Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Richard Webb
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Writer(s): Daniel Mainwaring, James M. Cain
Studio: Warner Brothers
Running Time: 97 minutes
If the Maltese Falcon is to be considered the grandfather of the Film Noir genre, which many have claimed it to be over the years, then ‘Out of the Past’ is definitely the genre’s chief biological father. For when you break down this movie to its basic D.N.A components, you see a perfect and incriminating match. As here we see the next generation of noir film making in which the genre was both advanced and finally perfected and completed. You also you see for one of the first times the classic noir structure that most films of the genre would emulate for years to come. It’s all here for the first time, from the dark shadows creeping around every corner, to the great use of real locations, the conflicted characters, their clothing, style, mannerisms, and the snappy dialogue they employed, you name it, if it’s not featured in this movie there’s a good chance it’s not noir to begin with. You also have the classic Femme Fatalle character featured here that proves to be very bad business indeed for any man who crosses paths with her, and that both the hero and the villain of the movie are heads over heels in love with. Yes, everything is here for one of the first times in a truly complete Film Noir package.
As said, many films would take these same ingredients and make their own versions of the classic noir dish, with varied results, but, aside from perhaps ‘The Big Sleep’ I can’t think of any other great classic noir that just flows as well as this movie did. Not saying that there aren’t other movies of the genre that are equal or better than these two films, as that is an entirely different discussion, as here I’m talking strictly about the rhythms and tone of the movie, mostly as it relates to the great usage of dialogue and movement. There’s just a great musical quality to that dialogue, which carries over into the story and everything else presented here. Bottom line, the makers of this movie found a formula that worked, and picked the best possible people to help make this movie as well. It’s one of those movies that keeps your attention for the entire duration and never misses a beat.
As I mentioned above, one of the things that makes ‘Out of the Past’ so enjoyable, and also re-watchable (as I’m sure this is one I will be seeing again) is that the dialogue in this movie is so astonishingly good. There is hardly a minute of screen time that goes by that some ingeniously funny and sardonic snide remark isn’t coming out of the mouth of one of the main or lesser characters. Credit for this achievement must go to both James M. Cain who wrote the screenplay (although uncredited) and Daniel Mainwaring (writing under the pseudonym of Geoffrey Homes ) who wrote the novel ‘Build My Gallows High’ (an admittedly deliberate imitation of Dashiell Hammett’s classic novel ‘The Maltese Falcon’ I might add as a tie in to my earlier grandfather/father analogy of the two best remembered screen adaptations of these two great literary works..) that this movie was based on. It’s not just in dialogue though, although that’s a huge part, this film also was an innovator in another classic area of Noir storytelling, chronology.
Now, when you think of movies messing around with the chronology of the action, your mind probably first goes to the 1990s films that popularized the tactic directed by folks like Quentin Tarintino and his many, many imitators. You probably don’t think about a movie made in 1946, but here it is, in all its glory. I did not go back and count the time, but it seems, about one third of this movie, the middle portion at that occurs purely in flashback. Let’s begin at the beginning though. When the film opens we see a hired gun named Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine) snooping around a sleepy California town looking for a man named Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), who we see here runs a local service station, and has a young mute kid (Dickie Moore) working for him. Joe eventually finds Jeff and informs him that an old ‘friend’ named Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) would like to see him that night at a big mansion just south of town. Jeff knows the score immediately. He has been found, and all his hopes for a new life could very well be done. On the way to the mansion Jeff stops to pick up his current flame and love interest, the beautiful and perfectly innocent (aside from the fact that she already has a boyfriend/fiancé in town, which causes quite the ruckus amongst the locals) Ann Miller played here by Virginia Huston. It is there on the drive that the aforementioned flashback sequence begins as Bailey tells both Ann, and the audience all the events that lead us up to this particular troubling situation.
The flashback sequences, which as said, take up a third of the movie, are narrated by Robert Mitchum, which gives them an extra boost of style all their own. For many years Robert Mitchum was the very personification of cool, laconic, laid back intensity in Hollywood. He is the grown up of version of James Dean, still as cool and handsome as ever, but with a world weariness about him that encapsulates everything he does. With a naturally downcast and demure face, he could convey (and convincingly I might add) intelligence, wit, danger, menace, tenderness, and determination with nothing but a solitary throwaway glance. You never caught him acting, just like another of my modern favorites, Robert Duvall, Mitchum steals every movie he’s in without even trying to with nothing but pure innate acting talent. ‘Out of the Past’ was Mitchum’s first starring role. Before this he had been relegated to playing mainly bad guys and enforcers, in much the same way that Hollywood did to Humphrey Bogart in most of his movies from the 1930s due to his look and demeanor.
