Out of the Past (1947)

Picture 22

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Producer: Warren Duff (RKO)

Writers: Daniel Mainwaring (novel and screenplay)

Photography: Nicholas Musuraca

Music: Roy Webb

Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Richard Webb, Steve Brodie, Virginia Huston, Paul Valentine, Dickie Moore, Ken Niles

“Is there a way to win?”

“There’s a way to lose more slowly.”

Chock-full of such lines, Out of the Past is a perfect example of fatalism, the idea that death is inevitable and that all one can hope for is to delay it as long as possible. As star Robert Mitchum says, “If I have to [die], I’m gonna die last.” This tone makes Out of the Past the epitome of film noir, and a must-see for viewers claiming at least slight interest in the genre. There’s the hardboiled detective in trenchcoast and voice-over, who despite claims that he is “time and weather proof” can’t seem to outrun the shadowy forces of nature and his past. There’s the knockout femme fetale, who sucks the hero into a doomed passion and almost willful self-destruction. And, of course, there’s that special brand of screenplay with enough biting one-liners you’ll have to order a new set of teeth.

Writing under the pen name Geoffrey Homes, Daniel Mainwaring adapted Out of the Past from his own 1946 novel Build My Gallows High. It was written in the style of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (A), and whle there may be no “stuff that dreams are made of,” its dialogue may actually better speak to the concept of noir. In just one line, Mainwaring articulates the allure of the femme fatale: “All women are wonders, because they reduce all men to the obvious.” The noir hero knows he’s getting into trouble — “I knew where I was and I knew what I was doing. I just thought what a sucker I was” — but he’d rather be no where else. He simply looks at the woman and says, “Build my gallows high, baby,” one of the most brilliant analogies ever put into words. In the world of noir, “luck is like love — you have to go all the way to find it” — all the way to the end of the line, and the last stop is the cemetery.

It’s a strange submission to fate, perhaps only possible by one who’s seen so much pain that he doesn’t mind walking the edge, because there’s the chance he might fall off. This is the case for Jeff Bailey (Mitchum), a former private eye whose cynicism is reflected in his own self-deprication — “I never found out much listening to myself.” His bruised outlook is the product of a scarred past, which at the start of the film seems in the rear view. He now lives in a quiet town in the Sierra Mountains with wholesome blonde fiancee, Ann Miller (Virginia Huston). But it doesn’t take long before the past creeps up and Ann learns why Jeff “sure is a secret man.”

While he and Ann are having a nice date by the lake, Jeff learns an old acquaintance, Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine), has come to town to ask a favor for cunning crime boss Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). By now, Jeff must recount his dark past to Ann, and to us, in flashback. We see Jeff’s first meeting with Whit, who assigns him to track down his lover, Kathie Moffet (Jane Greer), who apparently shot Whit, stole his $40,000 and took off for Acapulco. The fact that Whit wants her back despite all this would naturally raise a red flag, but the first time Jeff lays eyes on her in an Acapulco tavern, he understands completely: “And then I saw her, coming out of the sun, and I knew why Whit didn’t care about that 40 grand.” Kathie’s brunette beauty encapsulates Jeff, beginning a secretive beach-side romance summed up in her plead, “Won’t you believe me?” and Jeff’s lovestruck answer, “Baby, I don’t care.”

It’s a dangerous love affair, and one he thought he put behind him long ago in a flash of fatal gunfire. But just when he thought he was out, they pull him back in. The latest request from Whit (in the present) is to help him beat a tax evasion rap by stealing some tax records from San Francisco lawyer Leonard Eels (Ken Niles), working through Eels’ secretary Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming). Jeff declines the dangerous mission until, low and behold, Kathie reenters into the picture, apparently reconciled with Whit. Fearing being blackmailed over his romance with Kathie, Jeff agrees to Whit’s mission, all the while enthralled that she’s back in his life. The rest of the ride is fast-moving and twisting at every turn, a good challenge for those who fancy themselves as smart plot predictors.

Without a doubt, this script is complex, both in plot details and narrative structure, jumping from present to past and back again. Upon its release, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote, “If only we had some way of knowing what’s going on in the last half of the film, we might get more pleasure from it.” (C) Indeed, the winding tale of blackmails, double-crosses and triple-crosses, amongst a set of complexly-motivated characters, has the potential for a confusing first experience. Most confusing is the scene where Jeff returns to Carson’s apartment to overhear Kathie on the phone. It’s a key plot beat and one that may require multiple watches to fully understand. But as Crowther goes on to say, “The challenge is worth a try.” (C) Try getting inside the heads of the characters and asking why they do what they do. Is it possible that Kathie simply alligns herself with whomever she thinks is holding the cards at any given time? Is it possible that Jeff knows his fate as he makes his final drive for the climax? And is it possible that Ann is not only lied to in the end, but also willingly accepts that lie?

