Shadows of Film Noir will unearth some of the treasures known as film noir, so dubbed by the French after the ravages of WWII. In America, it was not so much a genre as a mood, as soldiers returned home and the enthusiasm of victory wore off. It was not easy to return to normal life, and sometimes men became discouraged, morose, and tempted. The fear and paranoia they might have felt was not reflected in Hollywood musicals and comedies. In most stories of film noir, a man finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes this predicament is of his own making, and sometimes it's just bad luck. He must make a decision, and inevitably, it's the wrong one. Sometimes this decision has to do with a female, or sometimes the promise of wealth or fame. Or sometimes it's just the promise of simple survival. It's what I like to term the "lure of the underworld," where the hero will spend the rest of the film, sometimes escaping at the end, most of the time not.
This week's film is Out of the Past (1947).
Behind the Scenes
Out of the Past is sometimes considered a prototype of the film noir genre, with all of its most typical elements firmly in place, but also one of its sturdiest examples. It was made at my favorite studio, RKO, and released in November of 1947. It was based on a novel called "Build My Gallows High" by "Geoffrey Homes," who was really Daniel Mainwaring, a journalist-turned-screenwriter and mystery novelist. Mainwaring brilliantly adapted his own novel into the film's screenplay, and was later hired to write Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
It was directed by Jacques Tourneur, the son of the famous silent-era director Maurice Tourneur (The Last of the Mohicans). The younger Tourneur was born in France, but moved to the USA as a boy and quickly began working odd jobs in the movie business. While working as a "revolutionary sequence arranger" on MGM's A Tale of Two Cities, he met Val Lewton, and the two would go on to make three of the world's greatest horror films at RKO: Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Leopard Man (1943). Tourneur worked until the mid-1960s and died in 1977, making a series of fascinating genre films, but Out of the Past was one of his greatest successes. (It was released in the UK as Build My Gallows High.)
The great heavy-lidded tough guy Robert Mitchum starred, with his huge frame and his loping, yet confident walk. Mitchum had just received his one and only Oscar nomination, for supporting actor (he lost), and was just then making the transition to leading man. Co-star and femme fatale Jane Greer was a singer-turned-actress who is still best known for this role; she appeared in the 1984 remake Against All Odds, and also re-teamed with Mitchum for an Out of the Past parody on a 1987 episode of "Saturday Night Live." The third star, Kirk Douglas, is still alive as of this writing, and is best known for Spartacus (1960) and being the father of Michael Douglas. Co-star Rhonda Fleming, who plays Mitchum's sweetheart, is also still with us, and had already appeared in Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945).
The film was selected for the National Film Registry in 1991.
What It's About
In one of the most complicated plots in all of film noir: Jeff Bailey (Mitchum) works in a small town gas station and is dating Ann Miller (Fleming). A man comes through for gas and recognizes Jeff from his days as a private eye. Jeff tells Ann the truth, and we see a flashback to an incredible story. The rich and shady Whit Sterling (Douglas) hires Jeff to find Whit's girlfriend, Kathie Moffat (Greer), who has stolen some money and disappeared. Jeff finds her in Mexico, but the two fall in love and decide to run away to San Francisco. They're discovered and a man tries to blackmail them, which results in a murder. Kathie disappears. Back in the present, Whit hires the newly-found Jeff for a new job, to recover some important tax papers, but Jeff begins to suspect that he is being set up.
The Lure of the Underworld
Classically, Jeff is lured into the noir underworld by a femme fatale. She gets her hooks into him, and he's willing to do anything, including breaking the law, to be with her. Out of the Past is interesting because it begins after Jeff has somehow escaped her clutches and has re-started his life in a nice, normal way. We keep hoping for Jeff to be able to return to his normal life and his sweet girlfriend. But in film noir, there is no escaping the underworld, not ever, and it's inevitable that Jeff will be pulled back in. This is a true film noir, with a perfect ending.
The Femme Fatale
Many films noir have a "femme fatale" character -- also named by the French -- who is responsible for the hero's downfall. She is seductive and powerful and ruthless. Kathie is one of the greatest and most complex examples; the first moment she appears on screen is a famous "wow" moment. The audience falls for her as well. However, she has an underlying sweetness. She's not a complete and total "bad girl." She suggests that it's entirely possible to live a good and happy life with her. But the truth comes out when Jeff and Kathie deal with the blackmailer in San Francisco. Jeff fights with the man in a darkened room; in-between blows, the shadows flash across Kathie's face, and during the brief moments of light, she wears a look of sadistic glee at the sight of the violence in front of her. That's the moment Jeff should have run, but could not.
Film noir is known for urban locations and deep shadows, as well as interiors, such as seedy apartments, stuffy bars, hotels or boxing rings. Shot by Nicholas Musuraca (another veteran of the Val Lewton school of horror), Out of the Past makes even a Mexican nightclub -- in what could be a sunny, vacation resort -- look seedy and shadowy. Tourneur learned all about the use of shadows and light, and the power of suggestion during his three films with Val Lewton, and he employs that to brilliant effect here. He often uses shadows in a very physical way, such as using spidery tree branches to separate Jeff and Ann as they say goodbye for the last time in the film. In every room, doors, windows, and corners seem close in and trap our hero.
What Was Said
Barry Gifford, the author and screenwriter of Wild at Heart said: "The plot is overcomplicated but it works largely due to the smooth interplay of the cast and the deft manner in which Tourneur runs them in and out like substitutions in a football game, always keeping a fresh back in to carry the ball." The great critic James Agee wrote: "Fairly well played, and very well photographed." He added, "Jane Greer, on the other hand, can best be described, in an ancient idiom, as a hot number." And Pauline Kael decided it was "A thin but well-shot suspense melodrama, kept from collapsing by the suggestiveness and intensity that the director, Jacques Tourneur, pours on. It's empty trash, but you do keep watching it." Roger Ebert simply declared: "One of the greatest of all film noirs."