Out of the Past/1947/RKO/97 min.
As famed critic James Agee put it: “Robert Mitchum is so sleepily self-confident with the women that when he slopes into clinches you expect him to snore in their faces.”
While none of my Robert Mitchum fantasies involve snoring, I can’t say I’d kick him out of bed just for a few noisy ZZZs. One of Mitchum’s finest vehicles is “Out of the Past” (1947) by French-born director Jacques Tourneur.
If I happened to meet someone who wanted to know film noir and only had 97 minutes to live, this is the film I’d recommend. But pay close attention, little dying chum, because there are plot twists aplenty.
Mitchum plays Jeff Bailey (aka Jeff Markham) who runs a gas station in a small town. He’s seeking a quiet life, where he can put his messed-up past behind him. Ha! Free will doesn’t stand much of a chance in film noir, so when menacing Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine) comes to town looking for Jeff, we know he’s about to be plunged back into the darkness.
Once Jeff learns that his former nemesis, gangster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), wants a reunion, he decides to bring his pure and wholesome girlfriend Ann Miller (Virginia Huston) up to speed on his shady past and so launches a filigree of flashbacks with some of the most haunting images in all of noir.
Before he pumped gas, Jeff was a gumshoe whom Whit hired to find his double-dealing girlfriend Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer). Jeff finds her in Mexico, having escaped from Whit with a little help from a gun and a bigger helping of his money. It’s a long time into the flick before we see this fabulous femme fatale but when we finally do, she’s breathtaking. James Pallot in “The Movie Guide” calls Greer’s appearance “one of the greatest entrances in film history.”
Jeff, a self-confessed sucker, falls for her in about 3 seconds and decides that Whit Sterling can go to hell. As far as Whit’s cash, Kathie says she didn’t touch it and asks him: “Won’t you believe me?”
He replies: “Baby, I don’t care.”
The two relocate to San Francisco where they can hang incognito and go to movies (sounds divine!). Still, there’s that niggling bother of Whit, brilliantly played by Douglas, and he cares quite a bit.
Meanwhile, Jeff’s ex-partner in the detective biz Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie) catches up with the couple, angling for a pay-off to keep his mouth shut re: their new life. Jeff and Fisher come to blows, but Kathie decides to cut to the chase and shoot him dead.
Earlier Fisher comments: “A dame with a rod is like a guy with a knitting needle.” In fact, a knitting needle can double as a handy weapon but it’s far less efficient than a gun, as Kathie clearly knew.
Whit figures Jeff still owes him, and makes him part of the scheme to steal incriminating documents from attorney Leonard Eels (Ken Niles). In on the set-up is Eels’ secretary Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming) a Jane Greer lookalike and good-time girl. Over drinks with Jeff and Meta, Eels remarks: “All women are wonders because they reduce all men to the obvious.”
“And so do martinis,” Meta says.
When Eels ends up dead, Jeff appears to be the fall guy, but he staves that off by hiding the body. The next snag? Kathie signed an affidavit (at Whit’s insistence, she says) that Jeff killed Fisher. But Jeff doesn’t give up easily and, after tracking the above-mentioned documents, is happy to exchange them for $50,000 and the affidavit.
As the treachery escalates and the bodies start piling up, Kathie has all her men exactly where she wants them, but then noir guys are awfully recalcitrant…
“Out of the Past” is director Jacques Tourneur’s noir masterpiece. In a series of celluloid paintings almost baroque in their intensity, Tourneur and director of photography Nicholas Musuraca create a seamless and sinister world that captivates from the first shot to the last. As Eddie Muller in “Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir” describes it: Musuraca achieves “the richest chiaroscuro cinematography of any noir.” And as Michael Wilmington wrote in the Chicago Tribune, the movie is: “Moody and poetic, filled with some of the most strangely beautiful images ever to grace a crime movie.”
Son of French director Maurice Tourneur, Jacques Tourneur worked with producer Val Lewton on cheapie flicks like “Cat People” (1942), “I Walked With a Zombie” (1943), and “The Leopard Man” (1943). Though they were low budget, they are gorgeous to look at and essentially noir in their sensibility.
Laced with delectable one-liners, the script for “Out of the Past” was written by Daniel Mainwaring (using the name Geoffrey Homes) from his novel “Build My Gallows High.” James M. Cain and Frank Fenton were uncredited writers on the script.
Then there are the performances – all of which are unforgettable, even small quirky parts like The Kid (Dickie Moore). Mitchum, one of Hollywood’s most underrated actors, defines the film noir anti-hero with his mixture of raw sex appeal and resignation to the hands of fate. Greer as the stunning conniver gives her character depth and a veneer of vulnerability – one minute we’re sure she’s a nasty piece of work, the next we admire her bravery in extricating herself from an abusive relationship with Douglas.
Greer’s performance ranks as one of the top 10 femmes fatales, but she never got another role of that magnitude. That said, Greer worked steadily in film and TV, notably a supporting role in “Against All Odds,” a 1984 remake of “Out of the Past” starring Rachel Ward, Jeff Bridges and James Woods, directed by Taylor Hackford. Greer also appeared with Mitchum on “Saturday Night Live” in 1987 to reprise their “Past” as well as in 1990’s “Twin Peaks” as Vivian Smythe Niles.
“Out of the Past” reminds us that life is short. It would be tragic to go to the grave knowing nothing of noir. So, no matter how precious your time, I must insist that you carve out an hour and a half to experience this work of art. Now stop fussing with that silly IV and grab the remote instead.