Upon subsequent analysis, the answers to these questions will become apparent, revealing just how deep this movie actually is. It will also shed light onto just how brilliant the performances are. Greer’s character is hardly ever saying what she’s actually thinking, and the acting challenge for Greer is the performance of a lifetime. Her lines of seduction are smooth, but even sexier in what’s left unsaid. Her delivery of the simple line, “I go there sometimes,” has Thomson calling it “one of the more mysterious lines in American film. Somehow, you have the worst thoughts about the other things she does.” Perhaps he is just taken by her beauty, “dark hair that stirred like drapes in a breeze, the best mouth, and eyes like blueberries in cream.” (B) 

It’s no wonder Mitchum is puddy in her hand. We are, too. And thus we get why Mitchum falls so hard for her, despite knowing exactly what he’s getting into. The man who went on to say, “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner,” was exactly right. Greer devours this Hollywood beefcake. His baggy eyes have us believe he’s been up all night thinking about her, and their chemistry led to a noir re-teaming in The Big Steal (1949). Perhaps more fascinating is how much she frustrates Douglas (“My feelings? About ten years ago, I hid them somewhere and haven’t been able to find them”). Here’s a man who holds all the cards, yet is helpless to this woman. Douglas is at once a real bastard and a man vulnerable in the heart.

Greer never did better than this one, but the film launched Mitchum and Douglas to superstardom. The shark’s grin of Douglas led to his casting in such films as Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) and Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). As for Mitchum, Out of the Past was the second in a one-two punch with The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), which earned him an Oscar nomination. A year after Past, he went to jail on marijuana possession, then rebounded with Otto Preminger’s Angel Face (1952), where he returned as a private dick playing sucker to a corrupt gal. History may remember him for the horrific villains he played in The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Cape Fear (1962), but when Robert Mitchum appears in pop culture references like The Sopranos, next to Bogart and Robinson, we know which persona has been plucked out of the past.

Still, no matter how good the cast or how sharp the script, the film’s biggest asset is easily its director, French master Jacques Tourneur. He was born in Paris, the son of director Maurice Tourneur. He traveled with his daddy to America in 1913, and then back to Paris in 1929, where he was assistant and editor for his father until 1933. Then he truly broke out on his own and came back to America, where he joined producer Val Lewton at RKO to make B-horror classics like Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and The Leopard Man (1943). It was in those pictures, particularly with cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca in Cat People, that Tourneur developed his mastery of shadows and the dark power of the ordinary and unseen. His final collaboration with Musuraca would be Out of the Past, and it’s easily their best. They create a look and feel that screams noir in almost every shot, from actors standing in as human smoke stacks, to the blowing curtains of a Lake Tahoe setting that influenced even Coppola.

It may be said that few understood the contrasts of light and dark better than Tourneur. That contrast is symbolized in the film’s two major females, Ann and Kathie. Not only is Ann blonde compared to Kathie’s brunette, she is often shown in the brightness of day, while Kathie “seemed to live by night.” In the scene where Jeff recounts his tale to Ann in the car, note that Ann is full of light, while Jeff is full of shadows. And in their final meeting in a leafless forest, the branches blur the light and blend their opposing worlds of light innocence and dark danger.

Tourneur also proves a master of symbolism and mise-en-scene. At the most basic, notice how he sticks to the consistent rule to have Jeff smoke his cigarettes only in times of moral contemplation. Note also the low-angled “jailbar” shadows of a frontgate as Jeff revisits his past. Still, my two favorites are (A) the suggestion of sex with a wet towel knocking over a lamp and killing the light as the front door blows open, and (B) the mise-en-scene of a dark fishnet behind Jeff when he first kisses Kathie, suggesting visually that she has caught him in her web for the remainder of the film. As for pacing and mood, Tourneur has mastered those, too, from the suspenseful construction of close-calls (like a half-visible face appearing at the door) to the haunting recurrance of the tune “The First Time I Saw You,” which reminds us of Kathie first walking into that Acupulco cafe. It is no coincidence that she comes in out of the light.

In its day, Out of the Past was regarded as nothing more than a low-budget B-picture, and thus was completely ignored by the Academy. Likewise, American filmmakers of the era had never even heard of film noir, even while they were busy making films in that style. To them it was just a cheap, stylish way to do movies. It was not until 1946, after the war, that French critic Nino Frank coined the term film noir, or “black film,” and filmmakers began entering a self-conscious recognition of the art-form they were living. Tourneur in Out of the Past, coming in 1947, would have fallen into this new understanding. So it should be no surprise that one of noir’s greatest efforts came from the same native blood of those who first recognized its existence. Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers asks, “Is there a more perfect example of film noir?” (D)

Citations: 

CITE A: Tim Dirks, Filmsite.org
CITE B: David Thomson, New Biographical Dictionary of Film
CITE C: Bosley Crowther, New York Times
CITE D: Rolling Stone’s 100 Maverick Movies

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