Wednesday 8 January 2014

Movie Review: Out Of The Past (1947)

A classic film noir brimming with betrayal, murder, theft and manipulation, Out Of The Past toys with desolate drama driven by the desperation of the doomed.

A brooding tough guy called Joe (Paul Valentine) shows up at a middle-of-nowhere California gas station looking for the owner Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum). Joe wants Jeff to travel to Lake Tahoe for a meeting with Joe's boss, shady businessman Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). Jeff agrees and takes along girlfriend Ann Miller (Virginia Huston). On the drive to the meeting Jeff recounts in flashback his chequered history with Whit. As a private detective Jeff and his partner Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie) were hired by Whit to find his girlfriend Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) after she shot him four times and fled with $40,000 of his money.

Whit: You just sit and stay inside yourself. You wait for me to talk. I like that.
Jeff: I never found out much listening to myself.

Jeff found Kathie in Mexico, they fell in love, and escaped from the clutches of Whit. But when Fisher stumbled upon them living in hiding, Kathie shot and killed Fisher and promptly fled, leaving Jeff to deal with the mess of his former partner's dead body. Back in the present, Jeff enters the meeting and is stunned to find Kathie back with Whit, having returned to him after the Fisher killing. Whit appears friendly enough towards Jeff, and offers him an assignment to recover financial files being used by lawyer Leonard Eels (Ken Niles) to blackmail Whit. Jeff suspects a trap, and soon finds himself in multiple layers of trouble as the bodies pile up and his past catches up with him.

Jeff, narrating: And then I saw her, coming out of the sun, and I knew why Whit didn't care about that forty grand.

Among the most perfect examples of film noir, Out Of The Past luxuriates in slow smoke, bad intentions, illicit affairs, vivid shadows and razor sharp dialogue dripping with cynicism. The mood is unrelentingly dark and suspicious, the action hurtling towards only bad outcomes. Jeff narrates his own story with the tired resignation of a man who knows the game is up once the ghost of the past, in the form of Joe, shows up at his gas station. Nothing good can happen after that.

Director Jacques Tourneur packs a highly complex story into 97 minutes of grim pessimism. With pacing that accelerates as Jeff's destiny spirals ever downwards, the film's final 30 minutes do feel rushed, as the Daniel Mainwaring script races towards an incomprehensible cliff, but just manages to hang on as Jeff gets sucked into the vortex where Kathie, Whit, and Fisher all see him as a step-stool towards something else.

Kathie: You know, you're a curious man.
Jeff: You're gonna make every guy you meet a little bit curious.
Kathie: That's not what I mean. You don't ask questions. You don't even ask me what my name is.
Jeff: All right, what's your name?
Kathie: Kathie.
Jeff: I like it.
Kathie: Or where I come from?
Jeff: I'm thinkin' about where we're going.
Kathie: Don't you like it in here?
Jeff: I'm just not ready to settle down.
Kathie: Shall I take you somewhere else?
Jeff: You're going to find it very easy to take me anywhere.

Every time Jeff thinks that he's dodged one crisis he finds himself surfacing in a muddier swamp of trouble, and it all stems from falling in love with the wrong girl at the wrong time and in the wrong place. Kathie is a most dangerous femme fatale, and Jeff is the tragic hero with an inability to resist her seductive charms. Both are scrapping for more than what they deserve, in the vain hope that fate will give them a break and they can get away with undeserved contentment.

Kathie: Jeff, we've been wrong a lot, and unlucky a long time. I think we deserve a break.
Jeff: We deserve each other.

Robert Mitchum is perfectly depressing as Jeff, his economy of words and actions portraying a man allowing life to happen to him. Douglas brings menacing intensity to Whit, his toothy smile not trying to hide the arrogance that comes with illicit riches. And Jane Greer defines the irresistibly attractive manipulator, Greer exuding the intelligent sex appeal used by Kathie to confuse the weak and snare a man who can potentially help her get away from Whit. She is wrong, as is everyone else looking for a happy ending. In Out Of The Past, one mistake a long time ago is all it takes to condemn the future.

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