Mitchum and Greer with director Jacques Tourneur (right)
Mitchum and Greer with director Jacques Tourneur and cameraman Nicholas Musuraca (right)
OUT OF THE PAST A
USA (97 mi) 1947 d: Jacques Tourneur
I never saw her in the daytime. We seemed to live by night. What was left of the day went away like a pack of cigarettes you smoked. I didn't know where she lived. I never followed her. All I ever had to go on was a place and time to see her again. I don't know what we were waiting for. Maybe we thought the world would end.
—Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum)
You're no good, and neither am I. That's why we deserve each other.
—Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer)
Considered the quintessential noir film, this is without question one of the best film noirs, one of the best films of the 1940’s, and one of the best films ever made, as the film, which was viewed as a B-movie when it was released, is a standout in every artistic category. Only Robert Mitchum’s first starring role, and Kirk Douglas’s 2nd film in a supporting role, Mitchum as Jeff Bailey commands the screen with a rare confidence and defines the standard for the role of masculinity in a noir film, as he’s strong, broad-shouldered, handsome, and smart while retaining that casual air of indifference and nonchalance, as if he’s his own man who can’t be bought or sold, yet when faced off against Jane Greer’s Kathie Moffat, the smoldering femme fatale beauty of every man’s dreams, the moment he sees her striding confidently out of the sunlight into the darkened shadows of a Mexican cantina he melts like butter in her hands and is willing to do anything to have her, even though he knows it will likely destroy him. This is before they’ve ever spoken a single word, where one look says it all. This kind of onscreen chemistry and display of raw sensuality is exactly why cinema was invented, and in this film it delivers in every respect, as it’s also one of the more eye-poppingly luminous black and white films ever made. But it’s the dramatic power of these two performances that makes this film so unforgettable, as other than CASABLANCA (1942), another so-called B-movie released during the war, rarely are audiences treated to this kind of searing intensity between characters, made especially intriguing by the noirish lure driving them both into the seedy underworld of lies, deception, murder and criminality, a place both seem to relish so long as they can have each other. Only one problem, however, as Moffat is actually the girlfriend of Whit Sterling (Douglas), a mafia-style lowlife gangster who sends Bailey to Mexico to find her and bring her back, a ruthless and unforgiving man who takes exception to another man stealing his girl who also absconded with $40,000 dollars that belongs to him, adding a decisively fatal element to their budding romance, where their future is perpetually cast under a dark cloud of uncertainty.
Nicholas Musuraca, who also shot Tourneur’s atmospheric CAT PEOPLE (1942) from the Val Lewton school of horror, was the cinematographer on the film, constantly finding inventive ways to offset shadows and light, using this not only to establish a dark mood or motive, but even as a device to develop character, as Mitchum often finds himself hiding in another room, behind a potted plant, even in a closet, or just lurking in the shadows, spending a great deal of time in the dark, continually lost in his thoughts, thinking about one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the screen, especially her gorgeous eyes, yet she’s also smart, deceitful, conniving and completely untrustworthy. Mitchum’s ongoing inner monologue is full of wisecracks and clever personal observations, as much of the film is told in flashbacks, where the scintillating dialogue mixed with his narration leads us through a myriad of strange and eventful occurrences where clever people continually try to get the upper hand and outsmart others who seem to know someone is on to them, playing a cat and mouse game of showing only the tip of the iceberg while carefully concealing what matters in a safe place, only there aren’t any safe places left in the world that can’t be found out, and in this film, sharks are lurking everywhere. Set in New York City, Acapulco, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, this panoramic view of the world offers the film a sense of vibrancy, especially the scenes in Mexico which throb with a sense of urgency. Mexico has never seemed more romantically alluring, where the beach and nightlife are the thing of dreams, where getting caught in a rainstorm feels like the most beautifully inspiring moment in your life, and then it all evaporates, spiraling into a cesspool of mistrust, double crosses and murder, where bribery and blackmail almost seem like benign crimes. There’s an interesting use of a deaf and dumb character, Dickie Moore as the Kid, Jeff’s partner in his respectable life of just trying to make a living, a clever kid who’s sucked into this maelstrom of complicity when the unrelenting damage of the past coincides with the present, where his all observing eyes reveal the heartbreak of innocence lost.
