Out of the Past
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Bitter, cynical, fatalistic and peppered with some of the best crackling, tough-guy dialogue in the genre, Out of the Past (1947) is a consummate example of film noir made during the movement's golden age in the '40s and '50s. Robert Mitchum stars as Jeff Bailey alongside Kirk Douglas as Whit Sterling, two shrewd, rock-hard individuals enthralled by the same mysterious, danger-courting woman, Kathie Moffett (played by Jane Greer).
Jeff is working anonymously as the owner of a small-town gas station in Bridgeport, California, and courting a local beauty, Ann (Virginia Huston), when a sinister man from Jeff's past, Joe (Paul Valentine), comes calling. Soon Jeff and Ann are on the road and heading toward the lair of Whit Sterling, an underworld figure. On their drive up to Lake Tahoe, Jeff is forced to delve into his sordid past and reveal the reason for the trip to the innocent Ann. As the film moves to an extended flashback sequence, Jeff describes his disastrous involvement with a classic noir femme fatale, the diabolical but irresistible Kathie.
A savvy, world-wise but financially strapped New York City detective, Jeff is hired by gambler Whit to retrieve his wayward girlfriend Kathie, who has shot at Whit and absconded to Mexico with $40,000 of his money. Upon meeting the apparently guileless runaway in a Mexican barroom, Jeff begins to doubt Whit's version of the truth and runs off with this enchantress for a new life in San Francisco. In a plot that quickly becomes remarkably twisting - even for a genre known for complicated crime plotlines - Jeff and Kathie are tracked down by his former detective cohort Fisher (Steve Brodie), who blackmails the couple to keep their whereabouts hidden. A remarkable string of double crosses and shocking revelations soon follow in Jacques Tourneur's typically grim noir universe, in which love stories are rarely allowed to turn out happily and no character is allowed to function without a dark side.
The son of French-born director Maurice Tourneur (The Last of the Mohicans, 1920), Jacques made his own memorable mark on the noir genre with a string of inspired choices, from the casting of the film to the use of real locations to enhance the film's gritty realism. Tourneur had handled equally macabre subject matter, though in a different genre, in such horror films as Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943). The cynicism of Out of the Past was also well served by the taut, acerbic script by gifted novelist/screenwriter Geoffrey Homes (The Phenix City Story, 1955; The Hitchhiker, 1953). Homes, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel Build My Gallows High, went on to write the equally gripping horror classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1957). One piece of typically raw, tough-guy dialogue spoken by Mitchum to Greer, "Baby, I don't care," would become the title of Lee Server's 2001 biography of the actor.
Mitchum and Kirk Douglas are - despite some actorly competitiveness behind the scenes - beautifully matched in Out of the Past. As with many films noir, the relationship between the brutally cynical Whit and Jeff, who share a woman and a cynicism about human behavior, turns out to be more honest and affectionate than either man's love for Kathie, a woman with the face of an angel and the impulses of a viper. The two actors, who both became known for their idiosyncratic, combative temperaments, reportedly engaged in an extended power play for attention in their scenes together, with Mitchum cracking funny faces to disrupt Douglas' performance, or Douglas insisting in one scene on flipping a coin as he spoke - effectively stealing the scene from Mitchum - until Tourneur vetoed the distracting coin gimmick.
Out of the Past is most often remembered for capitalizing on Mitchum's uniquely laconic sexual allure and for transforming the actor - in his second starring role after The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) - into an instant star. Though the role was initially offered to Humphrey Bogart, John Garfield and Dick Powell, all of whom turned it down, the gritty, stylish performance by Mitchum has become a classic in the noir canon. But Douglas delivers an equally memorable performance as the slick, smooth-talking Whit, who seems perpetually amused at the depths of human deviance. Newcomer Douglas fulfilled on the initial promise he had shown in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) and went on to carve out a small but significant niche for himself playing a succession of noirish villains in films like I Walk Alone (1947), The Big Carnival (1951) and Champion (1949).
Producer: Warren Duff, Robert Sparks
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Screenwriter: James M. Cain (uncredited), Frank Fenton (uncredited), Daniel Mainwaring
Geoffrey Homes, based on his novel Build My Gallows High
Director of Photography: Nicholas Musuraca
Production Design: Albert S. D'Agostino, Jack Okey
Music: Roy Webb
Costume Design: Edward Stevenson
Film Editing: Samuel E. Beetley
Principal Cast: Robert Mitchum (Jeff Bailey), Jane Greer (Kathie Moffett), Kirk Douglas (Whit Sterling), Rhonda Fleming (Meta Carson), Richard Webb (Jim), Steve Brodie (Fisher), Virginia Huston (Ann), Paul Valentine (Joe), Dickie Moore (The Kid).
BW-97m. Closed captioning. Descriptive video.
by Felicia Feaster