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Out of the Past (1947)

by on 2011/03/06

“There’s a way to lose more slowly”

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The first time we saw Out of the Past, I watched it with an eye to Jacques Tourneur’s direction. I’d just come off a stint with producer Val Lewton’s excellent box set. Tourneur figured prominently in some of Lewton’s classics, including Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie, and Leopard Man.

This time, I had a different association. (It would appear, in writing my critiques, I’m a slave to my associations.) While certain aspects reminded me of later movies Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005), Dr. No, Vertigo, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, my overriding impression was of 2010’s Human Target TV series.

In both, a dangerous outsider, wrapped in a cloak of equanimous affability, falls in love, and flees to San Francisco, hoping to leave behind his life of violence and corruption. In doing so, he provokes the wrath of a powerful father figure, who sets his former partners upon him.

But where Human Target employs the tropes of James Bond, MacGyver, and Mission: Impossible, Out of the Past is all noir . . . even when it’s not. In consuming a steady diet of these films, I was struck by how different this one felt, although it’s widely considered a member of that group of quintessentials.

Let me back up a bit first. In the little town of Bridgeport, California, recent resident Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) maintains a garage and gas station. He spends his free time fishing and wooing a local, Ann Miller (Virginia Huston). One day, he’s visited by an old fellow, who dispatches him to meet boss Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). En route to their meeting, Bailey recalls the events which led him to Bridgeport.

In New York, Sterling hired him to find and return Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), a girlfriend who shot him and absconded with $40,000. Jeff follows a trail of leads through various jazz clubs, bars, and cafes, until he locates Moffat in Acapulco, Mexico. Unfortunately, in surveilling her, he becomes intrigued, infatuated, and taken with the prospect of a new start.

Returning to the present, Jeff is concerned. Sterling’s reunion job could be a vengeful frame, and yet he can’t resist the call any more than Kathie.

Less a mystery than a cat and mouse chase, the roles of hunter and hunted constantly flip-flop, but the sequential positioning of twists ensures more compulsion than confusion. Following on the convoluted Big Sleep, the plot is a relative cakewalk, and the fewer, richer characterizations make any effort worthwhile.

Now, getting back to the noirisms, Out of the Past is an interesting case. I think it’s an amazing piece, but I don’t know if I’d consider it perfect or even typical. It better exemplifies the effective breaking of conventions.

For instance, staging and camera placement tends to be complex and canted or sharply inclined. Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca — who also lensed Stranger on the Third Floor and Cat People — gives us the extreme angles we expect. Shot from a low angle, characters tend to look taller, larger, and imposing.

However, in this picture, the placement of shadows against background walls and ceilings diminishes the subject by comparison. If a player feels powerful, then the darkness behind them is more so. The literal shadows suggest more figurative themes, like the inescapability of past wrongs.

That example is just one of several. Out of the Past offers us other scenarios where apparent breaks from convention — opportunities to escape from fate — are twisted back into the noir fold. A Mexican beach offers no getaway warmth, overlaid with thorny light and shadow. A small town, flooded by daylight, represents an escapist ideal, at least until the judgmental townsfolk betray any quality of salvation.

Its quantities may vary, but corruption is prevalent and relentless in this world. It’s a pessimistic view, and typical of such works. Even the hero, rare in being both smart and honest, is no innocent. Though he understands there is a “better” way, his efforts at redemption are ultimately made in vain. He can no more lose his past than his looming shadow.

Thus, while it unwinds like an early One Last Job caper, existential themes — how personal responsibility feeds into the inescapable past and the inevitable future — add considerable gravitas, edge, and darkness. Recent interpretations of similar subject matter play it faster, looser, and lighter, and yet Out of the Past makes a compelling case for refusal to compromise. Rarely has “we’re all screwed” been quite as much fun.

* * * *

Rated PG (Canada) / not rated (United States)

97 minutes

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