Saturday Night Cinema: Out of the Past

Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema is one of my top 10 films, and certainly my favorite film noir of all time — well, tied with A Touch of Evil. If you ever get the chance to view it on the big screen, go.

It was Out of the Past that turned me on to the film noir genre, and I was hooked hard every since. Longtime GR fans know how I feel about Robert Mitchum — he is the ideal man. I’d kill for some Mitchum.

No one ever smoked and brooded and loomed like Robert Mitchum. And he never did it as definitively as he does in Out of the Past, a stylish and devastating noir that was one of a hat-trick of perfect genre pieces directed by Jacques Tourneur in the 1940s (along with Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie). Viewers not enamoured of the actor’s somnambulant manner might take the latter title for a description of what it must be like to act alongside Mitchum. But that would be to miss the bitter, internalised hurt and wounded hope he brings to his performance here; just because he’s still, that doesn’t mean he’s not suffering.

Mitchum plays Jeff Bailey, a private eye hired by Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to track down his errant lover, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who skedaddled after swiping $40,000 of his money. Oh, and shooting him. It may not be any surprise that when Jeff catches up with the fugitive femme fatale, there is a crackle of attraction between them. The seductive skill of the movie lies in its masterful evocation of that sensual, fatalistic bleakness crucial to noir. From Nicholas Musuraca’s chiaroscuro cinematography (“It was so dark on set, you didn’t know who else was there half the time,” said Greer) to Roy Webb’s plangent score and the guarded, electrifying performances, it’s nothing short of a noir masterclass.

The screenplay was adapted by Daniel Mainwaring from his own novel, Build My Gallows High (the film’s UK title). But the sharpened splinters of dialogue also bear the mark of Cain — James M Cain, that is, the legendary author of noir landmarks The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, who performed vital but uncredited rewrites. According to Mitchum’s biographer, Lee Server, it was Cain who expunged Kathie of any traces of lovability. “She can’t be all bad — no one is,” one character remarks of her. To which Jeff shoots back: “She comes the closest.” RG

The NY Times review:

OUT OF THE PAST (1947) RKO MYSTERY STARRING ROBERT MITCHUM
By Bosley Crowther, NY Times

Published: November 26, 1947

There have been double- and triple-crosses in many of these tough detective films, and in one or two Humphrey Bogart specials they have run even higher than that. But the sum of deceitful complications that occur in “Out of the Past” must be reckoned by logarithmic tables, so numerous and involved do they become. The consequence is that the action of this new film, which came to the Palace yesterday, is likely to leave the napping or unmathematical customer far behind.

Frankly, that’s where it left us. We were with it, up to a point, and enjoying the rough-stuff and the romance with considerable delight and concern. For this story of an ex-private detective who is shanghaied from a quiet, prosaic life to get involved with his old criminal associates is intensely fascinating for a time. And it is made even more galvanic by a smooth realistic style, by fast dialogue and genuine settings in California and Mexican locales.

But after this private detective has re-encountered an old girl friend (who originally double-crossed him after luring him to double-cross his boss, whom she had shot) and the two get elaborately criss-crossed in a plot to triple-cross our boy again, the involutions of the story become much too complex for us. The style is still sharp and realistic, the dialogue still crackles with verbal sparks and the action is still crisp and muscular, not to mention slightly wanton in spots. But the pattern and purpose of it is beyond our pedestrian ken. People get killed, the tough guys browbeat, the hero hurries—but we can’t tell you why.

However, as we say, it’s very snappy and quite intriguingly played by a cast that has been well and smartly directed by Jacques Tourneur. Robert Mitchum is magnificently cheekly and self-assured as the tangled “private eye,” consuming an astronomical number of cigarettes in displaying his nonchalance. And Jane Greer is very sleek as his Delilah, Kirk Douglas is crisp as a big crook and Richard Webb, Virginia Huston, Rhonda Fleming and Dickie Moore are picturesque in other roles. If only we had some way of knowing what’s going on in the last half of this film, we might get more pleasure from it. As it is, the challenge is worth a try.
OUT OF THE PAST, screen play by Geoffrey Homes; directed by Jacques Tourneur; produced by Warren Duff for RKO Radio Pictures, Inc. At the RKO Palace.
Jeff . . . . . Robert Mitchum
Kathie . . . . . Jane Greer
Whit . . . . . Kirk Douglas
Meta Carson . . . . . Rhonda Fleming
Jim . . . . . Richard Webb
Fisher . . . . . Steve Brodie
Ann . . . . . Virginia Huston
Joe . . . . . Paul Valentine
The Kid . . . . . Dickie Moore
Eels . . . . . Ken Niles

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