(1947) Directed by Jacques Tourneur; Written by Geoffrey Homes (aka: Daniel Mainwaring); Based on the novel Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes; Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, and Virginia Huston; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“…How did I know she’d ever show up? I didn’t. What stopped her from taking a boat to Chile or Guatemala? Nothing. How big a chump could you get to be?” – Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum)
What makes a film noir a film noir? While no two people may agree on the genre’s constraints, you know what you’re looking at the moment you see it. Throughout Noir-vember, my month-long exploration of these distinctive films, I hope to delve deeper, and create my own definition. Don’t expect any new revelations, but every new title (for me at least) promises to be an education on this vibrant and diverse category. Many films may contain similar themes (a private eye caught in a web of conspiracy beyond his understanding or control, a shifty dame, duplicitous friends, an urban jungle, etc…), but the permutations are endless. The brilliance, after all, is in the details, as different filmmakers shuffle around these ingredients like professional chefs interpreting a time-worn recipe. One of the finest examples of the genre, blending all of these disparate and familiar elements, is Out of the Past.
Based on the novel Build My Gallows High (which was the British release title) by Geoffrey Homes (aka: Daniel Mainwaring), and masterfully directed by Jacques Tourneur, Out of the Past features snappy dialogue and a twisty plot to weave its tale about a man in over his head. Shot on location in San Francisco and Bridgeport, California, Mexico City and Acapulco, Tourneur establishes time, place and mood, contrasting the bucolic with urban. Most of the film’s scenes are at night, setting the melancholy tone, and casting its characters in literal and figurative darkness.
Robert Mitchum stars as ex-private detective Jeff Bailey, who runs a gas station in a quiet little Northern California town. He thought he escaped his past life, until his former employer’s hired goon starts sniffing around. Mitchum is perfect in the role as a man steeped in regret and a longing for a simpler life. His impassive, sleepy-eyed expression belies a calculating mind and a storm raging within. We learn about Jeff’s backstory through a flashback, recalling how he was hired by the mob boss Whit (Kirk Douglas) to find the woman that shot him and absconded with his $40,000. Jeff tracks her down in Mexico, but ends up falling in love with her. Mitchum delivers his lines with dry humor (“That’s one way to be clever, look like an idiot.”) and a world-weary heart, as one who’s seen it all and done it all. When he suspects he’s being manipulated by his employer, he comments, “…all I can see is the frame. I’m going in there now to look at the picture.” He’s resigned to his fate, aware that he’s walking into a trap, but powerless to stop it. All he can do is hope to reverse the outcome.
Jane Greer* excels as femme fatale Kathie Moffat, easily the film’s most complex character. She’s capable of displaying tenderness one moment and the viciousness of a caged animal in the next. Kathie plays both sides for her own ends, changing allegiances like a new ensemble. She’s a far cry from the female characters depicted in the past, who sit passive by the sidelines. Her innocent ingénue act is merely a cover for a scheming cobra, ready to strike. She’s an architect of her fate, judiciously balancing her hatred for Whit with her love for Jeff, but never at the expense of her own interest. By comparison, Jeff’s girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston) is purposefully bland, representing a hopeful future that remains out of reach.
* Fun fact: Greer was the girlfriend of Howard Hughes, who owned RKO Studios at the time.
Douglas shines in his second film appearance, as kingpin Whit, who presents a deceptively amiable façade, but hides a violent streak. Despite the fact that Jeff has betrayed him, he’s determined to bring him back into the fold. He manipulates people like chess pieces, and is determined to hold onto whatever is his at any cost, with the tenacity of a remora (“I fire people, but nobody quits me.”).
It’s worth noting another character that doesn’t receive much attention, but deserves more praise. As opposed to the flashier roles, there’s a nice low-key performance by former child actor Dickie Moore as a young deaf/mute man who works for Jeff at the gas station. He conveys so much with so little, bringing the film to a conclusion with merely a nod.
Out of the Past reminds us that film noir is all about contrasts: shadow and light, the bucolic versus urban, glamorous versus plain, and submissive versus dominant. Screenwriter Homes weaves an elaborate story that commands our attention, but manages to stay one step ahead. But as author Jim Ursini observes in his DVD commentary, film noir is more about the “why” of characters and their psychology, rather than the “how,” or machinations of the plot. The climax subverts the audience’s expectations, leading to a “happy” ending that depends on your definition of happy. Out of the Past is a classic example of film noir, and a fine introduction to the genre. It exemplifies what this type of movie does so well, taking us on a dark ride into the seamier recesses of the soul.