Anyone attempting a critique of the stylistic elements that embody the classic film noir should begin and end their treatise with Jacque Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947); the quintessential crime/drama given over to a text book example of how all noir thrillers ought to be made, many have aspired to, but whose promise too few manage to fulfill. It isn’t only Robert Mitchum’s laid-back garage mechanic, Jeff Markham (nee Bailey); only Jane Greer, whose kitten-faced damsel in distress, Kathie Moffat - turns out to be a bone-chilling/cold-blooded femme fatale; only Kirk Douglas’ silken and sinister crime boss, Whit Sterling, or even Paul Valentine’s smooth-operating killer, Joe Stefanos; each an exemplar of a certain archetype in the noir movement. Out of the Past has style plus; Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography - appetizingly unnerving - matched by Daniel Mainwaring’s gripping screenplay that doesn’t miss a trick or waste a moment of the movie’s scant 97 minutes as we slip in, then out, of the past with ease and purpose; discovering along with our doe-eyed heroine, Ann Miller (Virginia Huston) that the man she thought she knew is actually somebody else, neither bad nor good as it were, but severely conflicted over his lingering feelings for the wicked vixen who, once under his skin has poisoned his blood for all time.
Out of the Past is perhaps an unexpected noir, beginning as it does in the stark light of a brisk late autumn afternoon, in the out-of-the-way town of Bridgeport, California; a rare example where location work in a film and the actual location being depicted are one in the same. Musuraca’s cinematography is tinged in the same fatalist shimmer as Cat People (1942); hardly surprising, given Tourneur and Musuraca conspiratorial aspirations on the aforementioned Val Lewton classic. Albert S. D'Agostino and Jack Okey’s art direction takes us everywhere from Frisco to Mexicali, to a remote cabin in the woods, then Lake Tahoe, and finally back to the relative banality of Bridgeport, only to be dragged into the mire of this moodily magnificent and moneyed retreat overlooking the lake. Out of the Past is more than a clever travelogue; representing these varied locales as deviations on a central theme: each part of the same ever-constricting trap that will ultimately devour and destroy our ill-fated hero and blood-thirsty viper. You just can’t escape from the world that’s been created herein; suffocating, yet strangely intoxicating in the same instance.
Out of the Past comes at a juncture in RKO’s history at the beginning of the death throws soon to snuff out the company from existence by 1957. In its prime, RKO had fostered some unusual creative talents, gravitating rather unexpectedly from the light and frothy Astaire/Rogers confections a la Pandro S. Berman (very expensive to produce, but yielding spectacular returns) to the weightier tomes of Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons) – both losing money; then, doing an about-face with Val Lewton’s low-budget/though high-functioning, uber-elegant horror classics (Lewton’s spate of unexpectedly classy scare-fests temporarily saved RKO from bankruptcy), and finally, discovering its niche in hard-boiled B-grade crime/dramas. In many ways, RKO became the ‘house of noir’ throughout the mid to late 1940’s. Other studios with more capital and bigger names to headline tried to emulate the style – most notably, Warner Bros. and Fox from the late 40’s into the early 50’s – with MGM entering the field much too late to be considered a prominent contender.
Yet, only RKO seemed to consistently excel in the noir movement, perhaps because its’ low man on the totem pole’ scrapper mentality fit best with the unsympathetic cruelty of the traditional noir antiheroes and villains. The suave Cary Grant, as example, could never be a noir hero; nor could Clark Gable or Gary Cooper for that matter. It fit Bogart to a tee, and helped to reinvent Dick Powell’s persona over at Warner. It even resurrected Joan Crawford’s sagging career for two decades – including her Oscar-win for Mildred Pierce (1945) after her departure from MGM. Still, in retrospect, noir drama seems to have thrived on that certain autonomy at RKO shared by its less identifiable players.
