The Big Idea Behind OUT OF THE PAST
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Out of the Past is a quintessential Film Noir that could easily serve as a model for the genre. The term was not in use in the late 1940s, of course, but all of the elements that went into such a film - the complex plot, the fated protagonist, the destructive femme fatale, the atmospheric look - were already established in previous films. The genius of Out of the Past is the convergence of talents - director Jacques Tourneur, screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring, and actors Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer - who had a single-minded goal: to make the hard-boiled detective drama to end all hard-boiled detective dramas.
By 1946 Jacques Tourneur was primed to direct a film like Out of the Past. He cut his teeth as Val Lewton's first choice as director for his Horror unit at RKO in the early 1940s. With director of photography Nick Musuraca, Tourneur shot the very atmospheric Cat People, Lewton's inaugural effort, in 1942. This was followed by the classics I Walked With a Zombie and The Leopard Man in 1943. Tourneur, the son of famed French director Maurice Tourneur, had a classical eye for composition and an innate sense of texture and atmosphere - perfect for the thriller genre and the cinema of suggestion that Lewton's films demanded. Following these pictures, RKO began assigning bigger budget films to Tourneur.
Robert Mitchum was more than ready for a breakout movie role by 1946. He was in a unique situation having a talent contract split between a studio - RKO - and an independent producer - David O. Selznick (through his Vanguard Films). Due to recent successes, particularly his good notices as the lead in Story of G. I. Joe (1945), Mitchum had a loyal fan following and was able to renegotiate for a salary hike. What he needed at this point was a strong, identifying role to solidify his standing as an A-list leading man.
In 1946 Dore Schary became executive vice-president in charge of production at RKO Pictures. As one of the "major minors" they were able to turn out lower budget pictures efficiently, and produce the occasional "A" picture to compete with the major studios. Jane Greer was a contract player that RKO was anxious to groom into stardom. Greer had been discovered while modeling a WAC uniform for Life magazine in 1942. After shooting screen tests for Paramount and for Selznick, she was signed by Howard Hughes in 1943, but shortly bought out her contract from the billionaire. She appeared in several low-budget RKO pictures beginning in 1945, and finally scored a prominent role (and good reviews) in the Film Noir They Won't Believe Me (1947). Though a standout in the cast, she was one of three women in the life of the male lead, played by Robert Young. RKO would now seek to feature her in the lead female role of her next picture.
Daniel Mainwaring was a prolific writer, having turned out many mysteries and crime novels since 1936 (using the pen name Geoffrey Homes). He turned to screenwriting in the 1940s and worked on minor action and crime films such as Crime by Night (1944) and They Made Me a Killer (1946). In 1946 he was in the midst of writing a series of low-budget programmers being made at Paramount (Big Town, based on a popular radio show of the same name). Brought in to adapt his novel Build My Gallows High at RKO, he found a sympathetic producer in Warren Duff, who was himself a screenwriter.
So for Out of the Past, several talents came together in a fortuitous convergence - all intending to make their mark with a picture that would define their role in the industry - and contrary to common assumption, Out of the Past was not a B-movie as far as RKO was concerned. Mitchum and Greer were being groomed for "A" stardom, Kirk Douglas was borrowed from Paramount for the film, and location shooting in San Francisco and Acapulco was planned. Other writers were brought in for script polishing: novelist and Noir icon James M. Cain (Double Indemnity) contributed the famous flashback structure, while writer/actor Frank Fenton added some of the crackling dialogue. Filming on Out of the Past began in October of 1946.
by John Miller