail. I always thought Dial M for Murder would've been better had the "bad guy" gotten away with it in the end. I also wonder whether or not the Production Codes' insistence on a happy ending contributed to Casablanca's critical acclaim.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I'm aware of the 'Hayes code'. Well, sometimes it spoils, when the ending seems so unbelievable, but often it doesn't bother. This is especially true for the film noir.

Doesn't the genre theory say that a certain genre is pleasurable to watch, BECAUSE, one can expect what happens in the end (romantic comedies, most westerns, cop movies, 'heist' movies, etc.).

As someone here said, it's not the end, but how you get there, which appeals in these type of 'genre movies'.

Spoiler warning--

There are also good European movies, Le samourai for example, which doesn't have a 'happy ending' or The great silence.

End of spoiler--

What about this, does this bother you? Based on the casting (when there is a big star in a lead role), one can often tell what happens (Jack Nicholson just can't die, Robert DeNiro just can't die, Al Pacino just can't die). Yes there are exceptions of course (DeNiro for example and Nicholson fails in a very good film which comes to mind), but basically these exceptions are of a certain 'new genre', almost. The 'obviously sad or miserable ending' -genre.
Take Titanic and Armageddon for example, quite average movies, and yes, they HAVE to end in a sad way.

Spoiler warning--

And yes, Kubrick gets away with it very nicely in The killing, very much like Treasure of the Sierra madre..

End of spoiler--

Whatever your taste, try always to expand it - keep on enjoying the movies, watch different genres and different countries, there are plenty of very good movies out there.


Anonymous said...

Se7en would be an obvious example, the Dark Knight as well, a number of horror films noted above (Saw, White Christmas, Halloween, the Thing maybe), Silence of the Lambs, 1984, etc.

An interesting conformity is Cool Hand Luke.

Anonymous said...


Mr. Brooks is the best example to me. No punishment, no ramifications, and everything works out nicely for him. And the movie even mentions that everything always has. I love this movie.

[End Spoiler]

Anonymous said...

Titanic (1997)

Billy Zane survives and Leo DiCaprio dosen't. Made it a better movie, I thought.

Josh P said...

It might be good to look at other countries to see how they do things differently. Traditionally, ALL Japanese movies are supposed to have sad endings, despite ANY genre, including kids' movies (although you may find more exceptions there).

Anonymous said...

It's not just crime dramas. The rules of a "moral" ending apply even more stringently for as bubbleheaded a genre as teen comedies or romance films.

Films and TV shows in this genre always portray a prom-princess/head-cheerleader character (invariably blonde) as a vain, shallow girl who gets her comeuppance, while a supposedly "better" girl, usualy a more "intellectual," less "obviously" beautiful intellectual or tomboyish girl (invariably brunette) always triumphs, gets the guy, etc.

The intention is that the audience should sympathize with the smart brunette tomboy because she's the underdog, fighting a WASP alpha female.

("Mean Girls," "Some Kind of Wonderful," "Sydney White," "Starter for 10," just to name a few; "Singing in the Rain" as a predecessor of sorts -- the list is endless.)

The tedious lesson in such films is that they male lead has to learn to look past the supposedly "superficial" popular goddess, and discover that he really loves the more meaningful/smart/wholesome girl.

But even as a teen, I couldn't stand these films because of their predetermined outcome. Moreover, I was *always* rooting for the blonde antagonists because they were far more exciting; and more significantly, they were the *true* underdogs (like villians in other genres), and the odds were really stacked against them (in terms of storytelling).

So not only does knowing that the blonde antagnoist must lose *affect* the viewing experience, but it completely inverts the intended audience sympathies.

Anonymous said...

One thing that I've noticed in modern films that was rare to nonexistent in Code Era films - the American government is almost always a 'bad guy' now. It's the exception when our government is not portrayed as evil, amoral, or the keeper of a dark conspiracy. I imagine that the Code, as well as a heightened sense of patriotism from WWI and WWII, kept the government from being shown as the bad guy. Makes me wonder exactly why or when the flip-flop occurred, turning the government into the darker side of U.S. life.