Arguably, Out of the Past endures today because of Robert Mitchum; known then as something of the prototypical Hollywood ‘bad boy’ after being busted (and sent to jail for 60 days) for possession of marijuana; caught smoking a joint at a Laurel Canyon house party in 1948. Perceived as a career breaker at the time, in retrospect, Mitchum’s tenure in prison had little impact on his ability to procure more acting assignments in Hollywood. Debatably, it altered his on-screen persona, from heroism personified in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) to playing severely flawed men of less altruistic pursuits, beginning with Out of the Past. Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey is a guy still striving to live up to his potential, though ultimately succumbing to the tainted elixir of evil. This, of course, is made attractive in the embodiment of a woman he cannot help but lust after.
Good guy/bad girl: a time-honored impetus in narrative fiction - always raising the ire, eyebrow and curiosity factor for an audience. After all, what could possibly make any man, who wants to live honestly, pursue a female who’s obviously up to no good? Well, sex appeal – duh! ...and perhaps the naiveté that somehow everything will work itself out in the end; though not even our hero is entirely convinced of it. In retrospect, Out of the Past is the ideal showcase to reintroduce Mitchum to audiences after he’s taken his own tumble from grace. He’s utterly believable as the faded valentine still caught in Ann’s hopelessly innocent and starry-eyed stares. Things have become all tangled up inside his heart. Jeff Bailey wants to keep promises made; both to Ann and himself, to become that better man. But somehow, he’s unable to to find the cure for that sexual sting left behind by the bad girl.
Out of the Past may be light on sex (one toppled lamp in a rainstorm and a few shadows frantically groping at one another on the wall is about all we get) but there exists a palpable tawdriness – nee, sinful appeal – to the ‘affair’ between Jeff and Kathie. When Greer’s minx pleads with Mitchum’s laconic bad boy, telling him “I didn't know what I was doing. I, I didn't know anything except how much I hated him. But I didn't take anything. I didn't, Jeff. Don't you believe me?” only to have him coolly reply, “Baby I don’t care,” we can utterly believe that nothing really does matter except the way Kathie fits so perfectly between Jeff’s bed sheets.
We buy into Jeff’s investment in Kathie – much more than his tepid fidelity to Ann; the girl who would willingly do anything for Jeff – not to him. That’s Kathie Moffat’s métier. Good girls like Ann are hard to come by. But bad girls like Kathie are more fun in the moment. To coin an old Cole Porter lyric, what each “requires is the proper squire to fire her heart.” Ironically, Jeff’s not that guy – neither for Kathie, and certainly, not for Ann. He might have been – once – a long time ago. But things change and so has Jeff over the course of our story. Arguably, Jeff was never as corrupt as Whit, who is Kathie’s male counterpart. But neither has Jeff been as pure as the driven snow since he started wearing long pants. When Kathie, feigning delicacy, whispers, "Oh, Jeff, I don't want to die,” he rather coolly explains, “Neither do I, baby…but if I have to I'm gonna die last.” Jeff’s truer intentions are, of course, to remain above it all; at least, to survive this maelstrom he’s helped to perpetuate.
Repeatedly, Daniel Mainwaring’s screenplay does its level best to illustrate what a perfect pair Jeff and Kathie are in spite of Jeff’s protestations. And yet, we cannot help but empathize with Mitchum’s laconic loner. He wants out – or, at least, has done everything he can to convince himself of as much. Greer’s diabolical hell-cat shows her real stripes mid-way through the story by shooting Jeff’s old partner, Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie) after he attempts to blackmail them at a remote cabin in the woods, thus sobering Jeff as to where he fits into Kathie’s scheme d’amour. That’s some chick! She’d slit her own mother’s throat for a pair of diamond earrings.
There are, of course, other performances worth noting in Out of the Past; chiefly Kirk Douglas – considerably evolved since his debut as the rather weak-kneed sob-sister in The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers (1946) the year before. In Out of the Past we get our first real taste of that larger-than-life Douglas persona soon to dazzle for many decades; reconstituted herein as the beady-eyed mobster, Whit Sterling. With a deliciously bedeviled grin, ominously laid back charm, and, pensive glint caught in his eye, Douglas is a fairly menacing presence, every inch in competition with Mitchum’s 6ft. 1 in. hulk – no small achievement considering Douglas is a comparatively diminutive 5ft. 9in., and more slender and fine-boned. Mitchum’s Jeff could mop the floor with Douglas’ Whit – physically speaking - if only Whit didn’t have the cunning edge on Jeff.
