Friday, July 10, 2020

Classic Movie Review: Out of the Past (1947)

Out of the Past (1947) 
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur   
Written by: Daniel Mainwaring based on his novel.
Starring: Robert Mitchum (Jeff), Jane Greer (Kathie), Kirk Douglas (Whit), Rhonda Fleming (Meta Carson), Richard Webb (Jim), Steve Brodie (Fisher), Virginia Huston (Ann), Paul Valentine (Joe), Dickie Moore (The Kid), Ken Niles (Eels).
If I were to make a list of the three film noirs to start with to get to know the genre, I think they would be John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947). These aren’t necessarily the best film noirs of all time – although they’d all have to be included in the conversation for that crown – but they are the films that kind of let you know what you’re in for. The Maltese Falcon is the classic detective noir – with a smart, cynical detective getting involved in a case above his head, but figuring it out. Double Indemnity is the classic man getting duped by a femme fatale – dragged further down a spiral into murder and death. And Out of the Past is about the inability to let go of the past – even when you know it’s going to drag you down. It’s got elements of the first two, but in a different way. It’s haunting film – but also one that is at once quite funny, and yet tragic, and never quite what you’d expect.
Robert Mitchum, a film noir standard bearer if ever there was one, plays Jeff, and when we first meet him, he owns a small-town gas station, is courting a small-town girl, and is attempting to live a normal life. Then a figure from his past enters town – he sees Jeff by chance, and has come to let him know that he still works for the big man – and that man wants to see Jeff. Jeff doesn’t fight it – knows he has to. And so he spends a long night in the car, with his girl Ann (Virginia Huston) telling his story. A few years ago, he was a detective working out of New York. He is hired by a charming gangster, Whit (Kirk Douglas) – who wants Jeff to track down his girl Kathie (Jane Greer), who shot him, and stole $40,000 and disappeared. Jeff follows her trail to Mexico – but instead of brining her back, he falls in love with her. They try and make a go of it, try to return to the States – and live quietly. But, just as that figure from his past found him at the gas station, a different one spots him then. It all leads to murder, betrayal and lies heaped on lies. When Jeff talks to Whit, he isn’t surprised that Kathie is back with him – and he isn’t surprised when Whit offers him another job. Jeff isn’t stupid – he knows a setup when he sees one. Still, he cannot resist. But as he says, if he’s going to die, he’s wants to die last.
Mitchum was probably the most effortlessly cool actor in cinema history. In many of his best roles, he comes across as if he just doesn’t give a shit – in part, undeniably, because Mitchum himself really didn’t. He was a great actor – capable of delivering lived in, deep, dark performances – like his greatest late career role in The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) – but here, he uses that effortless cool to great advantage. His Jeff is the smartest guy in the room – and knows it, but doesn’t really care what others think of him. Kirk Douglas is at his slimy best as Whit, and is no dummy either, but Jeff knows enough to make Whit think he is running things, when he isn’t. Jane Greer is here one of the greatest of all femme fatale’s – and she does it by never letting the act drop until the very end. Like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, she is manipulating the men throughout the movie – but she doesn’t let her guard drop here. She wants to come across as innocent and naïve, wants to convince Jeff she still is, even when he knows better. It’s a trio of great performances – really, three of the best in all of noir.
Director Tourneur was a journeymen director. He would make everything from noir to some of the best Val Lewton horror films (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie) to Westerns to low rent horror films like Curse of the Demon. He had a great visual style, and in Out of the Past, he uses it by not overemphasizing everything. He plays it as cool as Mitchum does – so even in a shocking moment, like a key murder, it seems to come out of nowhere. He gives the actors space to work, to move, to breathe, and seems to know just how great the screenplay here is – full of memorable dialogue, expertly delivered. I’m not sure you can make the case that Tourneur was an auteur – or even that he was overall a great director. Still, I don’t think anyone could have directed Out of the Past any better than he does.
The film is a superb entertainment throughout – that acting, that dialogue, that visual look. And yet, it also manages to be a dark, haunting film. The film goes on a scene longer than you may expect – ending with a couple of supporting characters have a conversation, that can be read a number of different ways. This underlies the tragic nature of the story – how the past drags us back in, and won’t let go. This is quintessential noir – and one of the greatest films ever made.

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