Opening with the pristine beauty of nature, showing a quiet world in perfect harmony before it becomes infected with the corruption that people bring to it. Even rumor and gossip are spread in a local diner with the assurance of a news report, no one doubting the evidence or lack thereof, as these are the laws of human beings who carry with them a need to share and bond with their fellow humans, even at the expense of the truth or those whose lives might be shattered or hurt by this kind of thoughtlessness. As if in response to this kind of scatterbrained gossip mill, Jeff is a mysterious guy who doesn’t talk much about his past, who runs a service station with the Kid, but prefers to go fishing every day with Ann (Virginia Huston), who has the kind of role Eva Marie Saint would later discover in On the Waterfront (1954) or Julie Harris in EAST OF EDEN (1955), morally upright women who have a saintly quality of forgiveness about them, not only because they take a special interest in and have rare insight into the damaged souls of men, but where they are not afraid to jump without a net, wagering all on the kind of flaws and imperfections in men that others stay clear of. When someone arrives from out of Jeff’s past, the present and the past intersect, where he’s much the wiser now, but the people dragging him back into the sinkhole of their morally bankrupt world keep getting better at it as well, so even when he thinks he’s being careful, he can never be cautious enough. What’s so remarkable about Mitchum is how he’s such a straight shooter and throws caution to the wind, fearing no one, but he can’t predict the desperate measures and outrageous means humans use to protect themselves, which includes murder. Of course, as is typical in noir films, Mitchum is being framed for crimes he never committed. In that regard, Mitchum expresses just the right touch of down-to-earth cynicism, as he knows he’s being used as a sap and it makes him sick to his stomach, expressing a kind of world weariness that we might equate with wisdom. Still it never feels like it’s enough, as the uncaring, unforgiving world expressed by the disturbingly dark fate of Douglas always appears to have the last word.
The way Mitchum and Greer grow intertwined in sin is quite stunning, as the initial pangs of love are replaced by panic and moments of desperation, where unconditional surrender turns to a mutual distrust, but still they reach out for one another on occasion, even when they know they are getting double crossed. It’s Mitchum whose feelings turn to disgust, more at himself than anyone else, because he can’t stop himself, or her, from being used in other people’s dirty little schemes, from continually falling into the muck and mire of criminal enterprise. Rhonda Fleming has an interesting role as an on-the-take ice princess working for Whit, tough as nails, and even more unscrupulous, but her brief screen time is riveting. These women are as dark and amoral as the criminal mind of any man, as outright greedy, and certainly as liable to sell out or double cross their best friends. It is in the company of this band of thieves that Mitchum must find his way out, imprisoned in a labyrinth of unending deceit, clawing his way back to a clean conscience and that majestic and untarnished fishing hole shown at the beginning of the film, an oasis of innocence and purity that is itself eventually stained with human blood. Adapted from the Geoffrey Homes novel Build My Gallows High, a pseudonym used by the screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring who would later write The Phenix City Story (1955), the screenplay, with an assist from Frank Fenton in getting the superb dialogue right, is pitch perfect in its tone of realism and reserve and never for a moment lags. Tourneur’s exquisite behind-the-scenes choreography blending all the elements together puts this under consideration for the greatest noir movie ever filmed, as it’s well-written, artfully staged, beautifully acted and shot, and deliciously malevolent when it needs to be, never once compromising its principles. This film stands in the rare air of the best of the Hitchcock films, many of which would come afterwards in the 1950’s, but the blend of intelligence and suspense in this hard-boiled murder mystery, along with iconic performances, the likes of which we never see anymore, puts this in the pantheon of best films ever.