For decades, Lauren Bacall has insisted she was largely responsible for bringing Douglas’ talents to the attention of star makers in Hollywood; a claim quietly ignored, though never outright contested or denied by Douglas. Whatever the case; Out of the Past marks Douglas’ ‘real’ movie debut as the take-charge powerhouse. Herein, he exudes a shifty charisma. Even when he’s nowhere to be seen, Douglas’ Whit looms like a winged gargoyle over Kathie and Jeff’s affair. Whit’s machismo has been wounded – literally; a superficial gunshot, Kathie’s parting gift. She never expected him to live. Now, she’s afraid and with good reason. Whit’s an animal. His wickedness knows no bounds and once crossed he isn’t likely to forgive and forget.
Last, but certainly not least, is Paul Valentine’s unscrupulously captivating hit man, Jo Stefanos. Frankly, it has always been something of a mystery, as well as a disappointment, Valentine’s star never ascended the ranks of great noir villains and/or anti-heroes. With his square jaw, glistening dark pate and piercing eyes capable of interpolating moments of gleeful attractiveness and wicked magnetism at a moment’s notice, Valentine certainly had all the makings of a great character actor. Moreover, in his dark trench and half-cocked fedora, he matches Mitchum’s damaged detective muscle for muscle. If Out of the Past has any flaw it is the hasty dispatch of Stefanos in its third act; taking a tumble off a craggy cliff. Still, Out of the Past is undeniably Valentine’s finest moment in a career much too brief and marred by substandard material, more often relegated to second-string support. What a waste!
Out of the Past opens with a magnificent tracking shot, the camera mounted on the back of Stefano’s open-top convertible. His car pulls into an out-of-the-way gas station/garage marked with the proprietor’s name ‘Jeff Bailey’. Flicking his lit match from a cigarette at ‘the kid’ (Dickie Moore); a deaf/mute who doesn’t realize at first that he’s even standing there, Stefano’s goads the reluctant boy into giving up Jeff’s whereabouts. But there’s no hurry. Jeff isn’t going anywhere. And neither is Stefanos, taking his coffee at Marny’s roadside café across the street and avoiding sharp-shooter, Marny’s (Mary Fields) not so subtle inquiries. Like all busybodies out to learn what they can, Marny tells more than she hears. From her, we learn Jeff’s been seeing, Ann – the girl who ‘belongs’ to Jim (Richard Webb); the local deputy sheriff.
The scene shifts to Jeff and Ann spending some quality time together up by the lake. Ann’s desperately in love, but doesn’t really throw herself at Jeff’s head. On the other hand, Jeff’s not entirely convinced he ought to be with Ann. He loves her…sort of…and in spite of her parent’s rigid lack of acceptance. Too bad their date is interrupted by the kid, signaling to Jeff trouble’s afoot back at the garage. Sending Ann home, Jeff meets Stefanos cordially, quickly learning this isn’t a social call. Turns out, Whit has sent Stefanos on a knight’s errand – to bring back the one guy, Jeff, who could find Kathie Moffat and return her to him. Jeff tells Whit he ought to forget Kathie but it’s no good. Once Whit’s mind is set on something it’s best to get out of his way. The trouble is, getting out of Whit’s way this time means Jeff has to confront his own past.
On the car ride back to Ann’s, Jeff begins his true confessions. His name isn’t Bailey – it’s Markham. He isn’t a nice guy, rather ex-thug muscle for a gangland kingpin who’s rehired him to go in search of the kitten-faced viper under both their skins. In true noir fashion, Jeff’s reflections kick off an extended flashback. We see Jeff and his business partner, Jack Fisher as a pair of New York P.I.’s with a spurious reputation between them, hired by Whit to hunt down Kathie after she’s already shot him in the arm and run off with $40,000 of his cold hard cash. Jeff tells Whit to leave well enough alone. But Whit makes Jeff a promise: Kathie will not be harmed. Jeff doesn’t really believe this. Whit isn’t the ‘forgive or forgetful’ type.
