Saturday, December 20, 2014


RKO Radio Pictures, 96m 45s

After the release of such formative genre staples as THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942), DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), MURDER, MY SWEET (1944) and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946), to name several, the major ingredients of the film noir formula were pretty standard:  a protagonist with a checkered past, a complex storyline, a disjointed narrative structure, up-tempo dialog, nighttime settings, chiaroscuro lighting, low camera angles and shadows that combine to suggest entrapment, a man who signs his own death warrant by falling for the wrong woman, and above all else, an unshakable sense of fate. OUT OF THE PAST delivers a potent mixture of those familiar elements, seamlessly directed by Jacques Tourneur. Justly inducted into the National Film Registry in 1991 for preservation in the Library of Congress, OUT OF THE PAST is considered by many to be one of the most accomplished examples of the film noir form, and I have to agree.

Ann Miller (Virginia Huston) and Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum)

The narrative gets started on a fatalistic note as Joe Stefanos (Paul Valentine) discovers the whereabouts of an old associate through chance. The man in hiding is Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), who Stefanos knows has assumed a new identity. Bailey's real last name is Markham (mark him?). Via flashback it is revealed Bailey was commissioned by Stefanos's boss Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to find Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who according to Sterling ran off with $40,000 of his money after shooting him. Now Sterling has a new assignment in mind for Bailey, who puts up no resistance after being summoned, like a wiseguy who realizes his time to get whacked has arrived. So why would Bailey willingly march to his own doom? All of the evidence points to his past association with Moffat, who had cast her spell over Bailey without having to expend much energy. One senses Bailey was finished the moment he located Moffat. The only important question left to be answered is when.

Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) and Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer)

The observation that Moffat only emerges at night should be a hint and a half for a private eye, but the delicate-looking Greer, only 22 at the time of filming, does not portray the type of feminine evil that appears inherently dangerous at first glance. With her angelic, girlish good looks, especially when dressed in white, she avoids the appearance of impropriety with ease. The same never could be said about the tempting bedroom eyes of noir vixens like Marie Windsor, Ava Gardner or Linda Darnell. No wonder Bailey finds Moffat so difficult to resist, even when he should know better. She is not completely unsympathetic—she is a victim of Sterling's sometimes violent power over her—but her base instincts are completely self-centered. Bailey's other romantic interest Ann Miller (Virginia Huston) provides the opposite female archetype to Moffat, although Miller seems too good to be true, even a little boring. Exciting and cerebral, Moffat is the female most worthy of male attention, but an extreme danger factor is part of the package.

"And then I saw her, coming out of the sun..."

Moffat may be the most complicated character, but other prominent characters are also textured and more complex than the viewer is led to believe. In an early starring role, Mitchum is ideally cast as Bailey. This gumshoe is a sharp guy and a quick thinker, but he is unable to rescue himself from a hopeless obsession for the temptress Moffat. Despite his imposing physique, Mitchum is able to convey a degree of vulnerability. He is the most passive of tough guys, a little too naturally relaxed, like a journeyman prizefighter with a losing record. He never looks like he got quite enough rest the night before.

"Do you always go around leaving your fingerprints on a girl's shoulder?"

In only his second film, the first being THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946), Douglas is sensational as the racketeer and tax evader Sterling, one of the many reprehensible types Douglas would become noted for playing. It is not difficult to envision Moffat letting a pistol explode in Sterling's direction. Like Bailey, Sterling is a flawed personality. "...I fire people, but nobody quits me..." he declares with smug confidence. That approach might work alright with his male cohorts, but it is the wrong philosophy when it comes to dealing with the resourceful female Moffat. Both men would have been better off keeping their distance from her, but what man could resist? Moffat must have made fools of many who came before them.

There is an infectious, raw beauty to the depth of the compositions that grace OUT OF THE PAST. Almost every frame conveys balance and cinematic meaning. Yet with such obvious attention to detail and artistry, nothing seems self-conscious—that is a tough trick to get right. The resonant themes and motifs never seem telegraphed. Shifts in tone are subtle. The stylized imagery seems natural, with a lyrical grace that complements the dialog and narration, which seems determined to register the damnation of Bailey only gradually, despite the non-negotiable nature of his downfall. As Bailey presciently points out, "...I'm gonna die last." A criminal past cannot be undone, crime cannot go unpunished, second chances are fleeting. The final scene involves a gesture that is both truthful and deceptive, a fitting tribute to the love affair between Bailey and Moffat.

Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) takes his place within textbook noir compositions

OUT OF THE PAST director Jacques Tourneur is noted for directing the first three Val Lewton-produced RKO horror titles:  CAT PEOPLE (1942), I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943) and THE LEOPARD MAN (1943). All of these films have a film noir sensibility in terms of visuals and themes. Later Tourneur would go on to helm NIGHTFALL (1957), which like OUT OF THE PAST serves as a reminder that noir concerns are not unique to urban environments. OUT OF THE PAST is particularly insistent that film noir has invaded every square inch of North American soil, from small town gas stations in Bridgeport, California to San Francisco, from the High Sierra Mountains to the Acapulco coast. The location coverage blends surprisingly well with soundstage footage. Prior to handling the cinematography for OUT OF THE PAST, the very capable Nicholas Musuraca had distinguished himself with STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940), sometimes considered to be the very first film noir, Tourneur's CAT PEOPLE, and THE LOCKET (1946).

Daniel Mainwaring adapted his novel BUILD MY GALLOWS HIGH as Geoffrey Homes, the pseudonym he often used. Even today, his writing is quite quotable, and the snappy dialog does not sound as stilted as some noirs do. OUT OF THE PAST originally was released in England as BUILD MY GALLOWS HIGH. It was remade as AGAINST ALL ODDS in 1984, with Greer among the cast. Greer and Mitchum would star together again in Don Siegel's THE BIG STEAL (1949), co-written by Mainwaring. In 1987, Mitchum hosted Saturday Night Live and was featured with Greer in a spoof of OUT OF THE PAST.

Framed at the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, the Blu-ray version of OUT OF THE PAST now available through the Warner Archive is among the site's premier offerings. Skin tones and contrast show noticeable improvement compared to Warner's 1.33:1 DVD version released in 2004. The dual-layered Blu-ray maintains the audio commentary track by film scholar James Ursini that was included on the DVD.