Discover Mitchum, Douglas, and Film-Noir in ‘Out of the Past’

Every week, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:

Out of the Past (1947)

Everybody loves those great crime movies spawned partially out of Dashiel Hammet and Raymond Chandler’s dark fiction. A similar novel by the incredible title Build my Gallows High, Daniel Mainwaring’s last, became the basis for one of the most loved pieces of that particular cinematic genre. A peculiar director, Jacques Tourneur, took the writer’s own script and turned it into the delightful experience that is Out of the Past.

A man named Joe Stephanos (Paul Valenine) arrives at a small town gas station looking for the owner, Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), about an old score that needs to be settled with his boss, big time gambling operator Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). Before confronting his past, Jeff decides to open up about it to his current love interest, a decent country girl named Ann Miller. On the way to Sterling’s lake house he unfolds his story to her, a typical smart detective meets femme-fatale and acts against his own good scenario, while Ann listens carefully, ready to forgive and forget. Inevitably, while diving into his own past, Jeff Markham—as is his real name—will find out that it’s not that easy to escape it…

Though film-noirs is a very much discussed and disputed genre, there are certain widely known distinctive elements that define a prototypical noir script. Out of the Past carries all those elements with pride, never trying to pass as anything else than what it is. Jeff is a smart, honest man with a shady past. He relies on a good girl named Ann for his salvation through unadulterated love. He used to be a cynical son of a bitch who fell for a woman named Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer). She’s incredibly attractive but swings from sweet and helpless to bitter and deadly in no time. She’s also the girl of a gangster who admires Jeff’s character and skills, although he would pick her over him without further thought. A tough henchman, a crooked partner and a jealous country man complete the puzzle of people that are out to get the main character. Plus the deaf-mute boy (Dickie Moore), Jeff’s weird assistant.

Robert Mitchum, with his imposing build and weary eyes, seems perfect for the main part, the man who constantly falls in and out of the sense of controlling his own destiny. Though an archetypal film-noir’s fall guy, he never once holds a gun. He depends on his brain and his instincts, the latter being the soft spot which Kathie takes advantage of.

Another character who never holds a gun during this flick, where murder is always looming, is the big-deal gangster. Kirk Douglas plays Whit Sterling in a very distinct way, more like a businessman with an admiration for skills as much as beauty than a hardcore, trigger-happy facilitator. Besides, he already has a man to do the dirty work. The henchman Joe Stephanos, played with an extreme touch of self-awareness by Paul Valentine, delivers some of the best lines in a movie which, more than enough, seem to be about the punchlines.

It’s too obvious at times, that the writer and probably the actors had a lot of fun inventing and delivering such dialogue as when a woman, after he had just told her about finding old pal Jeff because of a sign, tells Stephanos, “It’s a small world…,” only to get a reply along with a crooked smile, “Or a big sign!” There is another opening scene where Jeff sits by the lake with his newfound love Ann while she wonders about his mysterious profile.

“You’ve been to a lot of places haven’t you?” she asks in an innocent tone.
“One too many.”
“Which did you like the best?”
“This one right here.”
“I bet you say that to all the places,” she comes back with a totally unforeseen sense of humor retaining that same innocence in her voice. That’s only one of many moments that the wordplay becomes totally, unrealistically enjoyable and the film feels constructed in the most well-meant manner. It’s like exchanging jokes with the makers through the screen, a craft that’s been extremely underrated throughout film history.

That said, there is no way to get past the fact that some of the main actors combine their idiosyncratic performances with an almost obscene knowledge of their being in a movie. For a film that isn’t a latter-day hommage but a landmark film-noir it feels to me—without taking under consideration the b-movie playfulness in all this—kind of exceptional.

What keeps all those characters in unison and supports that self-awareness undertone is of course Jane Greer’s femme-fatale, a woman not only embodying the related film-noirs cliches, but also using them to carry herself around the plot and drive all the men to their respective doom. Her performance is great, seductive one time despicable the next, capable of murder in the most natural way, walking an indistinct line between acting out of fear and scheming for survival in a man’s world.

There is also Dickie Moore’s deaf-mute kid, a very strange character who seems to be the only one to know Jeff’s past in that small town, probably because he can’t talk. Still, he’s loyal to the troubled man and even commits the one murder he would face sooner or later, that of his rival for Sterling’s respect, Joe Stephanos. The boy is the last person we see, as he burst’s the good girl’s bubble and waves a goodbye to a “big” sign that says “Jeff Bailey”—Markham’s failed attempt at living the normal life and dodging the genre’s inevitability.

Jacques Tourneur and his cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca both show a very strong sense of film-noir aesthetic. The stark dark/light contrast and the extreme use of all kinds of shadows thrive in their hands as mood-building and character-manipulation tools. The plot is over the top as expected but not annoyingly implausible, though I don’t think that was an issue for the writer. It doesn’t drag at any point, not even during the long flashback, and voice-over narration is used sparingly.

Out of the Past is a well crafted film, a whole genre’s showcase and above all, pure cinematic fun.

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