Sending Jack on a wild goose chase, Jeff tracks down an old friend of Kathie’s (Mildred Boyd) who suspiciously fluffs him off at first, then confides that Kathie was running away to someplace with a lot of sun – Florida, maybe. As it turns out, Kathie hightailed to Acapulco. Jeff wastes no time taking the next flight out. For days he sits in a rather seedy café hoping for Kathie to turn up. On the third day out, Jeff gets his wish. But you know what they say about being careful for what you wish for. Kathy is standoffish and faintly sad. She’s coaxed from her shell by Jeff’s smooth operations, also by his easy-going male magnetism. What’s not to like? And Kathie has a sob story to go along with her pouty lips; one that appeals to Jeff’s tainted sense of chivalry…or perhaps, merely tantalizes his lust.
The two become lovers, meeting in secluded places and the beach after dark; caught in the pouring rain and making love with the lights off in the middle of a violent thunderstorm. Jeff tells Kathie they have to disappear before it’s too late. It may already be later than either of them thinks. For who should appear at Jeff’s hotel room the next afternoon – and just as Jeff is about to pack for his getaway – but Stefanos and Whit. The pair baits Jeff with not terribly subtle hints regarding his deceptions. Jeff plays dumb (he’s fairly good at that) and gets riled when the questions are directly put to him. Whit pulls back from his inferences, encouraging Jeff to find Kathie with all speed. Jeff lies about Kathie gone to South America. Instead, Kathie and Jeff hurry north to San Francisco, living inconspicuously for a time and seemingly happy together.
Time passes and Kathie and Jeff grow complacent about blowing their cover; comfortable in their new lives. Tragically, they bump into Jack at the race track; Jeff instructing Kathie to go on without him. They’ll rendezvous much later at a secluded cabin in the woods. Jeff loses Jack…or so he thinks, arriving at the cabin very late. But Jack intrudes on their solitude, demanding money to keep his mouth shut. Kathie still insists she never took a dime from Whit; certainly not $40,000. Instead, Jeff takes a crack at Jack; the two old buddies fairly evenly matched as they spar around the room, knocking over furniture. Kathie’s gaze suddenly turns rancid; calculating the inevitable fallout as she reaches for Jeff’s gun and fires a few well-placed slugs into Jack’s back. Her unapologetic killing startles Jeff. Perhaps Kathie isn’t the girl he thought she was. And now he’s an accomplice to murder. What to do? While Jeff contemplates covering up the crime, Kathie makes a break in her car, Jeff discovering Kathie’s discarded bankbook, clearly showing a $40,000 deposit. She’s lied to him – and not just once, either.
We return to the present, Jeff and Ann pulling into the semi-circular driveway of Whit’s country estate at Lake Tahoe. Jeff promises faithfully to reunite with her some time later, going into the lion’s den alone to face his former boss. Even more of a shocker – Kathie is there too – Whit’s girl all over again. Remarkably, Whit seems to harbor no ill will toward Kathie or Jeff. Perhaps she’s kept her mouth shut; at least, so Jeff hopes. Whit informs Jeff he is being blackmailed by ex-lawyer, Leonard Eels (Ken Niles) who helped cover up a tax dodge, but is now using this information to extort money from Whit. It’s an obvious setup and Jeff knows it. Nevertheless, he finds himself attempting to warn Eels that Whit is on to him. Instead, Jeff discovers Eel’s lifeless body lying on the floor, an affidavit signed by Kathie claiming Jeff murdered Jack amongst the papers on Eel’s desk. Knowing he’s slipped into it up to his neck, Jeff makes a break for Bridgeport. Unbeknownst to Jeff or Whit, Kathie has instructed Stefanos to trail ‘the kid’ who inadvertently leads him right to Jeff, hiding out at a secluded fishing spot near a rocky cliff. As Stefanos draws his pistol and prepares to take dead aim, the kid hooks his fishing line into Stefanos pant leg, causing him to plummet to his death.
