Out of the Past (1947)
“A MAN – Trying to run away from his past… A WOMAN – Trying to escape her future!”
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas
Synopsis: A private eye escapes his past to run a gas station in a small town, but his past catches up with him. Now he must return to the big city world of danger, corruption, double crosses and duplicitous dames.
Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) must be one of Film Noir’s most fatalistic anti-heroes. ‘I think I’m in a frame,’ he tells a cabbie, one of the few true friends he has, before deliberately walking into the trap set for him by one of screen history’s most fatal femmes. Earlier, when she asks him if he believes her declarations of innocence, he responds with a laconic, ‘Baby, I don’t care.’ And right then he doesn’t care, he’s in too deep to care about anything other than being with her, even though deep down he knows she’s nothing but trouble. With some women, though, that’s the attraction…
Bailey is a former private detective, living under an assumed name in a small town in the Sierras when the film begins. But his cover has been blown by Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine) a henchman for ‘big operator’ Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) for whom Jeff once did a job. Sterling’s described as a gambler, but everything we see about him suggests he’s managing an organised crime syndicate. His girlfriend, Kathie Moffatt (Jane Greer), fled with $40,000 of his money, after first shooting him four times. The bullets didn’t kill Sterling, and now he wants her back. Not because he wants to kill her, though: ‘I just want her back.’ He tells Bailey, who was then Jeff Markham. ‘When you see her, you’ll understand better.’
And when Bailey finally tracks down Kathie in Acapulco he does indeed get to understand what Sterling meant. She’s a knockout, and it’s not long before he’s falling for her charms. And once he’s sampled those charms — an encounter during which their futures are foreshadowed by the sudden darkness created by an overturned lamp, and an intruding storm that bursts through the door of the chalet in which they are sealing their fates — it’s only a matter of time before the past catches up with Bailey. He and Kathie use the money Sterling paid him to track her down to start a new life in San Francisco, but it isn’t long before they’re spotted by Fisher (Steve Brodie), Bailey’s former partner, who tries to blackmail them. Kathie puts a quick end to the fight between Bailey and Fisher by shooting Fisher dead, but not before director Jacques Tourneur allows us to see the sly enjoyment in her eyes as she watches them beating each other to a pulp over her. Fisher has barely stopped breathing before she’s driven off into the night, leaving Bailey to bury the body and start his life all over again.
All this Bailey relates to his current girlfriend, Ann (Virginia Huston), as he drives them to Sterling’s Lake Tahoe lair (a location which is possibly referenced by Coppola in The Godfather Part II), and shown in an extended flashback. Upon arriving at Sterling’s, Bailey’s only mildly surprised to discover that Kathie is also there, having returned to her former lover with the claim that it was Bailey who killed Fisher. Sterling has an affidavit to that effect, and tells Bailey that if he wants it returned he has to retrieve some incriminating tax documents from a lawyer who’s trying to blackmail him for $200,000. Bailey smells a rat, but is compelled to go along with Sterling’s plan.
The first forty minutes or so of Out of the Past is pretty much just exposition for the next hour, during which the relatively straightforward plot acquires labyrinthine proportions. It’s probably fair to say that the movie is admired more for its visual style and dialogue than its storyline, although the plot is never dull or uninteresting — just difficult to follow for the last thirty minutes. The dialogue — credited to Daniel Mainwaring, although critic Roger Ebert claims it was written by Frank Fenton after James M. Cain was unable to do anything with Mainwaring’s effort — is priceless, providing a constant stream of tough, hard-bitten lines that have rightfully earned Out of the Past a reputation as one of the quintessential Noir movies of the 1940s, and certainly making it one of the most quotable. ‘You can never help anything, can you? You’re like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another,’ says Bailey to Kathie; ‘You know, a dame with a rod is like a guy with a knitting needle,’ opines Fisher with sublime irony, moments before Kathie empties her revolver into him; ‘Oh, Jeff, I don’t want to die!’ declares Kathie, ‘Neither do I, baby,’ replies Bailey, ‘but if I have to I’m gonna die last.’
Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, who also filmed Tourneur’s The Cat People (1942), uses light and shadow to distinguish between the two very different worlds that Bailey inhabits, and the darkness grows increasingly oppressive the deeper Bailey immerses himself in the domain of Kathie and Sterling. The foreshadowing of doom, a key element of any true Noir, is tangible here, not only in Bailey’s apparently fatalistic attitude towards his future but in the claustrophobic fashion in which the shadows seem to claim the characters they embrace.
Out of the Past is further enhanced by strongly drawn characters memorably portrayed by three leads at the beginnings of their respective careers. Mitchum was still barely 30 when he made this movie, and his laconic, laid-back demeanour makes him a natural for the part of Bailey who, while perhaps a little one-dimensional in terms of his jaundiced world view, is nevertheless a fascinating study in male pride stung by the deadly wiles of a dangerous woman. Judging by the assured ease with which Greer can convincingly switch from powerless victim to shrewd and cunning viper in the course of a single conversation, the studios must have anticipated a long and successful career for her, but the jealous possessiveness of Howard Hughes pretty much put paid to that. It’s a shame, because she shows a real range and ability here which she was rarely called upon to utilise in subsequent roles.
Perhaps the most interesting character of all though, is that of Whit Sterling, the ‘big operator’ who’s surprisingly forgiving; a weakness which Kathie uses to her advantage. We’re left in no doubt that Sterling’s a villain, but the script never paints him as an out-and-out black hat figure. He possesses a twisted kind of moral code and a likeable personality, but there’s a steely shrewdness behind the twinkling-eyed smile which, although dangerous, is no match for Kathie’s instinct for survival. You kind of like Sterling despite yourself, thanks to a brash and energetic performance from the charismatic Kirk Douglas. This was only Douglas’s second film role after playing an untypical weakling in another Noir classic, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, the year before. He already had star presence though, and he outshines Mitchum in every scene they share.
Mention should also go to Paul Valentine, who plays Sterling’s sidekick Joe Stephanos. He only has a minor role, and his screen career never really amounted to much, but in this movie at least he steals every scene he’s in.
(Reviewed 13th April 2013)