Movies such as Out of the Past are what movie blogging should be all about. While it’s undoubtedly important to keep up with the new titles hitting theaters, finding hidden gems within the glut of watered-down, mass audience studio releases, it’s just as important to look into the past and find the movies that have shaped cinema into what it is today… or, at least a reminder of what great cinema used to be, and is now mostly (un)seen within the confines of independent releases.
As someone who only started delving deep into cinema’s rich history about eleven years ago I still pay attention to a variety of sites and bloggers, hoping to hear of films I’ve never heard of or seen, something to shake up the monotony. Typically this comes in the form of a Criterion Collection release, the gold standard (at least domestically) in ensuring classic cinema remains alive, but a recent example for me came within the article I posted, “The Telegraph in which he offered up ten films he felt could best capture the story of Hollywood. Among those picks were two films I hadn’t seen, the first being Buster Keaton‘s short One Week and the second was Jacques Tourneur‘s Out of the Past, a dark film noir starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer.
How could I have never heard of or seen a movie considered important enough Collin felt it was a worthy representative of the film noir genre? As fate would have it, Warner Archive was releasing the film on Blu-ray for the first time only a week after I published that article. Getting acquainted with it was a no brainer and what a treat it was.
To begin, the presentation is immaculate. Originally released in 1947, Warner Archive delivers an excellent video release, grain is still present, but not overly so and Nicholas Musuraca‘s rich cinematography looks as if the film had been preserved under the best possible conditions for the past 65+ years. The twisted shadows, flicker of flame and smoke from the countless number of cigarettes in the film are every bit as important as the narrative itself and no detail is overlooked.
Based on the novel “Build My Gallows High“, Out of the Past begins in a small town wherein Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), a name innocent enough, especially as it conjures memories of an even more genial fellow in James Stewart‘s George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life released one year earlier.
Bailey, as we first come to know him, runs a small gas station and is carrying on a relationship with a local woman named Ann (Virginia Huston). We soon realize, however, Jeff has some demons in his past as a stranger comes to town looking for this Jeff Bailey character, ultimately leading Jeff to tell Ann about his past and a story that begins with a woman named Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) whose shot a man named Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas in only his second feature film) and fled the country with $40,000.
Sterling is an affable businessman (and/or gangster) of questionable ethics and having dealt with Jeff when he was a private investigator, hires him once again to find Kathie and bring her back to him, not so he can harm her, he just wants her back (or so he wants us to believe). Pieces of the story begin to fall in place as the events of the past unfold all accompanied by Mitchum’s voice over, which is an interesting point given my recent complaints over the awful voice over in Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller‘s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.
[amz asin=”B00LPUO24Y” size=”small”]All the detail captured in Musuraca’s cinematography is elevated by Mitchum’s voice over rather than relying on the voice over for the detail, such as the case with the overly-stylized, wannabe noir that is Sin City 2, glossy and affected to the point nothing can be felt. Within Out of the Past even the shadows have stories, stories untold as motivations are kept in the dark until just the right time. With Sin City all the ugliness is front and center, pummeling you into acceptance and boredom in figurative and literal black-and-white. Sin City feels the need to explain why it’s film noir rather than being film noir.
For that matter, film noir can sometimes be a little difficult to define as much as it’s a “you know it when you see it” kind of thing, something the Out of the Past audio commentary by film history James Ursin touches upon early and often. That being said, what struck me most in this film — beyond the cinematography, dialogue, performances, etc. — was the sinister nature of the film overall. Tourneur has built a world wherein not only do you believe anything can happen, but there is a genuine fear something happening. There is no violence for the sake of violence and the question of when it may come is more malevolent than any film where violence is a constant, assured occurrence.
Innocence is lost on virtually every character within the film, but Tourneur slow plays every twist and turn in the narrative as it soon becomes clear no one is safe. It becomes even more nefarious once characters have no choice but to believe what they’re being told, putting them in predicaments they would have otherwise avoided.
Mitchum as Bailey is calm under pressure, keeping his cool in a way that makes him more threatening than a character that gets loud or gives off a feeling of physical superiority. Bailey’s general confidence and quiet even throws off Whit early as he sits without saying a word. “You just sit and stay inside yourself. You wait for me to talk. I like that,” Whit says. “I never found out much listening to myself,” Bailey replies. Bailey goes through the movie like this, listening. His words matter when spoken, which means you listen when he speaks. It’s an important distinction considering he also serves as narrator for about two-thirds of the film’s running time.
Douglas is wonderful and in many ways opposite Bailey. He’s a chatter box, oozing confidence, but never giving the impression he’s willing to be the trigger man. This, in a lot of ways, makes him seem even more dangerous.
Then there’s Jane Greer, a femme fatale for the ages. This is the kind of role today’s actresses don’t often have the pleasure of playing. Kathie certainly uses her sexuality to wrap her unsuspecting victims around her finger, but in today’s films it’s far more graphic in nature (think Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct). Kathie’s manipulation, while sexual, is presented as more psychological. As such, Greer is given much more to do with the role rather than spread her legs and bat her eyes and with Mitchum under-playing nearly every scene the two collaborate for one hell of a pair.
While it’s clear I have plenty more to explore as new gems continue to surface, it’s times like seeing Out of the Past that I’m thankful for the position I have, but it’s a matter of convincing others these movies are worth watching rather than dropping money on the newest movies in theaters just because they are “new”. Remember, if you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you and if you’re interested you can own this film noir gem right now.