In town, Jim tries desperately to convince Ann that Jeff’s a bad egg. He’s suspected in a San Francisco murder. However, believing Jim to be jealous, Ann admonishes him almost immediately and flees to forewarn Jeff. Back at Lake Tahoe, Jeff confronts Whit with the truth: Kathie murdered Jack. Whit has no choice but to turn her over to the police or Jeff will do it for him. Whit admires Jeff’s ruthlessness, agreeing to the exchange so Jeff can run away with Ann and start his life over. Alas, it’s not to be. For hours later, Jeff returns to discover Whit shot through the heart and Kathie declaring she is now in control of their intertwined fates. She still wants Jeff for her own. Either he comes with her or she’ll see to it he goes up for Jack, Eel’s and Whit’s murders.
Jeff reluctantly agrees to Kathie’s plan, but telephones the police shortly before they depart Whit’s home. In response to his tip off, the police set up a roadblock at the front gates. Realizing she has been double-crossed, Kathie shoots Jeff, attempting to take control of the wheel. It’s no use. The car careens over the side of a steep ravine, killing Kathie and Jeff, the police later recovering a great deal of money in the trunk. Still unable to bring herself to believe the worst about Jeff, Ann asks the kid if he was lying to her. Was he really going to run away with Kathie Moffat? The kid nods ‘yes’ – thereby liberating Ann from her reservations. She’s free to love Jim – who clearly still loves her. As Jim and Ann drive off from the garage, the kid looks up at the placard bearing Jeff’s name, smiles, nods and walks away.
Arguably, Out of the Past remains the greatest film noir ever made. Usually, I assuage such overstatements. And undeniably, there are other noir thrillers in close proximity for this top spot – if, such a position actually exists (Double Indemnity, 1944; The Maltese Falcon, 1941; I Wake Up Screaming, 1941, Murder, My Sweet, 1944, and, Mildred Pierce, 1945 pretty near the top). Yet, Out of the Past just seems to click in a way these others can only guess at, or perhaps mimic is a more fitting word; it’s Samson and Delilah-esque plot, so close to the noir hallmarks that it becomes emblematic of the movement itself. Remarkably, the style never veers into cliché. Even more remarkable, Out of the Past has not aged or become an axiom for the noir movement in all the years (and all the many imitators) that have followed it since.
Jacques Tourneur’s direction remains a prototype for the noir drama, while Robert Mitchum’s chain-smoking and insolent private dick cum grease monkey, all but typifies the good dupe made a bad example by his own ill wind blowing him predictably closer to a twist of fate; the latter amply supplied by the quintessential femme fatale – Jane Greer. The other elements that make Out of the Past work have already been discussed herein. But the kernel of its enduring success really boils down to Mitchum and Greer and the utterly toxic on-screen chemistry they share. One can as easily see them as the perversely hot-blooded lovers, passionately tearing a little of each other’s skin in the bedroom, as they convincingly mutate into our story’s darkly amused, but even more aberrant adversaries. Tourneur’s direction never falters and neither does Daniel Mainwaring’s screenplay; so tightly woven around its central frame-up that one cannot imagine the movie any other way. No scene is wasted and no further explanation is required. Out of the Past is undiluted perfection; a total enrichment of the noir precepts.
It would have been prudent of Warner Home Video to give us Out of the Past in a restored and remastered hi-def Blu-ray by now. But no. I remain, as ever, utterly stupefied by this studio’s complete lack of visibility in catalogue Blu-ray. While other studios (most noticeably in recent times, Sony and Fox) have been enthusiastically farming out their ‘lesser’ titles to boutique labels, while also investing their own time and moneys to do major releases of classic movies on home video, Warner Bros. (whose catalogue includes their own formidable backlog, plus MGM’s, RKO’s, and distribution rights to the Paramount library) continues to lag behind the rest. The studio that once set the standard for classic home video releases now seems content to let the bulk of their illustrious storehouse go direct to the inferior MOD burn-on-demand DVD format in their ‘archive’ (frankly, a repository for substandard quality) while quietly pretending hi-def doesn’t matter – or rather, is not feasible to make it worth their while.
