CLASSICS: Out of the Past (1947)
written by: Daniel Mainwaring (novel/screenplay)
produced by: Warren Duff
directed by: Jacques Tourneur
runtime: 97 min.
U.S. release date: November 13, 1947
Robert Mitchum’s Jeff Markham sits alone at a table in the shadows of an Acapulco bar, while nursing a drink and dragging a smoke like its an extension of his hand. He’s patiently waiting for a certain dame to walk through the entrance. That’s why he’s there to being with, but there’s something about Mitchum’s laconic body language and his smooth sardonic narration that indicates there’s something else weighing him down to the floor. This is one of my favorite scenes in a movie I’ve finally caught up with for the first time. It’s from the lead character’s past, one that speaks volumes to his present, as we follow him in “Out of the Past”, which is considered by many to be one of the definitive examples of film noir. It was released in 1947 near the middle of Hollywood’s film noir period, which scholars generally consider to be from the early 40s to the late 50s. During that time, there was a plethora of moody, black-and-white pictures being made with all the conventions of the genre. They consist of stories populated by detectives with mysterious pasts they can’t escape, manipulative femme fatales that know how to also appear sympathetic, black-mailing antagonists who push all the right buttons and sidekicks who usually outlive the one they’re loyal to.
All of those characters can be found in Jacques Tourneur’s “Out of the Past” – a director who, at the time, was best known for horror flicks like “Cat People” and “I Walked with a Zombie” – and also had the requisite use of stark blacks and whites, along with silhouettes and shadows and an unbelievable amount of cigarette smoke.
Indeed, much of those attributes come across as characters unto themselves in “Out of the Past”, thanks to cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, who had previously lensed “Cat People” for Tourneur and would become a mainstay director of photography at RKO Pictures, this movie’s studio. While maybe not as well-known as other noir films, such as John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon” and Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity”, this film is still highly-regarded for its great cast, but mostly for its complex storyline.
Screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring adapted it from his final published novel, Build My Gallows High, in which the plot twists and turns as the bulk of the movie is told in flashback, offering an understanding and added dimension to the narrative and the characters. What will stand out upon initial viewing is the snappy banter, as characters deliver one cool line after another, but once you get accustomed to the quick and witty dialogue, y0u start to pay closer attention to what’s going on and realize multiple viewings will provide a fuller understanding of the overall story.
“Out of the Past” doesn’t open on a dark and wet city street like so many noir films, but rather during the daytime in Bridgeport, an idyllic small town residing in east-central California, nestled amongst lakes and mountains. This is where Mitchum’s Jeff Markham is making a new life for himself as Jeff Bailey, the owner of a gas station that’s assisted by a mute Kid (Dickie Moore), where he’s doing his best to maintain the quiet life while steadily seeing a nice local girl, Ann Miller (Virginia Huston). But we know such a life is a mirage for characters like Jeff. We know from the title that something or someone from his past will return to Jeff’s life and inevitably rattle the ideal life Jeff has made and pull him back in.
That’s what happens when Joe Stefanos (Paul Valentine) comes into town, with his fedora and trench coat and snappy retorts. He’s arrived to bring Jeff back for a meeting in Lake Tahoe with crooked gambler, Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), a shady character Jeff used to do private eye jobs for back in the day. Realizing that the request is more of a demand and something that’s not going to go away, Jeff agrees to ride up to Tahoe and takes Ann along for the long night’s ride where he decides to finally disclose his past to his new girlfriend (our surrogate to the story).
This is where Tourneur uses the flashback device – also a staple of noir – to inform both Ann and the movie’s audience. Narration is another common noir device used at this time and a pivotal one at that, as we hear Jeff recount the details of his story that compels him to drive to a reunion with Whit. It’s pivotal because of the tone in Mitchum’s voice. Underneath all the sardonic cool one-liners that come with his flashback narration, there’s a palpable dread and regret that informs us that what Jeff is recounting isn’t necessarily a happy story, moreso one full of detours and wrong turns that eventually led him to a dead-end.
Years ago, when Jeff and his partner, Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie), were both P.I.’s out of New York, Whit hired Jeff to track down his girl, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) – the girl who shot him four times and took off with $40,000 of his dough. Now, right there is an indication that this is a girl who shouldn’t be found, but Whit wants his property back and he knows Jeff is the guy for the job. Jeff isn’t too sure, though and when he asks Whit why he was chosen, he quickly receives an answer, “Well, I know a lot of smart guys, and a few honest ones. And you’re both.” We see soon enough that being smart and honest doesn’t pay off for Jeff, especially when his weakness is for a good-looking dame.
When Kathie walks into that Mexican bar, Jeff is absolutely smitten. Needless to say, the two hook up, fall madly in love with each other (it seems that way to Jeff, at least), with a plan to never return to Whit or at least steer clear of him. Although we know that neither of them can outrun the past (remember the title), the two briefly enjoy time together in San Francisco and eventually wind up in a cabin in the California woods. This is where Kathie shows her true colors and someone winds up dead, leaving Jeff to clean up the mess.
