Thursday, August 28, 2014


Jacques Tourneur, 1947
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming

"You're like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another."

Jeff Baily has started a new life for himself in a small California town, where he owns his own gas station and has begun to court a kind, local girl named Ann. Jeff has somewhat of a mysterious reputation, enhanced when a dark-suited stranger comes to town looking for him. Jeff takes Ann for a drive to see his old employer – gangster Whit Sterling – and relates his story to Ann. Whit hired him to find his girlfriend, Kathie, who fled to Mexico with $40,000 of Whit’s money. In his quest to find Kathie, Jeff falls in love with her himself, only to discover that she is a cold-hearted killer and – even though he thought he found happiness with Ann – Kathie and Whit refuse to let him go free.

Known as Build My Gallows High (a line of dialogue from the film) in the U.K., Out of the Past has long been considered one of the finest films in the noir canon. Based on Daniel Mainwaring’s novel Build My Gallows High, Mainwaring wrote the film’s script under a pseudonym (Geoffrey Homes, which he commonly used while writing detective fiction) and was also responsible for the scripts for Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Phenix City Story, and others.

What makes Out of the Past great? For one thing, the smoking. There is an insane amount of cigarette smoking done by nearly every character, further emphasized by Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca’s lighting that makes it seem like smoke is pouring from walls and inanimate objects, giving the basic sets an eerie air of claustrophobia and disorientation. In one of my favorite scenes, Kirk Douglas offers Robert Mitchum a cigarette by holding one up and saying, “Cigarette?” Mitchum lifts his already lit cigarette and replies, “Smoking.” Though smoking happens in a lot of films noir and gangster flicks, here it is not something to do with your hands, not something to make you appear tough. It is an entity of its own, symbolizing – in various scenes – animosity, dread, longing, and even comedy, often expressing the silently held thoughts and feelings of Jeff, Kathie, and Whit.

Another thing that makes the film great is the almost constant appearance of Robert Mitchum. I’ve never really been able to figure out the exact nature of Robert Mitchum’s sexual appeal, but it is here – in spades – in his second major starring role that would almost instantly propel him to fame. Like other on-screen detectives, Mitchum’s Jeff is a tough guy, but he never has to prove his masculinity. He is simply content to lazily, confidently bask in it. He would go on to have a similar appeal in war films and a slew of other noir movies – The Locket, Pursued, Crossfire, Blood on the Moon, The Big Steal (again with Jane Greer), Where Danger Lives, His Kind of Woman, The Racket, Angel Face (another film where he dies in a car alongside a beautiful, sociopathic, and duplicitous woman), Night of the Hunter, and more.

Though this film belongs to Mitchum, it is also supported by Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat. Greer has a sweet, almost innocent, girl-next-door look, which belies the ease with which she deceives, steals, seduces, and kills. She doesn’t have the overripe sexuality of some other famous femmes fatale (Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Claire Trevor in Murder, My Sweet and Born to Kill, Gloria Grahame in Human Desire, etc.) and her motivations are impossible to discern – they are never really revealed by the film’s conclusion – making her all the more mysterious, appealing, and destructive. Kirk Douglas, as her lover and Jeff’s boss Whit, is somewhat overshadowed by Mitchum and Greer, but he’s fantastic, as always, and is the perfect third wheel. His more obvious motivations – pride, sex, greed, power, and control – keep the trio spiraling ever downwards into obliteration and death. His almost equally excellent, if similar role in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers felt like a rehearsal for this.

As Raymond Chandler often tried to do with his novels (with mixed success), plot is of relatively minor importance to Out of the Past’s success. It’s hopelessly complicated, made up of a series of flashbacks, double-crosses, and various scenes of characters running from each other. The sunny, Mexican setting doesn’t feel like traditional noir, though it is overwhelming dark and gloomy in a moral, emotional sense, and the arc of Jeff’s impending doom – both past and future, chronologically speaking – is imminent, yet endlessly fascinating.

Out of the Past is available on Blu-ray and comes with the highest possible recommendation. If you’re only going to watch five films in the noir series, make this one of them. Granted, I could watch Robert Mitchum sit on screen, watching paint dry, but this is certainly a fine performance from one of America’s most compelling actors. One of his rare talents was the ability to portray ease and stillness, which he does here despite the mood of anxiety and his inevitable fate.

No comments:

Post a Comment