1947’s Out of the Past is widely considered to be one of the greatest examples of 1940s film noir. Set around a convoluted plot, the film twists and turns through double, triple and quadruple crosses, landing surprise blows on its dumbstruck and occasionally confused audience. Based on the novel Build My Gallows High and originally released in the UK under the same title, the picture stars Robert Mitchum as freelance Private Detective Jeff Bailey. He’s hired by rich and shady businessman Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to track down a dame, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) who Stirling alleges has disappeared with $40,000 of his money. Told partly in flashback and with a voiceover to match that of Sunset Boulevard’s, the film twists and turns like a twisty-turny thing, through several cities, two nations and a long, albeit undisclosed, period of time.
It took me a little while to get into Out of the Past but when I did, I enjoyed it greatly. Unfortunately my patience wore off towards the end thanks to the elaborate nature of the narrative. This isn’t a film I’d suggest watching after a long day at the office and a couple of martinis inside your stomach. Although a large part of the movie’s charm is its strong story, the frequent double crossing did begin to confuse me as we crossed the hour mark. This isn’t entirely a bad thing however as half the fun is in guessing who has the upper hand and who will strike next.
As well as an interesting and complex storyline, the movie is notable for its cinematography. In my review of Double Indemnity, I talked at length about its use of lighting and Out of the Past occasionally comes close to matching that film in the way in which it is lit to impose a dramatic tone. It isn’t as obvious as Double Indemnity but it’s an ever-present factor. The movie is lit in such a way as to impose thick, dark shadows on the faces of its characters while illuminating others. The shadows of hats are cast long about the interior sets, adding to the moody and underhand tone. The direction is fairly formulaic, rarely deviating from the norm of the time but sometimes Director Jacques Tourneur sneaks a shot up on the audience, framing a character in a beautiful glow while moving his camera seductively about the set.
The central characters all resemble archetypes of the genre. From the nonchalant P.I. to the money hungry gangster and strong, silent henchman, they’re characters you’d expect to find in any successful film noir. The standout though is another mainstay of the genre; the femme fatale. Played by the stunning Jane Greer, she’s as devious as she is attractive but unlike the more calculating versions of other pictures, she’s like a rat in a corner, viciously scratching away for survival against ever narrowing odds. She’s cunning and audacious but more on her back foot than her front. She’s capable of playing people off against one another with aplomb but is never truly ahead, matched at every turn by the wily Jeff Bailey.
Mitchum is incredibly watchable as Bailey. Coolness personified and a man who knows how the wear a hat, he plays the character as calm and arrogant, always with the knowledge that he’s the smartest guy in the room. Kirk Douglas is nicely slimy and grubby but he plays the character with an air of graceful menace, a man who never gets his hands dirty but has plenty of lackeys to do it for him. One of those lackeys is Paul Valentine. Valentine deserves a larger role and is excellent in his few major scenes. Surprisingly this was his first motion picture role. Another stand out is Jane Greer, successfully pulling off the range of emotions to convey the various moods needed for the attributes mentioned in the previous paragraph. She sizzles on screen.
I have few bad words to point in the direction of Out of the Past. Besides a slightly confusing plot, the film is near perfect in every other aspect. It’s aged beautifully, looks and sounds great and is acted by a cast who truly inhabit their roles. It’s unsurprising to me that the film is held in the high esteem that it is.
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