Greer’s Kathie is indeed the movie’s main femme fatale – another noir staple – and when she enters the picture, it’s daytime and she’s wearing white, but as the story ends, it’s night-time and she’s all in black. That’s no mistake. A femme fatale has a tendency to initially come across one way and gradually reveal her true nature as the story twists. The viewer sees why and how the lead actor will fall for her during her introduction – either from her beautiful looks or her sympathetic situation (usually both) – and it becomes obvious why the male lead will succumb to her seductive web. Betrayal may not even be intentional on the femme fatale’s part at first, but that’s typically what motivates her throughout the movie. In this case, it definitely feels like Kathie has ulterior motives from the start.
At this point, we’re about halfway through Mainwaring’s story and we find Jeff and Ann arriving at Whit’s lake house in Tahoe. This is where Ann departs, with Jeff sending her driving back home, knowing he has to face the music alone. When the camera rests on Jeff pausing at the estate’s giant vertical-barred gated entrance, it seems like he’s looking into a prison – and maybe he is.
Whit greets Jeff with a smile, it’s as if he’s either forgetting the past or emphasizing the fact that Jeff ran off with his girl. It’s hard to tell with Douglas’ cocksure demeanor and smooth body language – quite amazing of the star actually, considering this was only his second starring role in a picture. When Whit offers Jeff another gig – this one involving a San Francisco accountant named Eels (Ken Niles), who has some incriminating tax papers that can point to Whit. Jeff’s job is to steal them and tie up any loose ends, but there’s yet another femme fatale – Eels’s secretary, Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming), who looks ironically like Kathie – who becomes a presence that Jeff shouldn’t overlook. Jeff is cornered, knows he probably can’t trust anyone and that there’s no way out.
The plot is already dizzying enough, but it gets even more complicated when Kathie resurfaces. No matter what she has to say in an effort to appeal to Jeff’s love for her, he knows better, but he just can’t resist getting sucked back into her world. As lies are revealed and the truth sticks out like a sore thumb, Jeff isn’t surprised by any of it.
It’s easy to sympathize with iconic figures like Jeff Markham. He’s a stand-up guy who considers himself a chump in his laconic narration, but when we look at the new life he was attempting, we can see who he wanted to be or at least had the potential to be.
We can even have sympathy for the femme fatales in “Out of the Past”, when we look at their motives. Kathie feels due to the true nature of her relationship with Douglas’ Whit, which is revealed more and more as the movie progresses. Rhonda Fleming’s Meta, is a secretary who’s trying to betray her boss – like Kathie, she comes from a place of hurt and fear. During the development of each of these strong women, we see them romanticized at first and then as the story twists and turns, their dark tendencies are revealed. In “Out of the Past”, these femme fatales are as complicated as the movie’s twisting plot.
Kathie is alluring to Jeff him even though he’s got a good small-town girl waiting for him. He just can’t seem to shake her off, despite knowing she’s no good for him. Deep down, both of them know how alike they are – in fact, Kathie even tells Jeff, “I think we deserve a break.” To which he replied, “I think we deserve each other.” Mitchum delivers that line like it’s neither a good or a bad thing – just a cold, stark realization that these two probably belong together and are doomed (or at least he certainly is), which is one of the draws of film noir – characters who can’t escape who they are or fate that. As corrupt or corruptible as Jeff and Kathie are, viewers are drawn to them both because of how complicated they are and how easily they are pulled into situations that are beyond their control – due to passion, greed or love.
As I watched “Out of the Past”, it was obviously how influential it has become. There are countless detective yarns that emulate Mitchum’s narration and bitter demeanor, not to mention Greer and Fleming’s imitable fatales. Kathleen Turner in “Body Heat” and Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct” come to mind, but the obvious is Taylor Hackford’s “Against all Odds” from 1984, which was a fine thriller and loose remake of “Out of the Past”. The modern update cast Jeff Bridges as a former football player in the Mitchum role, a sleazy James Woods in the Douglas role and Rachel Ward (who would go on to star in 1990’s “After Dark, My Sweet” a great neo-noir) as a femme fatale much more sympathetic than Greer’s Kathie. Ironically, Greer starred in the remake as Ward’s mother, essentially playing the mother of her original character.
It’s obvious why a story with such great hard-boiled lines would be imitated and remade. If there was a noir Bible filled with cool lines of dialogue, the quote-worthy ones from “Out of the Past” would fill it. This is a timeless film, worthy of repeat viewings to follow the twists a little closer, watch the smart and quick interaction again and admire the shadows and light that makes up the film noir atmosphere. It will definitely be a yearly revisit for me, at least.