Julie said...

Thanks for all your comments, but I guess there's a bit of confusion as to what I'm talking about here. I know that several modern-day genre films are formulaic and predictable, but what I'm referring to is the Code era (early 1930s - late 1960s) during which a movie would not be allowed to be distributed or seen if the bad guy didn't lose. Obviously today some directors are bucking that trend, but in that era it was not a logistical option. So even if a film today seems fairly predictable, there is still the POSSIBILITY that it will defy convention, but in the Code era that possibility did not exist. That said, however, it's still pretty surprising when bad guys win today!

Anonymous said...

Julie, I think it was your last statement that invited the responses. You wrote: "In modern films, because the possibility of success and failure exist in an equal ratio (unless it's based on a true story), there is actual tension and suspense as to the outcome."

Many would dispute this, arguing that while the possibility of success and failure may technically be equal, the reality is still so close to Code that the tension remains minimal. Those very rare cases where the bad guy wins are so unexpected that such a result engenders a feeling of surprise. The "tension and suspense" do not actually exist, because the villian's surprise victory was never genuinely anticipated in the first place.

For tension and suspense about a film's outcome to exist, having the bad guys win would have to be a far more common American cinematic occurrence.

Greg Pomes said...

I think in the case of Angels with Dirty Faces they went by the production code, yet they didn't. I don't think Rocky was sorry for what he did, he lived the life he wanted, how he wanted to. I think he begged for his life for his friend father Jerry. Jerry knew those kids looked up to Rocky and they would go down the same path regardless if he got executed. They lost respect for him because of his "cowardly begging." I believe Jerry tells him he has to do this to help the kids and out of one last favor to Jerry he does it.

As far as this blog topic goes I believe that it doesn't ruin the movie for me until towards the end when I know the good guy is going to win and the bad guy will die or go to jail. I think the same can be said for superhero movies. You know eventually Spider-man, Super-man, Iron Man, etc... will defeat the bad guy and all will be good again.

The Dark Knight being different was one of the many reasons I liked it. He defeats the Joker, Two Face dies but the world does not go on being a happy place, Batman is now the bad guy, he can't enjoy his victory.

Anonymous said...

The "bad guy" overtly triumphs in Brain of Blood (1972), Shriek of the Mutilated (1974), Curse of Her Flesh (1967) ... in terms of completing whatever they are plotting successfully and more or less having the villains celebrate openly on screen at the end.

Anonymous said...

In the Friday the 13th movies we know Jason will die - but as he will be revived for the next picture this is not important other than to show some kind of reaction to the perfectly executed executions that Jason is able to carry out through most of the picture. So in truth Jason wins all the time even if he is hacked up or dragged to the bottom of the lake in the end. This is because we know he will return and succeed in carrying out yet another set of executions and no one can stop him.

Anonymous said...

to the guy saying you always root for the vampire, go see Let The Right One In
the sweedish vamp movie
before the american remake ruins it
you wont be disappointed i promise

Anonymous said...

to the guy saying you always root for the vampire, go see Let The Right One In
the sweedish vamp movie
before the american remake ruins it
you wont be disappointed i promise

Anonymous said...

Spoiler alert!

Hollywood does have movies where the bad guy wins. Some have already been pointed out, but who can forget "The Usual Suspects"?

Anonymous said...

I do think that the experience is a little bit ruined when you know that the good guy can't die. And if he looses, what message does the movie tell you? Bad guys must be stronger and powerful, and the good guy must work hard in order to triumph or his victory won't be worthy. This rule applies to almost 99% of movies, which makes that 1% of movies with unexpected ending, special.


Braveheart - the hero dies. Although his antagonist dies earlier. Great ending.

Kris said...

