It’s with some reservation that I call Out of the Past a textbook film noir. All of the signature noir iconography is in the picture, of course: a virulent femme fatale, a terse detective, complex narrative structure, poetic voice-over narration, an overwhelming sense of doom, expressive photography, doppelgangers, and so on. But it's only in retrospect that we identify all of these motifs as being indicative of a “noir” style. What’s most fascinating about Out of the Past is its darkening mood and tone. By 1947, the fate of noir detectives had grown increasingly grim. In pictures like The Maltese Falcon (1941), Laura (1944), and The Big Sleep (1946), the characterization is, as always, in the hard-boiled, anti-heroic tradition, but the noir hero is mostly in control in these films. The Sam Spades and Philip Marlowes prevail. As the years passed, however, the noir hero became more unhinged and self-aware. Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past is one of the pictures that helped pave the way for the crazed, heated-up noirs to follow in the coming years. One notable exception is Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), which could contend with any noir picture for being the darkest and most sardonic.
The Heights Theater,
April 28, 7:30 pm
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Producer: Warren Duff
Writer: Daniel Mainwaring
Cinematographer: Nicholas Musuraca
Editor: Samuel E. Beetley
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Richard Webb, Steve Brodie, Virginia Huston, Paul Valentine, Dickie Moore, Ken Niles
US Theatrical Release: November 13, 1947
US Distributor: Warner Bros.
Tourneur found the perfect actor in Robert Mitchum to represent the fatalism and self-destruction that was pervading the contemporary American crime picture. In a way, Mitchum is to noir what John Wayne is to westerns or Carey Grant to screwballs; he’s a staple of the period. Mitchum made his initial appearances in the noir universe in 1947—first, in Edward Dmytryk’s masterpiece Crossfire and later that year with Out of the Past. Between these two pictures, the laconic, wisecracking somnambulist emerged with a cigarette perpetually dangling from his lips (Mitchum may be the most sensual-yet-stoic of all of Classical cinema’s smokers). It's remarkable that he was able to perfect such a smoldering persona in so little time. Mitchum had been acting since the early ‘40s, but it was with these two pictures that he masterfully created the hyper-stoic personality we know and love.
In an audacious directorial move for the time, Tourneur abandoned the glossy studio-bound veneer of so many early noirs for location shooting, giving the film a heightened sense of realism. The narrative exposition places us in the low Sierras of Bridgeport, California, where a thug dressed in black rolls into the peaceful small town. Mitchum’s Jeff is a gas station owner living under an assumed name when his past bumps into him in the form of this hood. Mitchum’s mystery man with a shadowy past is an exemplary noir characterization; through a long, complex flashback, Jeff recounts his sordid tale. He was once a gumshoe in NYC for a “big operator”—in noir terms, a gangster—played by Kirk Douglas in a towering piece of acting. Douglas is slick and unctuous, seething with contempt beneath his friendly facade. This was his second picture, and astonishingly, he was able to create the distinct persona that gave him such a long, successful career. The two men couldn’t have acting styles that are more different; Mitchum is instinctual and understated, whereas Douglas is aggressive and flashy, but their dynamic creates an electric, foreboding atmosphere. He wants Mitchum’s Jeff to track down his mistress (played by a fresh-faced 22 year old Jane Greer). She’s yet to appear on screen, but we learn she’s one tough cookie who shot and glommed $40,000 from Douglas’s Whit. Now she’s nowhere to be found.
There’s a famous line from Edgar G. Ulmer’s minor masterwork Detour that perfectly encapsulates the ever darkening mood of Out of the Past: “Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” Jane Greer’s Kathie manages to single-handedly derail everyone who gets in her way. It would be fair to say that she trips up Mitchum as much as fate trips her. She’s as duplicitous as any femme fatale, but there's a complexity to her that sets her apart from many of them. It’s not just that she’s physically diminutive and delicate in her manner; when Mitchum finally traces her whereabouts to Acapulco, the two of them begin a tempestuous love affair that burns on the screen. The relationship may be on her terms, but even Mitchum’s Jeff knows that. He asks himself “how big a chump can you get to be?” The rest of the picture answers that question with a number of plot convolutions that make the picture truly one-of-a-kind, which is to say the narrative goes into Big Sleep territory. It would take more than one viewing to fully grasp what’s going on in the shadows of this picture, but that’s not all that important since it’s the style that spells the doom to come.
The end of Out of the Past is uncompromising in its brutality. Mitchum’s fate is really too depressing to recount; it’s enough to say that his own end verges on the suicidal. Fate quite simply has stuck its foot out one too many times, and Mitchum knowingly played the part of the romantic fool to Jane Greer’s dangerous woman. Like so many film noirs, Out of the Past could easily convince us that romance (or more bluntly, sex) reveals the darkest aspects of human nature. The picture’s title has to rank as one of the best in the noir canon, and long after the credits have rolled, Mitchum’s guilt-ridden face will still haunt our imaginations.