It’s time to take a look at one of the films on the Sight and Sound Top 250 of All Time again, and today’s pick is #199 on the list, Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past. And as always I’ll note that for those just joining us, you can find a full introduction to what the Sight and Sound Top 250 list is, and a look at the complete list of the movies on it, along with links to the ones I’ve already written about here. And, if you want to be sure not to miss any of these posts, just head on over to the Facebook page and give it a “like”or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are also in the sidebar) where I post anytime one of these – or anything else on the blog, along with just random other links and thoughts that may not make it into full posts – goes up. Trust me, if you’re not following one or the other (or both), you’re not getting the full Durmoose Movies experience.
There are a couple of different definitive film noir themes that Out of the Past immediately brings to mind.
The first is the one articulated in The Godfather Part Two, that of “I thought I was out but they drew me back in.”
The other is that of the inevitable spiral. That’s the idea that once started on the downhill slope, no matter how it happens, our protagonist is doomed and there’s nothing he can do to change that.
In Out of the Past, Robert Mitchum plays Jeff Bailey, the proprietor of a small gas station in the off the road town of Bridgeport, California. One day he is approached by Joe Stefanos who claims he knows Jeff from a previous life when he went by the name of Jeff Markham. He initially claims that he was just passing through town and happened to recognize his old friend, but it turns out he was sent there by Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to bring Jeff back to see Sterling. Sterling wants Jeff to perform one more job for him in order to wipe out a long-standing debt from Jeff’s previous life.
If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because this type of story is prototypical for film noir and is one that has been told time and again in films both before and since, with one more recent example of the trope being 2005’s A History of Violence.
The next thing a great noir needs, of course, is a stunning femme fatale, someone whom the audience can believe is worth the protagonist risking everything to either protect or to follow into the depths of a heavenly hell, and Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat ably fits that bill. Not only does she have the classic beauty of a femme fatale, but she perfectly embodies the attitude that goes along with it.
She also has a number of great dialogue exchanges with Jeff that wonderfully encapsulate that ideal such as:
Jeff Bailey: That’s not the way to win.
Kathie Moffat: Is there a way to win?
Jeff Bailey: There’s a way to lose more slowly
Jeff Bailey: I didn’t know you were so little.
Kathie Moffat: I’m taller than Napoleon.
Jeff Bailey: You’re prettier, too.
Kathie Moffat: I think we deserve a break.
Jeff Bailey: We deserve each other.
And there’s also more great dialogue that makes Out of the Past such a great example of the genre, such as Jeff’s encapsulation of his relationship with Kathie which also emphasizes the darkness and night-time setting and tone of the film:
I never saw her in the daytime. We seemed to live by night. What was left of the day went away like a pack of cigarettes you smoked. I didn’t know where she lived. I never followed her. All I ever had to go on was a place and time to see her again. I don’t know what we were waiting for. Maybe we thought the world would end.
More great dialogue? Okay, how about this from Douglas’s Whit Sterling:
You’re gonna take the rap and play along. You’re gonna make every exact move I tell you. If you don’t, I’ll kill you. And I’ll promise you one thing: it won’t be quick. I’ll break you first. You won’t be able to answer a telephone or open a door without thinking, ‘This is it.’ And it when it comes, it still won’t be quick. And it won’t be pretty. You can take your choice.
Obviously screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring who was adapting his novel Build My Gallows High which was published under the name Geoffrey Homes, the same pseudonym he used for the screenplay, knew exactly the kind of film he was writing and made the most to produce the kind of florid writing that epitomizes the noir genre.
That last bit of monologue also emphasizes another important aspect of film noir or really of any great narrative film like this: a truly evil villain. Well, okay, that’s not entirely true, because in many cases the real opponent for the protagonist in a noir is simply Fate itself, but, if that fate is going to be brought in by an outside force, especially as a personal antagonist to our presumptive “hero”, then it’s important that they be just as outstanding and powerful as the main character, and that is something that Douglas provides in spades.
Though he is off-screen for much of the action, Sterling is a presence who is felt throughout the entire film, and is never far from the action even if his impact is at times only implied. Props should also go to Paul Valentine who plays Sterling’s heavy and enforcer Joe Stefanos for providing just the right amount of detachment and irony to what could have been a truly thankless role.
Finally, one absolutely has to credit cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca whho also shot Jacque Tourneur’s Cat People. Musuraca’s use of light and darkness is masterful and fully epitomizes what the genre needs and exemplifies exactly where the genre got its name. Truly there are shots in this film that could stand alone as beautiful pices of black and white photography even when taken out of the context of the film. Yet at the same time he never dwells on them or lingers so long that the shots lose sight of what they are supposed to be doing in the first place, and that is servicing the film of which they are a part.
In the end what we have with Out of the Past is a film which encapsulates the film noir genre and would serves as a perfect entre into the dark world of the genre. It’s one of those movies that one could very easily use as an example in a film class or to show to someone who had no experience with the genre and say “You want to know what noir is? Then watch this.”
And that’s what I say to you now. Watch it. Or at the very least, for the moment watch the trailer below. Then go watch it. You won’t be sorry.