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Mysterious Forces and Femme Fatales: ‘Out of the Past’

In Torneur's classic film, the femme fatale knows she's an object in a world of violent men she has no reason to respect.

A stranger arrives in town. While it’s a classic opening in the western genre, Out of the Past applies it to a crime melodrama, the type that what would come to be called film noir.

A broad-shouldered, trench-coated slab of bad news with a strained smile, the stranger (Paul Valentine) summons a mysterious local man who runs a gas station under an assumed name, Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum). As Jeff is more or less strong-armed into working for a smiling gambler—that is, gangster—called Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), Jeff explains his dark past in a flashback to his wholesome girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston).

Once upon a time, not so long ago, Jeff was a private detective hired by Whit to track down his missing girlfriend, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who debunked with $40,000 USD after firing a few bullets into Whit. Jeff found her in Acapulco, fell in love, and ran away with her on an underground life to San Francisco that came to end with murder. Nursing his wounds in the healing rural air of small-town California, Jeff will now find himself dragged inexorably back into complicated new permutations of unfinished business.

Out of the Past, drafted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, is now safely enshrined as an archetypal noir film and a Hollywood classic. It’s got the snappy dialogue, the lovely night scenes, the femme fatale, the sense of cruel destiny, the characters smoking like chimneys, and, of course, the whole nine existential yards. In a functional commentary track on the new Blu-ray, noir historian James Ursini discusses the film in terms of these generic markers.

A useful counterweight to this commentary is the chapter on this film in Chris Fujiwara’s Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, where he puts it squarely in the context of the director Jacques Tourneur‘s other work in many genres. He begins with the fact that producer Warren Duff had already worked with Tourneur on Experiment Perilous. Fujiwara says if the film seems like a typical noir, “[T]his is only because Tourneur’s constant preoccupations—the unreliability of appearances, the helplessness of people to resist their obsessions and avoid becoming the victims of an apparently impersonal fate—are also those of the genre”.

He also points out that uncredited writer Frank Fenton was a crucial contributor to the dialogue, characterizations, and plot points credited only to Geoffrey Homes (a pseudonym of Daniel Mainwaring, later of Invasion of the Body Snatchers), based on the Homes novel Build My Gallows High (the film’s UK title). James M. Cain worked on the script at one point, but evidently not conclusively.

Aside from the scintillating one-liners and the story’s sometimes daunting complexity, the script is exemplary for delaying introduction of the three points of its poisonous triangle until we’ve been tantalized about them. The opening scenes feature people discussing Jeff, who’s away fishing instead of tending his gas station, before we ever see him. Then it becomes clear that a mysterious force (“I’m still working for that man”) is calling Jeff back to the world before we have any idea who or what it could be. Finally, there’s much lurid discussion of Kathie before her name is even mentioned, and then Jeff pursues her to Mexico and waits until she finally materializes as a vision “out of the sun”. All of this makes the viewer anticipate the characters with desire and apprehension.

The essential fairness of Kathie’s characterization is also crucial to the film’s appeal. Although Jeff comes to regard her as vicious and declines to believe anything she says (“You’re like a leaf blown by the wind from one gutter to another”), her dialogue and Greer’s finely tuned performance make her come across as a woman who really does act in self-defense at all times, given that she’s treated as an object in a world of violent men and has no reason to respect that world. As a woman who’s implicitly suffered abuse and reacts accordingly, she’s less like the restless, heartless women of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice and more like a forerunner to Tippi Hedren in Marnie.

Jeff isn’t the passive victim of a web of fate so much as his own shortcomings, his weakness in loving her and then rejecting her according to a code of being “both smart and honest,” as Whit remarked. Jeff has constructed his fate. We can perceive him as finally sealing his doom in his refusal to trust or accept Kathie, most especially when he causes her to be decisively alienated from Whit’s possessiveness (thus setting in motion the final turn of events) and then resists her assertion that she’s calling the shots now. A world in which his existence is ruled by her love (or possessiveness) is unacceptable to him. We can see that she’s as unwilling to let him go as Whit was unwilling to let her go, but she’d been perfectly willing to let Jeff run their lives as far as he was able. At every point after meeting him, her decisions included her feelings for him.

One of the film’s fascinating characters is Jimmy (Dickie Moore), a deaf-mute boy who works at Jeff’s gas station. He’s one of Tourneur’s slightly uncanny “liminal” characters who inhabit a border between one world and another. (In Mexico, Kathie is also one of these liminal figures.) This country boy can cast a fishing rod with such sprezzatura that he casually commits one of the film’s startling highlights of violence; Tourneur is a director who commonly presents violence in an elliptical manner, as in the shadowy, fragmentary fight between Jeff and his old partner (Steve Brodie). Jimmy evinces no more emotion in the act than Kathie, but it’s okay because Jimmy was saving Jeff’s life, even though it looks like Jimmy begins casting that line before the bad guy’s gun is even visible.

Jimmy is privileged with the film’s last “word”, delivered silently. (I’m crossing into spoiler territory here, so beware.) Before Ann can go on with her life and her new boyfriend (Richard Webb), she seeks closure by asking Jimmy if Jeff was really intending to leave with Kathie. She says it’s important for her to know, although Jimmy isn’t looking at her face when she says that, so he must miss it. He tells what we understand to be a therapeutic lie because it’s what Jeff would want him to say.

On the surface, it’s an odd scene, for how would Jimmy really know more than Ann? Ann had spoken to Jeff more recently, and they were discussing this very subject. In fact, the whole town knows that Jeff called the cops who set up the roadblock, so Ann must already have a clear picture of Jeff’s motives.

Ursini says this scene exists to provide some positive sense of affirmation after the bleakness of the previous scene (although the 1949 Criss Cross ends on exactly that bleakness), while Fujiwara points out this scene’s symmetrical opposition with the opening scene. It seems to me that the whole coda is a ritual pact between Ann and Jimmy, that Ann is really signaling to Jimmy what she wishes him to say, and that she needs someone to say it as a pretext that reassures her of Jeff’s blessing. It’s not that she’s in any way hoodwinked by an ironically kind lie, but that she uses the mascot-like Jimmy as almost a mediumistic conduit for Jeff, as though he’s Jeff’s taciturn soul made manifest and left wandering the earth for a while.

One of the film’s treasures is the sleek, graceful, understated movements and beautiful compositions, both in broad daylight and shadowy night, in sunny outdoor locations and ceiling-heavy studio interiors, and whether framed by nets or doorways or portraits or ominous iron gates or thickly clustered trees or wisps of smoke. The photographer is Nicholas Musuraca, who’d shot Tourneur’s Cat People. The Blu-ray’s pristine HD remastering presents the image with such astonishing clarity that I was able to see what book Rhonda Fleming’s character was holding when she opened the door to Mitchum. (Prepare for a fascinating bit of trivia.)

The novel is Murder on the Footbridge by Isobel Sedbusk. This is a fictional whodunit and author from Alfred Hitchcock‘s 1941 movie Suspicion, where the mystery writer was played by Auriol Lee—and there’s her photo on the back of the dust-jacket. Both films were RKO productions, so the prop department still had this mock-up. I presume its use in Tourneur’s film was somebody’s in-joke. A little Googling informs me that the same phony book turns up in The Notorious Landlady, a 1962 movie about a woman suspected of murder, and an episode of the ’40s-set TV series Tales of the Gold Monkey. For a book that was never written, it got around.

RATING 8 / 10