BR: Happy Ending, The (1969)

June 18, 2016 | By

HappyEnding1969_BRFilm: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  January 19, 2016

Genre:  Drama

Synopsis: After a mental breakdown, a bored rich housewife must decide whether to stay put or escape from a dead-end marriage.

Special Features: Isolated Stereo Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / Liner Notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and




Having directed the prototypical true crime thriller In Cold Blood (1967), writer-director Richard Brooks probably wanted his next picture to be a little ‘lighter’- a story in which families aren’t trussed up and butchered like cattle, and hanging the perpetrators was the film’s de facto End Credits.

The title of Brooks’ 19th feature film as director infers a story with a classic alls-well-that-ends-well finale, but The Happy Ending proved to be something that goes against the grain of a classic Hollywood saga of bored privileged housewives boozing and bed-hopping and clothes shopping to their hearts’ content before hitting sleazy lows, after which comes a hugs n’ kisses reunion.

Ending isn’t a cheat for audiences, but a European-styled rumination on a woman’s breakdown after living 15 years of ennui d’extreme: a mechanical marriage and sex life, a child baffled and unable to comprehend the increasing distance between mother and daughter, and a vapid personal life monitored by the live-in maid who turns a blind eye to Madame’s secret drinking and pill-popping but still feeds reports to Monsieur.

Ending also features a tour de force performance for Jean Simmons, an actress usually cast as an ingénue (Desiree), a temptress (Angel Face), an exotic beauty (The Egyptian), or a strong-willed woman who nevertheless has moments of deep emotional torment from tragic life experiences (Spartacus). In many films, Simmons’ played a survivor, but rarely did she enjoy playing a complexity of issues plaguing a present day woman.

Married to Brooks from 1960-1977, Simmons co-starred in the director’s Elmer Gantry (1960), and one suspects he may have been planning a custom-built story designed to showcase her untapped talent for understatement. Perhaps taking a nod from Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman (Persona), Brooks crafted a modern character piece where men are the chief stressors who rob women of their sense of self, purpose, and independence.

The film opens with a gauzy, happy-go-lucky music montage as Mary (Simmons) and accountant Fred Wilson (In Cold Blood’s John Forsythe) woo each other at a ski resort, make fireside love, and quickly wed in a Hollywood-perfect ceremony. Their hopes and dreams are inferred by superimposed classic movie scenes from fairy tale weddings as they take their vows – part of a recurring motif in which Brooks’ uses clips to infer movies as integral parts of adult pop culture, and as ideals that cannot be achieved, whether it’s the (ultimately) perfect wedding in Father of the Bride (1950), or Mary yearning for the dreamy, life-and-death romance in her beloved melodrama, Casablanca (1942).

15 years post-nuptials, only Fred seems content, while Mary ‘is a good girl,’ robotically making hubby’s morning toast and coffee while Jack LaLanne TV workout show for shut-ins seems to taunt her vapid life. Fred’s spy / house maid Agnes (Nanette Fabray) encourages and partakes with Mary in the consumption of downers, and yet while Agnes walks a fine line as enabler and caregiver, she ultimately supports Mary’s decision to make a spontaneous break for Nassau on a one-way ticket, ruining Fred’s plans for Mary’s birthday party where their friends numb themselves into states of disreputable conduct, lechery, or just get hammered.

Once Mary’s on her way to the tropics, we see far less of her husband, Agnes, and daughter Marge (Kathy Fields), and Brooks keeps his camera and editorial montages trained on Mary’s emotional unwinding, her brief near-fling with a gigolo (Bobby Darin), and her mental emancipation which foreshadows a happy ending for her rather than her dull husband.

Ending is a peculiar drama because unlike women’s director Bergman, Brooks was always a tough guy, writing action (The Professionals), adventure (Lord Jim), and literary film adaptations (The Brothers Karamazov) with en eye towards plot and generally male characters, so at first viewing, his take on the psychology of a bored rich woman can come off as dated, precious, wandering, and undercooked; with enough reflection, however, one can appreciate the way as a director Brooks seemed to have taken a few steps back, and entrusted the material to his cast.

Some fill in their modest roles with their own charm and business: Teresa Wright (Shadow of a Doubt) adds gravitas to Mary’s mom; comedian Dick Shawn (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) plays Fred’s boss Harry Bricker as a slick jug of liquid cynicism; and Karen Steele (Star Trek’s “Mudd’s Women”) lends a tragic aura to her version of one of Mary’s cliquish friends that live comfortably but lack any soul or spine to escape the comfort of credit cards, booze, and tranquilizers.

Free from the tentacles of Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967), and playing a portentous character to upcoming Charmaine Wimpiris in The Stepford Wives (1975), Tina Louise is fine as Helen Bricker, the most vocal of Mary’s pals, and the matron of the clique  fully aware of their poisoned lives as kept wives and former mistresses reliant on their husbands financial cushions, and yet she too lacks enough spine to break free and gamble on a new path. Mary’s as much of a zombie as her pals, but there’s a looming sense she’ll either succeed on a second suicide attempt, or finally take control after bottoming out.

When she does gamble on her own survival instinct and buys that one-way ticket, Brooks further fractures the film’s structure, flashing back and forth to link cause and effects, dark secrets and explosive revelations.