If you're tired of the good guys always winning, you're gonna love Watchmen.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised no one mentioned Fight Club.

Anonymous said...

I'm chiming in with Usual Suspects as well. (To hell with Scarface as the reigning gangsta icon.)

Anonymous said...

Sorry if anyone has mentioned this but Kumaresh cited the Sergio Leone westerns as counter examples. if these do indeed fit into the time scale of the code I'd point out that these are, in fact, foreign productions.

Anonymous said...

Here's a few good films that don't quite conform:

-"Asphault Jungle"(1950): Sterling Hayden's character, the "muscle" behind a heist, makes it past the cops and back to his childhood farm (although what happens to him after that is left ambiguous)
-"The Badlanders"(1958): A Westernized remake of the previous film finds Alan Ladd and Ernest Borgnine both escaping punishment after robbing a gold mine
-"Arsenic and Old Lace"(1944): Peter Lorre's creepy Dr. Einstein (a criminal plastic surgeon and accomplice to a murderer) avoids police suspicion in a humorous fashion
-"Invasion of the Bodysnatchers": Why not? The invasion was never stopped. You fools, can't you see that you're in danger? They're here already! You're next!

Shalekendar said...

Must be a guy thing... Here are a pair that not only let the bag "guy" win, but let the women outsmart the men (Admit it, that almost never happens in movies ).


Wild things. Get past the gratuitous sex and nudity (which admittedly drew me to the flick in the first place) and there's actually a story. But what really cinches this as a great flick is the "how it was done" sequence during the credits. Oh, yeah, the bad guy definitely won there.

Bound. Very good movie. Cool plot (But please, don't even talk about the continuity issues...) But having jennifer tilly and gina gershion, gershon? outsmart the mafia, way cool.

How about "The Big Hit"? The main character is a freakin' assassin!

But, as the Devil's Advocate, these movies are set up under the premise that the "bad guys" are actually the "good guys" of the story.

There's always John Woo's the Killer in which Chow Yun Fat is an assassin who feels remorse not for being an assassin but for accidentally blinding an innocent woman.

And how can we forget lucky number slevin? The whole movie is a revenge trip.

Payback anyone? Mel Gibson is very definitely a bad man there.

if you want to get technical, there's always "needful things". Yes, The devil (As awesomely portrayed by Max Von Sydnow) doesn't win, but he definitely doesn't loose!

How about "Paparazzi"? Cole is a very bad boy and he's the good guy!

How about the theatrical release of "Swordfish" (The ending where Travolta gets to keep the money)

Sadly though, for every movie I've named there's at least a dozen more in my collection where Hollywood has chosen to play it safe and let the bad guy win even though the hero should have definitely gotten his but handed to him.

dbreckman said...

Modern movies where the bad guys all get away with their crimes include BODY HEAT, CHINATOWN, THE GETAWAY, THE LAST SEDUCTION, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS and THE HOT ROCK.

All great movies, and all with unexpected endings.

But you are exactly right, pal: Movies from the 30s to the late 60s were much more predictible in the sense that crime or "wickedness" always had to be punished by the last reel, but one aspect of movies from that era that DID remain "up in the air" as they unfolded was whether the protagonist -- good or bad -- was still going to be alive by the end credits.

Movies from Hollywood's so-called Golden Age seemed more willing to croak their main characters than contemporary movies are. Just an observation. And I'm pretty sure it's accurate.

Anonymous said...

Im regard to the romantic comedy, i am a big fan of the Vince Vaughan film "The Break Up" because the end is so ambiguous, we dont know if him and aniston get back together or not. also the movie is straight hilarious.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

The trend with romantic comedies that seem to go against the code is in character flaw. Most of these movies are about total jerks who undergo hardship (usually from their own stupidity) and then win in the end. It's kind of insulting that Hollywood considers these guys as "everyman".

John said...

What about Interview With the Vampire or The Omen? The Devil is the ultimate baddie and he gets away with it.