Blog Directory CineVerse: Looking at the "Past" through the lens of the present

Looking at the "Past" through the lens of the present

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

If you are a self-respecting film noir fan, Out of the Past (1947) probably ranks high on your list of standouts in this genre. Last week, our CineVerse group probed carefully into this movie’s anatomy to better understand what makes it a superlative noir. Highlights of our discussion points follow (click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion; to hear the September Cineversary podcast episode on his film, click here).

How has Out of the Past stood the test of time? Why does this movie still matter 75 years later, and why is it worth celebrating?

  • Out of the Past perhaps hews closest thematically and tonally to the central tenet of noir: that its characters are destined for doom based on fatal flaws like greed, betrayal, jealousy, and desire. Put another way, this film could be the truest expression of great noir and what makes noir great, thanks in large part to its fatalistic philosophy and pessimism.
  • It also still matters courtesy of its clever screenwriting construction and hard-boiled wordsmithing, particularly the memorable dialogue and one-liners.
  • It has stood the test of time partially because the title itself, Out of the Past, is one of the best in the genre. This title is arguably most representational of the murky, ambiguous, and obscure nature of noir, suggesting a mysterious story in which bygone secrets or forgotten shadows emerge to engulf the present day.
  • It’s further worth celebrating for its clever, rhythmic, hard-boiled dialogue and snappy patter, which is often a major part of the delicious fun of noir. In Out of the Past, Jeff gets most of the great lines, typically delivered almost as a punchline to a setup line, as if he were the polished comedian opposite a straight man. For proof, consider some of the following exchanges:
    • “Is there a way to win?” “Well, there’s a way to lose more slowly.”
    • “Don’t you like to gamble?” “Not against a wheel.”
    • “Don’t you believe me?” “Baby, I don’t care.”
    • “Don’t you miss me? “No more than I would my eyes.”
    • “I don’t want to die.” “Neither do I, maybe, but if I have to I’m going to die last.”
    • “I lost her.” “She’s worth losing.”
    • “He was trailin’ you?” “Well, you don’t go fishing with a .45 in your hand.”
    • “Don’t you see? You’ve only got me to make deals with now.” “Build my gallows high, baby.”
  • Even the way the characters are named matters here, as monikers reveal interesting things about them:
    • Jeff’s surname Markham sounds like “mark him” and suggests a “marked” man who is fated to die.
    • The word “Moffat” perhaps makes us think of “Little Miss Muffet,” who was visited by a spider; Moffat herself becomes a spider woman femme fatale.
    • The name “Whit” conjures up its homonym “wit,” W-I-T, implying 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. Additionally, in the world of chemistry, "meta" is actually a prefix designating the meta position in the benzene ring; benzene itself is a toxic compound.
    • Jeff’s former partner Fisher has a name that makes us think he’s fishing for something or is himself fishy.
    • Eels speaks for itself: a personality who operates in a slippery underworld and finds himself “underwater” and dead at the heels of Whit and his henchman.
    • Stefanos sounds a bit like Mephistopheles, Mephisto, a demon or evil spirit.
    • “The kid,” as he’s listed in the credits, 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 cipher, merely observing what’s happening, and serves in a way as a surrogate for the audience.

What special qualities do director Jacques Tourneur, writer Daniel Mainwaring, and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca bring to this picture?