Fred is a nice guy with a modest, healthy libido and a fairly easygoing temperament, but Mary’s just an acquisition. He cherishes her presence and contribution to the family’s makeup, but he’s oblivious to her emotional needs. Fred’s naïve in thinking a daily “I love you” halts her zombification, but he’s also not a villain: he certainly enables her descent by being satisfied with his own state of complacency and being blind to her inner torment, but he’s not playing psychological games to fulfill some sadistic sense of amusement.

Forsythe’s role is pretty easy to downgrade as peripheral, and the actor has a rather bland screen presence, but I’ll argue his greatest challenge (if not a challenge for any actor) was finding that careful balance to portray Fred as ostensibly decent, genuinely in love with Mary, but wholly unable to understand a woman’s needs; he gets along great with his teenage daughter, but his only means of attempting to help Mary is phoning her old haunts (bars, hair salons) between business meetings like some private detective, forcing Mary to kind of ‘go underground’ and have bartenders lie on her behalf.

The coincidence of Mary picking the same flight where an old friend is heading to Nassau to meet her lover is a novelistic contrivance, but it’s acceptable, because at this point the film has to snap into a new groove, and gal pal Flo (Elmer Gantry’s Oscar-winning actress Shirley Jones), like Helen Bricker, is the observant, cynical chatterbox who nevertheless represents another facet of the bored housewife figure.

In Nassau, Mary hangs out with Flo and her lover Sam (dapper Lloyd Bridges), but she eventually breaks free from the couple, sensing a need to wander and reassess, especially when Flo accepts Sam’s offer of marriage. Whether Sam’s a liar, or his decision to break from his wife and kids and marry silk sheet hopper Flo is immaterial; Flo’s sudden freedom from her own directionless life gives Mary a needed lift, and when Mary returns home, it’s to make a major life change that leads to emotional happiness, and perhaps full emancipation from the dangers of complacency.

Michael Legrand’s title track (“What Are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life”) may have been written as a bittersweet if not ironic comment on Mary’s arc from zombie to liberated woman, and it may well have matched Brooks’ cynical title for a film that purports to be a maudlin melodrama, but the harmonics and simple lyrics also add to the film’s strange dreaminess: even though the physical surroundings and people in Mary’s life haven’t changed, the numbness from a shocking event – a car crash – has somehow created a displacement that can only be rerouted by herself; the alternative is to continue on autopilot until the gas runs out. Legrand’s song is like an echo of an earnest idyll, and its return at the very end gives the film its European resolution where no one’s exactly victorious, wholly happy, or punished; things have simply changed, and what’s left is Fred’s heartbreak, which is mandatory, and deserved.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray brings into circulation a title that’s oft-requested for DVD, but never managed to make that leap in North America. MGM’s HD master is gorgeous, and it’s especially pleasing to see how the late great Conrad Hall (In Cold Blood, Black Widow, Road to Perdition) tackled colour cinematography. Known for dimly lit and stark B&W cinematography, for Ending Hall created a palette like a colour creamery; Brooks may have wanted a Euro-styled film with non-linear edits and a pastel colour palette to lush-up his gorgeous cast, but it’s Hall’s compositions, the shallow focus, and the remarkable soft lighting that transforms Ending into a glossy, cream-infused magazine spread, as though we’re flipping back & forth through a slick photo-essay on the breakdown of an upscale marriage.

In spite of the immaculate wardrobe, sets, and set décor, Hall’s lighting remains very natural – harsh sometimes for hard indoor bulbs typical of kitchens and house stairwells – but it doesn’t render the characters as fluff, much in the way Haskel Wexler applied pastels and natural lighting to match the fluffiness of the charming scoundrels in Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair (1967), which Legrand also scored (and whose main theme, “The Windmills of Your Mind,” makes a cute cameo in a Nassau piano bar).

From the late sixties onwards, Brooks didn’t direct a lot of films, but from In Cold Blood onwards, he seemed to switch to an editorial style that presented events in modules which could be shifted, re-ordered, or reconfigured to deepen the unraveling of his characters. Blood unfurls in vicious flashes courtesy of ace editor Peter Zinner (The Godfather, The Deer Hunter), whereas from Ending onwards, Brooks worked with veteran cutter George Grenville who (weirdly) made his feature film debut at 49, and worked almost exclusively on the director’s remaining films. This is a beautifully cut movie, but Grenville would further elevate the art of kinetic (but not ADD-styled) editing to new levels in Brooks’ next film $ (1971). That heist movie is a masterwork in montage, and transcends the kind of escapist fluff Jewison almost pulled off in Thomas Crown.

The release of The Happy Ending on disc is long overdue, and showcases both a marvelous actress and superb director, the latter who made far too films in the twilight of his career. Legrand’s score, previously released on LP and later in a limited 2CD set, sounds great in an isolated stereo DTS track, showcasing his gorgeous main theme and some fine abstract underscore for Mary’s foggy-headed street wandering. Less effective are the dopey lyrics fitted into Legrand’s Nassau tracks, but Ending wouldn’t be as affecting without the composer’s knack for capturing the sadness of an eroding romance.



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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