Out of the Past (1947)
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Writer: Daniel Mainwaring
Stars: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas
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Out of the Past (1947) is the height of film noir, and it is endlessly fascinating. The movie is stuffed with quotable lines, so much so that the opening scene has dialogue from wise-cracking small town short-order cook that is notably aggravating to me (“Two things I can smell inside a hundred feet: a burnt hamburger and a romance”). This scene might even discourage people from moving farther into the film, but I assure you, I swear this is only a speed bump. Once you’re past this initial annoyance, the story becomes an endless facade of witty lines, delivered with a sinister bent. The story centers around private eye Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum), who later on in the story changes his name to Jeff Bailey, and is the quintessential film noir protagonist.
Robert Mitchum, who would go on to star in multiple horror classics Night of the Hunter (1955) and Cape Fear (1962), shows hints of the gravitas he would later bring to these classics. He plays a man on the run, one who cannot help but for the darkness of previous events to etch shadows on to his face, as captured in stark contrast by Tourneur’s confident camerawork. Early in the movie Bailey (Mitchum) confesses to his lovestruck best girl Ann (Virginia Huston) that his real name is Jeff Markham (Mitchum), but his confession does not end there. The story, though it goes from bad to worse three or four times in the film, finds no change at all in our Markham/Bailey’s perspective. He sees the world as a cruel place, where the only thing you can do is take your lumps without blanching. In fact, early in Makham’s confession, he describes going to a bar staking out femme fatale Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer): “I even knew she wouldn’t come the first night, but I sat there, with the beer and the darkness; grinding it out.” I believe that this quote encapsulates its speaker’s belief that suffering is inevitable, and there’s no point in hiding from it.
This perspective stands in direct opposition to the central villain’s perspective. Local crime boss Whit (Kirk Douglas) is endlessly entertaining to watch, and his deadly threats are delivered by a soft, permanent toothy grin. His character’s presence hangs a lethal veil over his every scene, and the movie is never clear of tension. However, though the ever-expanding prevalence of whip-smart dialog and extreme danger might seem anathema to romance, the relationship between Markham (Mitchum) and Moffat (Greer) is captivating. Their conversations are filled with a competitive sense of wit, but passion is never far from the surface. When Kathy asks “Would you like me to take you somewhere else?” Jeff responds “You’re gonna find it very easy to take me anywhere.” Crackling exchanges of dialog like this are everywhere in Out of the Past, and they are used to disguise the movie’s soul, which is black.
The movie’s director Jacque Tourneur first became famous for atmospheric Hayes Code era (oppressive film censorship of the 1930’s-60’s) horror movies Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), both of which needed to rely on deep shadows and harsh lighting to convey terror. Here he uses shadow to capture emotion, which this film regards as more dangerous than anything else, especially for people like Bailey/Markham (Mitchum). All this leads up to an ending that is not satisfactory in its realism as far as physical reality is concerned, yet holds up to the view that there are no happy endings for characters like these, and the most anyone can hope for is to settle for something safe.