by TRUDY RING ~ posted March 1st, 2018
“OUT OF THE PAST” just may be the ultimate film noir.
I say “may be” because I know so many noirs, proto-noirs, and neo-noirs have their partisans, and I love so many of them too — such as “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,” which I’ve written about for this blog, and lots and lots more; noir is one of my favorite genres. But perhaps no other film encapsulates the quintessential elements of noir so perfectly as director Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 effort. The femme fatale is one of the most fatale ever – gorgeous, evil, unrepentant, and thoroughly irresistible. Her fall guy is handsome, sexy, sympathetic, yet flawed; he can’t escape her, and he can’t escape his past. At the same time it has some elements that are rare not only in noir but in classic-era films generally.
As the film opens, Jeff Bailey is living quietly as a gas station operator in the small town of Bridgeport in Northern California. “I sell gasoline,” he tells the guy who’s emerged from the past to draw Jeff back into his old life. “I make a small profit. With that I buy groceries. The grocer makes a profit. We call it earning a living. You may have heard of it somewhere.”
But Jeff isn’t destined to continue to make a living in this respectable manner. His visitor is Joe Stefanos, whom Jeff knew in his former life as a New York City private eye named Jeff Markham. In that life, Jeff did a job for Joe’s boss, big-time gambler Whit Sterling, and Joe says Whit has another assignment for Jeff.
That will bring Jeff back into contact with Whit’s mistress, one Kathie Moffat. In the earlier assignment, which we learn about via flashback, Jeff had tracked Kathie to Mexico after she stole $40,000 from Whit. But once Jeff found her, he gave up any thought of bringing her back to Whit. He was immediately smitten with her, and they took off for San Francisco to carry on their love affair. “We seemed to live by night,” Jeff recalls – how very noir! They were eventually undone by her duplicity, but when Jeff again encounters Kathie, who’s returned to Whit, he’s helpless before her once more.
I won’t reveal much about where the film goes after that, just in case any of you readers haven’t seen it, except to say that Jeff is in big trouble. And if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend taking advantage of your next opportunity to do so.
Jeff, in many ways the perfect noir fall guy, is played by perhaps the ideal noir actor, Robert Mitchum. Yes, I love Bogart, Garfield, Lancaster, and more, but there is just something about Mitchum’s laconic manner, sleepy-eyed sexiness, and combination of toughness and vulnerability that’s perfect for
noir, and perfect for “Out of the Past.” And oh, that femme fatale. Kathie is played by Jane Greer, a beautiful brunette known mostly to classic film buffs; she had a long career but deserved better parts than she usually got. The part of Kathie is the best she ever had, and Greer doesn’t hit a false note in conveying the character’s amorality along with her appeal. “I never told you I was anything but what I am,” she tells Jeff. “You just wanted to imagine I was.”
For good measure, “Out of the Past” throws in another femme fatale, Meta Carson, whom Jeff runs across in his new assignment to retrieve some incriminating tax documents for Whit. She’s well-played by gorgeous redhead Rhonda Fleming, another actress who merited better roles. There are terrific villains as well, led by Kirk Douglas as the coldly calculating Whit. This was just his third film; Douglas had made his movie debut a year earlier as Barbara Stanwyck’s weak-willed, alcoholic husband in “…Martha Ivers,” but he already had plenty of star quality. Other deliciously menacing bad guys in “Out of the Past” include Paul Valentine as Joe Stefanos and Ken Niles as the appropriately named Leonard Eels.
The film does have an element that gets film noir criticized by some feminists (and I’m a feminist, but I love noir) – the portrayal of women as completely good or completely evil, no shades of gray. Kathie and Meta are the evil ones, while the good one is Ann Miller (Virginia Huston), who’s become Jeff’s sweetheart in Bridgeport. She is also the movie’s weakest link; Ann may be nice, but she is so bland and boring, who could blame a man for being drawn to Kathie instead?
Now for the film’s unexpected elements, especially unexpected in 1947. It has African-American characters who are not stereotypes. Eunice Leonard, played by the wonderful Theresa Harris, may be a servant – Kathie’s maid – but she’s not subservient. And when we meet her, she’s not at work but instead enjoying the high life at a nightclub – albeit one with an all-black clientele, but it does show black characters living lives away from their white employers and savoring middle-class pleasures. Harris played another unstereotypical maid, Cleo, in “Miracle on 34th Street,” working for Maureen O’Hara’s character, and was a highlight of many other classic movies.
Also, “Out of the Past” features a character who has a disability but is strong and independent – former child star Dickie Moore (“Blonde Venus,” “So Big”) as a deaf-mute young man, known simply as “The Kid,” who works at Jeff’s gas station. He ends up playing a pivotal role in the story.
Tourneur, a French émigré, had a considerable career in both film and television, in the latter directing several episodes of Barbara Stanwyck’s short-lived anthology series. In addition to “Out of the Past,” he’s best known for his atmospheric, stylish horror films, such as “Cat People” and “I Walked With a Zombie.” His IMDB biography credits him with “masterpieces in many different genres,” and “Out of the Past” is certainly a masterpiece of noir.
The screenwriter of “Out of the Past” went by the pen name of Geoffrey Homes, but his real name was Daniel Mainwaring, and he adapted “Out of the Past” from his novel “Build My Gallows High” (that title is referenced in a bit of dialogue). It’s one I have to put on my reading list. Mainwaring had a mixed record, but he did write the screenplay for one other undisputed masterpiece, the 1956 version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” adapted from Jack Finney’s magazine serial. IMDB tells me pulp-fiction master James M. Cain and prolific screenwriter Frank Fenton did some uncredited work on “Out of the Past.”
All the other elements of the film are excellent – music (Roy Webb), cinematography (Nicholas Musuraca), and so on, but I have to give special mention to the costumes that Edward Stevenson, the head designer for RKO, created for Jane Greer. The simple, form-fitting dresses and big picture hats suit her perfectly, and you’ll see an echo of them in the costumes worn by Rachel Ward in Carl Reiner’s comic but loving noir homage, “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” from 1982. Ward, another beautiful brunette, even looks something like Greer – and Greer was cast as her mother in 1984’s “Against All Odds,” a semi-remake of “Out of the Past” that’s enjoyable on its own terms.
But go for the original first. You won’t regret this journey into the past.
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