Kirk Douglas, who appears here as the main antagonist of Mitchum’s character, is equally captivating in one of his very early starring roles. Kirk Douglas, even the name sounds piercing. From his slant stony face and peering eyes, to that infamous jaw line, there isn’t a feature on him that isn’t striking, and he brings his full presence and also considerable acting talents of his own to this film. Watching Mitchum and Douglas sparring off against one another in their scenes is one of the most entertaining aspects of ‘Out of the Past’ for sure. As Roger Ebert said in his review, they even seem to be dueling with one another with their cigarette smoke as well, as if they were ‘smoking at each other’. They find that they are a dead even match for one another in all the key elements of style, wit, intelligence, and craftiness.
However, there’s one character here that has everybody’s number right from the start, that neither Jeff Bailey nor Whit Sterling can hope to defeat. Of course I’m talking about Jane Greer’s ultimate Femme Fatalle character of Kathie Moffat here. Both men find themselves hopelessly in love with her at various points in the movie. We learn in the flashback that is what begins their relationship in fact, as Sterling hired Bailey, who went by a different name at the time, and worked with a full time partner as a private detective in New York, to find her after she had already left him, but not before firing four bullets at him, one of which struck pay dirt, and making off with forty thousand of his dollars. The money he says he doesn’t care about, the girl though, he must have back at any price.
We watch then, as Bailey leaves New York, and follows Moffat’s trail through Mexico, and finally into Acapulco, where he eventually finds her, and of course, falls for her, which understandably complicates the entire business of him working for her ex-husband, and bringing her back to him. The real point of these scenes though is to show off the striking beauty of Jane Greer in the lush tropical setting of Acapulco, and to demonstrate the great chemistry that she and Mitchum had together. The most famous, and best example of this being the wonderfully well crafted scene where Jeff and Kathie make love inside her beach house with a storm raging just outside that appears to be a real monsoon. Eventually Sterling comes to investigate how things are going in Acapulco, which forces Jeff and Kathie to flee from there. They live in a couple different places after this, with Jeff once again working as a detective for a while in San Francisco. All goes well until Jeff’s old partner from New York, who was hired by Sterling to find them, spots them, and they are forced on the run again.
During his time with Kathie, Jeff, although still madly in love with her, begins to suspect things may not be quite right with his beloved darling after all. She proves to be quite the gifted liar and manipulator throughout the film. During the scene in which Bailey’s old partner finds them, she is the one who pulls out a gun and murders him, something Bailey would only have done as a last resort. Then as she is fleeing this macabre scene, Bailey discovers a bank statement that strongly implies that she indeed did steal the forty thousand dollars from Sterling that she had, to that point, insistently denied doing. That brings us back to the present, where, reunited at the mansion we see that Kathie has returned to Whit, and their plan is to send Bailey on a mission to San Francisco, under the premise of him squaring up his old debt to Whit by getting a hold of some tax documents that could cost him a good deal of money, and are currently in the hands of his former lawyer, Leonard Eels. Of course it’s a trap, and Bailey knows this as well, but he trudges dutifully ahead, appearing to be a willing ploy in the whole affair.
It was great fun to see Mitchum’s character always staying a step ahead of Sterling’s men throughout these scenes in San Francisco, and while the plot may be hard to follow at times, as is typical of the genre, there’s never a shortage of interesting things to look at on screen. There are many murders and various twists and turns as you would expect in any decent noir flick. I will not attempt to spoil them all here, or the ending for that matter for those who haven’t seen this movie, other than to say it is one of the best executed endings in noir history. It strikes a perfect balance of tragedy and hope for the future, and you can read it in several different ways depending on what certain characters may or may not know in the grand scheme of things, but it definitely left a strong and lasting effect on me, regardless of interpretation.
One of the themes dealt with in a lot of classic film noir is the one of a bad man trying to change his nature and reform himself only to be pulled back into the abyss. He may try to do this by moving to a new town where he is an unknown entity, changing his name, and his occupation, as Jeff Bailey does here, leaving his old detective office behind for a humble mechanics station, but try as he might our noir ‘hero’ will eventually be pulled back into that all encompassing darkness of fate by some element of his past or his personality that simply will not allow him to escape what’s coming to him. In a way the genre is kind of like a throwback to the ancient Greek tragedies in which the course of the character’s lives are directed for them by entities far greater than them and they are powerless to divert it regardless of what they may attempt in the here and now. People think they have free will in these movies, but ultimately they are doomed from the start, as Jeff Bailey is when we first meet him in this film. Redemption may be found sometimes, but always at a cost far greater than most would like to pay. It may sound bleak, and indeed it is, but just as with the Greeks, great noir uses this kind of theme to craft some magnificent morality tales and other assorted stories, of which ‘Out of the Past’ is one of the best of the lot.