Out of the Past (1947, Jacques Tourneur)
There are a handful of actors and actresses whose names synonymous with the genre of film noir. One might think of the legendary Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, or Sterling Hayden. Robert Ryan, whom this blog has heaped praise upon before, is another that fans of the genre should never omit. However, no discussion of this fascinating genre would be complete without mentioning the one and only Robert Mitchum. Star of a countless number of movies, Mitchum was, at one time, clearly one of the most popular actors working in Hollywood, with that fame being mostly the result of is work within the genre under inspection in this marathon. Out of the Past, directed by Jacques Tourneur, is considered a staple, with, of course, Mitchum playing a huge role in that film’s lasting appeal. There is an entire host of other factors which, coalescing together like cigarette smoke and shadow in a dimly lit room, lead Tourneur’s famous picture to resonate with people still till this very day.
The film opens with a lone mobster hoodlum named Joe (Paul Valentine) arriving at a gas station repair shop in a sleepy little town near Tahoe. He is on the prowl for a chap named Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), formerly a private detective, whom he has not seen in a few years. You see, while Jeff has spent the last little while making an honest living in town and falling in love with a kind, fine woman named Ann (Virginia Huston), his past is literally about to come back and haunt him. When he and Joe get reacquainted the latter informs the protagonist that one of his former employers, Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), a seedy if filthy rich man, has another job for him. Jeff is on no hurry to reunite with his past, least of all if it means crossing paths with Kathie (Jane Greer), Whit’s stunningly beautiful yet unbelievably treacherous wife, with whom Jeff once had an affair. Ann, who has always been curious to know more about the man she loves, receives a history lesson from her lover on the way to driving him to Whit’s mansion for what will undoubtedly be another complex, dangerous job. It is all a little...complicated, let us say.
Along with Night of the Hunter from 1955, Out of the Past is arguably one of Mitchum’s more popular starring roles, playing a quintessential former private eye who has all the clever, snappy one liners, whose eyes seem weary even when happier times are upon him with his beloved Ann, who knows he always has to try to stay ahead of everybody else, even when he may be lagging a little bit behind. The actor’s most obvious characteristic which helps him stand out among the pack his is physical stature. The man was, simply put, an impressive human being. Getting into a fight with him was, in all likelihood, the last decision should make. In fact, even trying to cross him was probably risky business. He does not smile very much, but then again, the characters he played, including in Out of the Past, have very little to smile about. His voice was another of his powerful tools. It was deep, rich, and strong. It is a wonder that he did not play villains more frequently. When he did, as in the aforementioned Charles Laughton directed film, he was brilliant. Therein lies some of the wonderful talents Mitchum had as an actor. Despite him possessing many qualities that would have relegated him to villain status, he was extraordinarily convincing at creating compelling heroes. The character of Jeff in Out of the Past is someone the viewer can readily cheer for, a man who recognizes when he has stumbled on something good and pure (his girlfriend Ann) and needs to leave the past behind, despite it creeping up on him time and again. His history has beaten him up somewhat, although he will keep on working to make himself good again, a worthy cause for anyone for abide by.
To surprise of some, perhaps, this review shall claim that one actor outshines the inimitable Robert Mitchum, great as the former is in the movie. Jane Greer, playing the flirtatious, conniving wife of Whit Sterling, knocks her performance through the stratosphere. Granted, she was a stunning beauty, hence the act of simply watching her move around on screen was not all that difficult. Beyond her good looks is a tremendous performance. She plays a woman who must play every other character for the fool, including the audience members. If that group can detect a false note in Kathie’s pleas and scheming, then the character loses her potency. Just as Jeff and Whit are under her spell, so to speak, so too should be the viewers. In that sense, her work must be better than everybody else’s, and she is indeed aces. He little smiles when someone tells a joke, her false ‘shock’, her charm, wit, Greer is excellent here.
The movie is very aptly titled Out of the Past. How and when Jeff’s past is introduced is crucial for the film to fire on all cylinders. It is really quite essential that the film presents Jeff’s current status in life first, before any revelations of his previous story with Whit and Kathie. It means that the first women with whom the film presents the protagonist is Ann, played by the gorgeous Virginia Huston. That simple decision to show that couple first before showing the Jeff-Kathie couple helps the viewer identify with them the easiest. Then, by subsequently revealing what Jeff did to find and then attempt to stay with Kathie, not only does Ann feel a wave of conflicting emotions, but so do we precisely because we have seen her and Jeff together already as a strong and healthy couple. Therefore, when Jeff re-enters Whit’s house to be briefed on the tax evasion case, there is a clear sense desire for Jeff not to fall into the same trap a second time. The past has now affected Ann and the viewer, which is a neat storytelling trick.
The emotional core of the picture is definitely what resonates most with regards to plot. That is not to argue that the mission Jeff is tasked with is of little purpose or entertainment value, but thankfully the film never forgets that what matters most is the triangle between Jeff, Kathie and Whit, with of course our dear Ann waiting by the wayside as all of this transpires. It is amusing to see Jeff hop from one place to another, attempting to toy around with people so he can escape this mess in one piece, giving a strong indication of what sort of a man he is when engaged in his traditional line of duty. It also further attests to the Whit’s nature, given that he is looking to not buy somebody off who helps avoid paying taxes, but rather just take the coveted documentation back. Nonetheless, Kathie’s role to play in this second section of the plot further proves how insanely untrustworthy she is.
Whenever the topic of Out of the Past comes up, the dialogue is often praised. For many reasons, it should be. Funny, clever, memorable, even poignant at times, the dialogue is unquestionably one of the film’s strongest elements. That being said, there is something a bit strange about a film in which virtually every character has something supremely wise and clever to say. While most of the time these lines roll of the tongues of the actors, there are moments when the inclusion of such overly clever phrases lose their place. This is a nitpick more than anything else, definitely not a deal breaker in any sense, but there remain some moments when, after a character, any character, tossed away yet another fashionable phrase, it begged to wonder why did he or she even say it right at that moment, what was really the point of being that clever and cool? The screenwriters perhaps had a field day creating all that dialogue and felt obliged to fit it into the movie.
Out of the Past is plenty of fun. The pacing is taught, the acting stellar, and is lifted higher by the existence of its three dimensional characters. A most definite ‘must-see.’