Friday, June 15, 2018

Out of the Past (1947)

USA, 97 minutes
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Writers: Daniel Mainwaring, James M. Cain, Frank Fenton
Photography: Nicholas Musuraca
Music: Roy Webb
Editor: Samuel E. Beetley
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Richard Webb, Steve Brodie, Virginia Houston, Dickie Moore

Out of the Past is a great little movie made out of many great small things, such as cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca's shimmering black and white. It's set mostly in the Lake Tahoe region of northern California and the scenery often reminds me of Ansel Adams photos: streaming showers of sunlight etching well-defined shadows, with silvery leaves rustling in the foreground and stoic gray mountain skylines beyond. Director Jacques Tourneur, whose previous work included the best of producer Val Lewton's low-key B-movie approach to horror in Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and The Leopard Man, is just about as deceptively casual creating one of the greatest examples of film noir.

That's a pretty big statement but in fact I've been a little surprised by how much it's agreed on (here for one example is what they were saying on the Goodfella's Movie Blog eight years ago). The term for me evokes more the splashier exercises such as Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, or Touch of Evil, so on so forth, or the extremely low-budget pictures, viz., Gun Crazy, Kiss Me Deadly, or Detour. Don't get me wrong, I think they're great, and so is Out of the Past, but it's the one that sneaks up on me. I think of it as small, maybe even a little slick and dull, though it has all the ingredients of dangerous men and even more dangerous women, low motives and high living, jealousy, vengeance, gnawing dissatisfaction, cigarette smoke, drawn guns, and the deep shadow that goes like frosting on a cake. Out of the Past definitely has one thing that the best of film noir has and maybe a majority doesn't, which is a coherent well-oiled plot with lots of the narrative pieces working together like a machine, and no stinting on the clarity. It gets to be perfectly absorbing as it unfolds, and it's also one of those movies that gets better the more it is seen.

It's not just the story, of course. There's Musuraca's imagery, and Out of the Past also has star power to burn in Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas. Mitchum has often struck me as a little overrated, a kind of movie star version of Dean Martin, an entertainer with no particular talent except an extraordinary charisma (I know, that is the talent). A great story about Mitchum has him referring to his lines here as the "lyrics" of the movie, along with affable complaints that he could never remember them and needed a lot of prompting. The anecdote only affirms his performance, as Jeff Something (Bailey or Markham but always Jeff), a mysterious cipher who operates a gas station in California and whose past reaches out to snare him.

In fairness to Mitchum, he didn't need dialogue, just that sloe-eyed face, and maybe a hat to give it a line across the top. And the writers worked hard to stuff this thing with bolts of poetry. "They say the day you die your name is written on a cloud," Jeff's girlfriend Ann (Virginia Houston) tells him on one of their wistful day outings to go fishing and be together. Later, Jeff reflects, "It's too late in life for me to start thinking." He's so cool he can't even say "I love you" to the women he loves, though he allows a "Mucho" when one asks him if he loves her a little. Later, when the same woman—Kathie (Jane Greer), the designated black widow spider—is making the desperate case to him that they belong together, she says, "You're no good and neither am I. That's why we deserve each other."

Jane Greer may not be so inspired but she's a competent femme fatale and a couple of plot points underline Kathie's essential depravity, which is mostly a matter of a hot temper accompanied by lying so much even she doesn't know for sure when she's telling the truth. For his part, Kirk Douglas as crime boss Whit does his usual one-note ankle-biting routines, but here they are perfectly deployed. He is equally as vicious and amoral as Kathie and he is much more dangerous because he is much more powerful. When he threatens Kathie at one point, telling her at length how he will kill her slowly, the pleasure he takes in it is chilling.

The ending is remarkably bleak, as so much film noir attempts to be, but I think Out of the Past really pulls it off. Even as the devastation is nearly complete it is somehow understated. The credit for that has to go to Tourneur, whose restrained style may or may not have been the result of budgets, but certainly few are so good at making so much out of so little. Thus, this story of a crumbum and his various grasping cronies somehow becomes very large. I'm sure it was not intended by anyone involved, but I kept feeling a déjà vu about the two world wars of the 20th century straining under this tawdry (though often beautiful) fable. If you don't take care of real issues the first time around, as in World War I, they will come back to bite you even worse, as we saw in World War II. That's Jeff's story too.

Top 10 of 1947
1. Out of the Past
2. Black Narcissus
3. One Wonderful Sunday
4. Record of a Tenement Gentleman
5. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
6. The Lady From Shanghai
7. The Paradine Case
8. Miracle on 34th Street
9. Gentleman's Agreement
10. Boomerang!

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