Blog Directory CineVerse: "Past" tense

"Past" tense

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Many film critics, historians and scholars will point to "Double Indemnity" as the gold standard for classic film noir. While it's hard to argue against that film being the standard bearer for the genre, there's a dark horse candidate that's emerged in recent decades as a possible contender to the crown--Jacques Tourneur's "Out of the Past," which features a femme fatale nearly as cold-blooded and conniving as Phyllis Dietrichson and a less hardboiled anti-hero lead. Consider the following points in the film's favor, as discussed during last night's CineVerse meeting:

  • Many noirs predominantly feature nighttime scenes in gritty urban jungles using high contrast lighting that create lots of dark shadows; this film features plenty of daytime scenes in bright, sunny settings, including bucolic outdoor locations.
    • According to essayist Gary Morris, “Director Jacques Tourneur follows Hitchcock’s approach in finding terror in the everyday, in this case the majestic backdrops of Lake Tahoe and Puerto Vallarta. This is not to say there aren’t recognizably dark “noir” scenes, but, again as in Hitchcock, the darkness emanates mainly from within the characters. This gives even a scene shot on a bright afternoon at a woodland river an atmosphere of bleakness and horror, when a fishing trip ends in a gruesome murder. It also shows the limits of Jeff’s world. Finished with Kathie, he falls in love with a sweet girl from the town where he’s been hiding, but while most of their scenes together are shot during the day, in natural locations, it’s clear from their nervous, almost desperate exchanges that there are stronger, darker forces that will prevent them ever coming together.”
  • The male lead here is laid back, laconic and low-key in speech, sleepy-eyed and possessing a cool detachment; most noir male leads, which are often private eyes or anti-heroes plotting a crime, are more hardboiled, tougher, sharp-tongued, alert and attentive. Credit Robert Mitchum with infusing a new nonchalant style and attitude to this noir anti-hero archetype.
  • Almost all classic noirs feature characters smoking, but this one seems to be trying to set records for how many coffin nails can be lit up and sucked in a 90-minute flick. Smoking, in fact, becomes a form of jousting. Roger Ebert wrote: “Few movies use smoking as well as this one; in their scenes together, it would be fair to say that Mitchum and Douglas smoke at each other, in a sublimated form of fencing.”
  • The movie uses real locations and natural settings for a more realistic, authentic look.
  • Like many noirs, this one employs a flashback, which occupies nearly half the runtime; what’s interesting about the flashback is that (1) it primarily occurs in broad daylight, and (2) Kathie is depicted as more of “an idealized love object. When the narrative leaves flashback mode, her aura vanishes…Kathie then elicits nothing but contempt from Jeff,” wrote film reviewer Glenn Erickson.
  • Markham suggests a “marked” man who is fated to die.
  • Moffat sounds like “Little Miss Muffet,” who was visited by a spider; Moffat herself becomes a spider woman femme fatale.
  • Whit sounds like “wit,” a man of sharp intellect and facetiousness.
  • Meta has multiple meanings; in ancient Rome, "meta" meant a column or post, or a group of columns or posts, placed at each end of a racetrack to mark the turning places. The character of Meta also appears at and signifies a turning point in this story. Also, "meta" is a prefix designating the meta position in the benzene ring in the world of chemistry; benzene is a toxic compound.
  • Former partner Fisher has a name that makes us think he’s fishing for something or is fishy.
  • Eels speaks for itself: a personality who operates in a slippery underworld who finds himself “underwater” and dead at the heels of Whit and his henchman.
  • Stefanos sounds like Mephistopheles, Mephisto, a demon or evil spirit.
  • “The kid” remains nameless, and is deaf and mute, as if the dealings of these other shady characters have left him speechless and deafened him with their evil intonations; he stands as a silent cypher, merely observing what’s happening, and serves in a way as a surrogate for the audience.
  • Inability to escape one’s past or one’s fate. The whole story is set in motion by Whit’s henchman finding Jeff and dragging him back to his past.
  • A doomed love triangle: Jeff, Kathie and Whit are all bound together and fated to fall. Arguably, however, this dominant relationship here is between Jeff and Whit, who have in common the same femme fatale woman, scathing hatred for each other, a certain personal code of honor, and a cynical, pessimistic worldview.
  • Fate and doomed destiny: interestingly, Jeff proceeds in getting involved with Kathie and Whit and reinvolving himself with him and her despite being aware that he’s being double-crossed and framed. It suggests that he can’t help himself because of Kathie’s allure.
  • Moral ambiguity: As Ebert posits, “The movie's final scene, between the hometown girl Ann and Jimmy, Jeff's hired kid at the gas station, reflects the moral murkiness of the film with its quiet ambiguity…As Jimmy answers Ann's question, is he telling her what he believes, what he thinks she wants to believe, or what he thinks it will be best for her to believe?”
  • Unanswered questions: Erickson also wrote that the secret of Out of the Past's superior dialogue is that “no question is ever given a straight answer. It's always another question, or a smart remark insinuating something.”
  • The dangerous noir female and what this character personifies. Morris wrote: “(Kathie) embodies postwar fears that women, having contributed mightily to the war effort and moved into “men’s work,” might abandon the domestic sphere entirely, causing all manner of social mayhem. She’s the culmination of the self-consumed, anti-domestic, anti-social female as evoked by Stanwyck in Double Indemnity and Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven, and even the most powerful men around her can’t comprehend or control the violent forces she represents.”
  • Its 1984 remake, Against All Odds
  • Gilda
  • The Big Sleep, which also features labyrinth-like double crosses and a complicated plot
  • Angel Face
  • Cat People
  • I Walked With a Zombie
  • Curse of the Demon
  • The Comedy of Terrors

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