Friday, March 18

Good 40s Films: Out of the Past

1947 Film Noir
From RKO Radio Pictures
Directed by Jacques Tourneur

Robert Mitchum
Jane Greer
Kirk Douglas
Rhonda Fleming
Paul Valentine
Virginia Huston
Richard Webb
Steve Brodie
Dickie Moore

Without a doubt here is one of the best film noirs there ever was.  I have no problem with those who find it to be the very best. Certainly for years other noirs have been compared against it, usually unfavorably. With apologies to Barbara Stanwyck and her magnificent performance in Double Indemnity, Out of the Past boasts the best female noir character ever written.  Jane Greer oozes beauty and treachery, offering an electrifying femme fatale. It's difficult to take your eyes off her... and you shouldn't.  

One is also pleased to see Robert Mitchum, a king of noir, in one of his defining roles.  He had already appeared in proficient pieces like When Strangers Marry, Undercurrent, The Locket and the fabulous Crossfire and would go on to make a few more. But he reached his zenith here in one of the finest crafted pieces of the genre.  Effortlessly demonstrating the art of cool as juxtaposed against the menace of noir, one understands just why he was such a formidable noir leading man.

In addition to featuring a classic bad girl, also present are the moody lighting and shadows, night sequences, a host of amoral characters and the dark storyline that is at minimum convoluted if not difficult to grasp at certain moments.

The story opens with a linear narrative in a sleepy California town where a thug named Joe (Valentine) has come to find Jeff Bailey (Mitchum).  Jeff has left his gas station business to go on a picnic with his girl, Ann (Huston).  Jeff, as a former private eye, had worked on a case for Whit Sterling (Douglas), and now Whit wants to see him again and has sent Joe to fetch him. 

Jeff is a bit reluctant to take up with Whit again but Joe is persuasive.  Jeff feels his sense of self is so entrenched, perhaps, that he could not betray it.  So he tightens his bootstraps and decides to see Whit in Lake Tahoe.  On the drive there with Ann, he tells her about the first time he worked for Whit, about the time he met Kathy.  He confessed to Ann that there was much he hadn't told her but he now wanted to correct that.

The story then changes from its linear narrative to a long flashback. In typical noir fashion, there is a narrator... in this case the cynical Jeff.  We meet the wealthy Whit, a charming man perhaps but one without much warmth.  He wants Jeff to find Kathie who has made off with 40K.  He says he doesn't care about money, he just wants her back.

Jeff tracks her to Mexico and promptly if not inappropriately falls for her.  It would be closer to the point to say he develops an erotic obsession for her.  She says she doesn't have the money but she doesn't want to go back.  That's fine with Jeff particularly after he senses that Kathie has fallen for him, too.  They enjoy a romp in Mexico and then take up housekeeping on the down low in San Francisco... until Jeff's ex-gumshoe partner, Fisher (Brodie), finds them and advises that he is now working for Whit.  A tracker out to find the tracker?  Kathie, standing in the shadows, the fire flickering on her face, her eyes like blue gas jets, fatally shoots Fisher.  Jeff realizes he's in the wrong game at the same time that Kathie vanishes without a word. No one ever trusts anyone in a noir.

We're about halfway through the film as Jeff arrives at Whit's.  Ann turns around and heads home.  I found it odd that the story had her leaving him there without a car... but then I say... ok, it's a noir. Jeff and Whit seem wary of one another as the hulking, ever-present Joe stands nearby.  Jeff listens suspiciously as Whit explains he needs him to retrieve some incriminating tax papers from his San Francisco attorney who is blackmailing Whit for them.  

Jeff, standing and impatiently waiting for Whit to finish his scheming tale, feels that shadow of destiny fall on him when out of the past, unheralded, there she is.  Kathie, as beautiful and seductive as ever, saunters into the room.  She's been back with Whit for some time.  Jeff knew it could only mean trouble.

After they all ended their awkward encounter, Jeff goes to a guestroom and Kathie follows him expressing love and sorrow and asking for forgiveness.  Those droopy Mitchum eyes say yes, yes, but Jeff told her there was no way.  He tells her she reminds him of a leaf blowing from one gutter to another.  At that moment she knew she had lost him as one always does when one really has. 

The doom-laden excursion into San Francisco changes the story from the past to the present and when it does, a different sort of film is evident.  We meet new characters.  Meta (Fleming) is the secretary of the attorney and we immediately realize that while she may not be exactly in Kathie's league, she's no Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm either. She sets up a plan for Jeff to get the papers which makes one wonder if that's possible, since she knew where the papers were, why didn't she simply give them to Whit? Why involve Jeff?  If it were to get Jeff killed, there was no guarantee that would happen and someone in Whit's camp could have easily handled that. Confusion always works for noirs and it is this second act where it reins supreme.  Jeff runs across Kathie and Joe again.  Why are they in San Francisco if Jeff was to handle everything?  What are they up to?  There will be double-and-triple-crosses and murders before the fadeout and not many would be around for a sequel.

This film has everything going for it but a few words about the actors.  Beyond the perfection of Mitchum and Greer, kudos go to Douglas and Fleming as well.  Their roles could certainly have turned into caricature but each pulled it off with style.  It was only Douglas' second film and Fleming's fifth credited one. Several re-teamings would result in the future.  Mitchum and Greer would costar in The Big Steal (1949), Douglas and Fleming in The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Mitchum and Douglas in The Way West (1967) and Mitchum and Fleming in Waiting for the Wind (1990).

In 1991, Out of the Past was added to the United States National Film Registry as being deemed culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.

In 1984, it was remade as Against All Odds.  It starred Jeff Bridges, Rachel Ward and James Woods and didn't come close to being as good as the original.  Ward played the Greer character but in this one she was given a mother and who should play her? Jane Greer.

What I love about good noirs (and most are indeed good) is how the set is always there to match the dialogue.  A room, how it is lit, how the camera displays it, the objects in it, the clothes of the characters, the sounds, the mood all match the dialogue. Watching nearly every scene allows me to get carried away.  It all comes together as a complete package.  What a fabulous genre it is.

Here, let's close with a look at a bit of the film:

As it turns out, this is my 500th posting.  It seems impossible.  I am still having a good time and I hope you are, too.  And the subject for this particular posting is just about as good as it gets for #500. Cake and ice cream are being served.

Next posting:
The Oomph Girl


  1. Always enjoy the film noir reviews, especially with clips. Your passion shines through.