  • Out of the Past benefits, as do we, from the confluence of key artists working at top form, especially Tourneur behind the wheel and the three M’s that propel this vehicle: Mainwaring, Musaraca, and Mitchum. This is the byproduct of great timing coupled with great talent.
  • Jacques Tourneur is primarily known for helming horror classics like Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, Curse of the Demon, and The Comedy of Terrors, but this work proves how savvy he could be working in other genres.
    • Tourneur begins the film in an offbeat fashion, in broad daylight with a POV shot from the backseat of a car.
    • He and his collaborators are responsible for a fantastic montage in Pablo’s bar, when the camera sweeps left and dissolves into a camera sweep left of a subsequent night.
    • The scene where Kathy and Jeff rush back to her place to escape the rain is a Tourneur masterclass in sexual suggestiveness at a time of censorship; from offscreen, Kathy throws a towel that knocks over a lamp, turning the room dark, as the wind blows open the front door – shorthand in the 1940s for urgent and passionate sex that couldn’t be shown.
    • It’s also shrewd to have the characters mention Kathy Moffat well before she appears on screen, which makes her entrance more impactful, especially after we hear Whit say earlier, “When you see her, you’ll understand better.”
    • Furthermore, it’s impressive how the filmmakers weave symbolic visual props into this story, including the spiderweb-like netting we see on the beach and the imposing gate at Whit’s compound that makes it look more like a penitentiary portal: not-so-incidental objects that silently comment on the dangerous milieu Jeff is caught up in.
    • Admire, as well, how effectively the camera lingers unbroken on Kathy’s radiant face during close-up or more tightly framed kissing scenes with Jeff, which makes us see her from his gaze and better appreciate how entrancing she appears to him.
  • Many people believe this was a B-movie because it was made by RKO – a studio known in the mid-1940s for producing pictures on a tighter budget. But the evidence shows that the opposite is true, that Greer and Mitchum were being positioned as rising stars, that Douglas’ talents were lent from another studio, and that noir scribe heavyweight James M. Cain was enlisted for script doctoring.

How and why was this film crucial in launching the careers of Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, and Jane Greer, and is this possibly Mitchum’s best role and performance?

  • Mitchum shines in other key portrayals, particularly as the stalking preacher in Night of the Hunter, as the sadistically violent Max Kady in Cape Fear, and as Philip Marlowe in Farewell My Lovely.
  • But his turn as Jeff Bailey is equally exemplary, especially considering how differently Mitchum embodies the antihero lead character in a noir compared to someone like Bogart, Burt Lancaster, John Garfield, or Robert Ryan might approach this type of personality.
  • Mitchum exudes an unforced sexual magnetism and employs a nonchalant aplomb in his speech, mannerisms, and body language that differentiates him from many contemporary actors in this genre. Noir expert James Ursini describes Mitchum in this role as having a fatalistic and stoic quality, which stands in contrast to the slick and aggressive style of Douglas as Whit.
  • It certainly helps that he possesses the chiseled features and physique of a man who can handle himself when the going gets tough. But it’s the sensitivity around the eyes that particularly pulls fans into Mitchum’s performance.

Is Out of the Past innovative or different in any way, especially compared to previous noir films?

  • Many noirs predominantly showcase nighttime scenes in gritty urban jungles using high contrast lighting that create oodles of dark shadows; interestingly, this film features plenty of daytime scenes in bright, sunny settings, including bucolic outdoor locations.
    • According to Bright Lights Film Journal critic 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.”
  • As mentioned earlier, the male lead here is laid-back, laconic, low-key in speech, sleepy-eyed, and coolly detached; many other noir male leads, often private eyes, are harder-edged, tougher, more violent, and more alert and attentive. Credit Mitchum with infusing a new casual style and attitude to this noir anti-hero archetype.
  • The movie uses real locations and natural settings for a more realistic, authentic look.
  • Like several other 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 what DVD Savant Glenn Erickson described as “an idealized love object. When the narrative leaves flashback mode, her aura vanishes…Kathie then elicits nothing but contempt from Jeff.”
  • Erickson further posits that the film “brought out the romantic side of noir in ways that previous tough-guy pictures had not. The characters are cynical, but the movie is not. It aches with a failed romanticism forever defeated by greed, jealousy, and pride… Out of the Past confronts us with the argument that romantic suicide may be the only way to live.”
  • 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 sparring.
    • 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.”
    • Jeff immediately lights up a lucky even after the tensest of situations, such as following Kathie’s murder of Fisher and upon his theft of the tax files – simple physical gestures that imply nerves of steel.

Considering all the double-crosses and doppelgängers, affidavits and tax documents, and blackmailing and bluffing in the second half of the story, there’s a lot to keep track of. Should viewers try to keep up with the chess games being played here, or should they adopt the same approach one might take with The Big Sleep, where the machinations of the plot should be regarded as less important than the film’s look, characters, and vibe?