I’ve deviated in my review herein to illustrate a necessary point about WB; that in acquiring these vast holdings the studio has all but sacrificed any film lover’s opportunity to see these masterpieces in a manner befitting their proper restoration and reissue on home video. The chief problem is that Warner’s present holdings are so vast they all but defy competent cataloguing for hi-def. What to restore first? What to restore at all? Because the end game must be profitability – something WB claims is not possible with vintage titles like Out of the Past. I suspect the powers that be at Fox and Sony would contest this assumption – basically, because they continue to release high quality hi-def transfers to Blu-ray and somehow have figured out the magic bullet theory to balance their expenditures with their profit margin.
The chief concern for this film lover, however, is more monumental and pressing: that, as the years continue to pass, the original camera negatives for fantastic movies like Out of the Past are not getting any younger. One day – not so very far off – they will be in a state of deterioration that perhaps not even modern wizardry will be able to salvage and/or resurrect from complete oblivion. Whenever the question as per specific titles has been put to Warner Home Video, either by me or on various message boards across the internet, the answer from on high has generically begun with “we recognize there is interest in this title” though, as per a release, the answer remains - “not at this time”. By heaven, if not now, then when?!?
Hence, we still have Out of the Past on DVD. So, how does it look? Like most DVD’s in Warner’s backlog, this one is competent – though, just that. Out of the Past exhibits a fairly crisp image with solid grain and an impressively balanced gray scale, marked by equally impressive contrast levels. Age-related artifacts are, alas, everywhere. Out of the Past has weathered time fairly well. But the image on this standard-def disc isn’t a complete restoration and that is a colossal shame. Out of the Past, like so many other catalogue titles in Warner’s archive needs attention paid immediately. Nothing modest will do. The original mono audio also is solid on this DVD, though hardly what it could be in DTS lossless. Warner has dumped Out of the Past on the market with only an audio commentary – albeit a fantastic one. But the movie really deserves a making-of documentary, an isolated score (if original stems still exist) and some archival poster and stills art – which surely is kicking around somewhere. Now, that’s an Out of the Past I would relish to experience in 1080p!
And Warner has proven it can do some very fine work on its catalogue when it wants to. In just a few weeks we’ll get a regurgitated release of Humphrey Bogart’s best work in a box set – long overdue – though offering nothing new to augment the purchase to those who have already bought these movies individually. Warner’s marketing policy today seems to be stalemated in reissues of a select group of transfers over and over again: The Wizard of Oz, Gone With The Wind, JFK, The Exorcist, Casablanca, Ben-Hur, etc. et al. So far this year, Warner has committed itself to the release of one classic movie: The Women (1939); a release that ought to have coincided as a tie-in with the debut of that painful 2008 remake. What I would appreciate from this studio (and I am by no means alone in this passion) is a more direct and aggressive approach to releasing more catalogue titles in 4K scans to home video. There’s no shortage of contenders. How about Marie Antoinette, The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), Romeo and Juliet, Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939), Camille, Gaslight, The White Cliffs of Dover, Mrs. Parkington, Weekend at the Waldorf, Anchors Aweigh, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Band Wagon, Bells are Ringing, Brigadoon, Clash By Night, Murder My Sweet, Dark Victory, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Scaramouche, The Great Ziegfeld, National Velvet, Holiday in Mexico, Royal Wedding, All This And Heaven Too, Johnny Eager, Angels With Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties, Jezebel, King’s Row, Meet John Doe, Topper, Till The Clouds Roll By, Words and Music, Three Little Words and the perennially promised, though never materializing ‘complete Showboat’…to start.
On other noteworthy websites dedicated to movie lovers I have been repeatedly chastised for making such lists. Oh, well. This is my blog. I’ll do as I please. And the point needs to be made over and over again - that there are tons of movies missing from our cultural awareness today: not because they lack merit or are not able to find an audience on home video – but rather, because not enough has been done to make the public aware that these movies even exist. You can’t treasure what you don’t know about or can’t find for public consumption. The mindset at other studios has slowly begun to turn. Warner Home Video still seems to be stuck in a rut, however. Oh, and Out of the Past on DVD? Well, I’ll recommend it for now, given that it is the only way one can appreciate this quintessential bit of American movie art. But really, it deserves more and better and soon. Please, Warner Home Video…bring this one 'out from the past!'
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)