  • It may be best to regard the tax papers, affidavit, and even Eels’ missing body as Hitchcockian MacGuffins: objects that propel the characters and the plot but are relatively insignificant to the audience. In other words, we shouldn’t care too much about them or how they are intricately enmeshed in the story.
  • According to TCM Noir Alley host Eddie Muller, the details of the complicated plot in the second half aren’t as important as the fact that these schemes and betrayals serve as catalysts to reunite Jeff, Whit, and Kathie for a final reckoning.

What’s the moral of the story here? What themes or messages are woven into Out of the Past?

  • The inability to escape one’s past or fate. The whole story is set in motion by Whit’s henchman finding Jeff and dragging him back to dangerous people and locations from his past. Even though all three main characters are on the lam, they can’t outrun their previous transgressions and crimes. They lead duplicitous double lives, but their true natures and identities ultimately emerge, leading to their downfall.
  • Repeating past mistakes. We see both Jeff and Kathie repeat certain actions that they will later come to regret or that prove futile.
    • Jeff conspires, or pretends to conspire, with Kathie against Whit multiple times.
    • Kathie shoots Whit and then shoots him again later.
    • After Jeff and Kathie deceive Whit, Jeff returns to Whit twice before the end of the story.
    • And Jeff rendezvous with Ann twice, but they still don’t end up together.
  • A doomed love triangle: Jeff, Kathie, and Whit are all bound together and fated to fall. Debatably, however, the more fascinating relationship here upon closer inspection is between Jeff and Whit, who have in common the same femme fatale woman, a scathing hatred for each other, a private code they each abide by, and a sardonic, pessimistic worldview.
  • Fate and doomed destiny: Interestingly, Jeff proceeds in getting involved with Kathie and Whit and reinvolving himself with them despite being aware that he’s being double-crossed and framed. It suggests that he can’t help himself because of Kathie’s magnetism and an inherent fatal flaw.
  • Disloyalty and duplicity are irredeemable mortal sins far worse than murder, theft, blackmail, or other crimes committed by these characters. Betrayal ultimately leads to the death of Jeff, Kathie, and Whit.
  • Moral ambiguity: As Roger Ebert wrote: “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: Critic Glenn 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.”

What is Out of the Past’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • One of this movie’s greatest gifts is that it’s a terrific story terrifically told, both visually and verbally. It’s true that the plot, particularly in the second half, becomes overly convoluted, especially as double-crosses and schemes both intersect and diverge. But what helps make it stand tall among other works in this genre is the way Out of the Past is supremely structured as a then-and-now story – featuring the extended and voiceover-narrated flashback comprising part one contrasting with present-day 1947 in part two, wherein the characters are continually haunted by the specter of the past.
  • Greatest gift number two is Kathy Moffat, quite possibly the sultriest and most sinister femme fatale of them all. Phyllis Dietrichson from Double Indemnity remains the cold-hearted queen against whom all other noir spider women are measured, certainly, but Kathy notches a higher body count of victims and wields her duplicitous charms with more skill and dexterity. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but like Rita Haworth in Gilda and Ava Gardner in The Killers, Jane Greer is drop-dead gorgeous, retaining a timeless allure and sensuousness 75 years later that makes viewers believe why Jeff would fall prey to her.
  • Greatest gift number three is the trenchcoat tough talk mouthed by these streetwise personalities: wisecracking witticisms and rapid-fire repartee delivered with a rhythm, cadence, and timing that can be relished by new generations as priceless pulp poetry. Out of the Past boasts some of the most stylized and sarcastically savory banter heard in a 1940s film. I submit to the jury the following exhibits:
    • “What was left of the day went away like a pack of cigarettes you smoked.”
    • “You’re like the leaf that blows from one gutter to another.”
    • “Do you always go around leaving your fingerprints on a girl’s shoulders?”
    • “Joe couldn’t find a prayer in the Bible.”
    • And perhaps my favorite: “You know, a dame with a rod is like a guy with a knitting needle.”

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