Thomas Wolfe wrote that “you can’t go home again”, a quote that has proven ever more resonant with each passing year for each passing generation. For private investigator turned gas station owner Jeff Markham, however, the opposite proves to be true in the 1947 noir classic Out of the Past. Directed by horror master Jacques Torneur, Out of the Past is a twisting tale of the lengths to which we go to escape the past and the ways in which it continues to impact our present, regardless of how far we may run. From its ominous opening reel to its somber final frame, this film personifies the very best of film noir and continues to serve as a reminder of what it is that keeps viewers coming back for more of the genre’s signature darkness.
|"Build my gallows high, baby"|
The story begins with the arrival of sleazy mob underling Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine) disturbing the peace of a small California town. It is soon revealed that Joe has come to town in search of mysterious newcomer Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) at the behest of his boss, ruthless mobster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). After Joe tracks him down to the gas station he now runs, Jeff realizes that he has only stalled the hidden past that he believed he had finally escaped from and reluctantly agrees to meet Whit at the mobster’s Lake Tahoe mansion. Fearing the outcome of his meeting, Jeff stops to visit with his wholesome girlfriend, Ann (Virginia Huston), and in an extensive flashback relates the story of his former life as private investigator Jeff Markham and the events that have brought him into Whit’s clutches for the second time. Over the course of the flashback, Jeff relates how he was hired by Whit to track down the mobster’s sultry girlfriend, Kathie Moffet (Jane Greer), after she disappeared following a domestic dispute that ended with Whit shot and Kathie on the run with forty-thousand dollars of his money. After Jeff located her in Acapulco, the two embarked upon a whirlwind affair before escaping to San Francisco with the forty-thousand dollars, only to be discovered by Jeff’s partner, Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie). Determined to hold onto her new life, Kathie murdered Fisher and fled, leaving Jeff to elude both the police and Whit. Back in the present, Jeff meets with Whit and is forced to take one last job that reunites him with Kathie and forces both of them to face the ghosts of the past that continue to haunt them.
|So much for honor amongst thieves|
Released just two years after the end of World War II, Out of the Past perfectly captures the jaded attitudes and bleak atmosphere that permeated the early-post war years. Unlike than the ‘awe-shucks’ down-home everyman popularized by such actors as James Stewart and Gary Cooper during the 1930’s, Mitchum’s Jeff is world weary, cynical, and willing to bend as many laws as it takes to survive; in short, he’s truly a man of his time. While he continues to maintain a desire to do the right thing he’s seen far too much of life in an increasingly ruthless world to hold onto any illusions, and his first priority remains self-preservation. In many ways, Jeff could be viewed as a stand-in for the generation of soldiers who had only recently returned home at the time of the film’s release. Throughout the film he remains isolated as he cannot relate to the naïve locals he struggles to blend in amongst and strives to block out any remnants of the violence and pain of his former life. In this way, Jeff’s struggle to build a new life directly mirrors the same struggle that World War II GI’s faced transitioning to civilian life after experiencing the horrors of war. Beyond its central protagonist, the film is populated with characters of murky morals and conflicted motives. While plenty of noirs contain similar characters, Out of the Past succeeds in making each of its central characters unique and intriguing. Kirk Douglas’ mobster, for instance, retains a surprising humanity through his devotion to Kathie. Jane Greer’s Kathy maintains a fascination that few women in the genre can claim as she not only holds her own against, but actually bests the men in her life at their own ruthless games and serves as an excellent foil to the one dimensional temptress, Meta Carson, and the too good to be real Ann. The film tops off its cocktail of mystique and grit with cinematography that is among the best in the genre as it showcases the menace lurking within the bright skies of a small town and the dark alleys of the city streets alike.
The film’s cast superbly bring the film’s complex plot and equally complex characters to life. Kirk Douglas transforms what easily could have been a stereotypical role into an endlessly entertaining performance by imbuing Whit with equal parts charm and malice. Jane Greer is nothing short of electrifying in her performance as Kathie; a combination of razor-sharp wit, sizzling sex-appeal, and steely resilience. Dickie Moore shines in his necessarily understated role as Jeff’s mute assistant, bringing a level of pathos to the crosses and double-crosses that he witnesses without relying upon a single line of dialogue. The supporting cast lends apt support with Rhonda Fleming and Paul Valentine particularly standing out for their gleefully wicked portrayals of manipulative secretary Meta and vicious hired gunman Stephanos. Despite all of the excellent performances surrounding him, however, the film belongs to Mitchum, who in in his portrayal of the ultimate noir hero epitomizes cool. In Mitchum’s hands Jeff is a character whom viewers can’t help rooting for and identifying with despite his many transgressions and ambiguities.
With the array of private investigators, femme fatales, and complex criminals inhabiting its shadowy world, Out of the Past could be considered Film Noir 101. While the film certainly contains all of those typical genre elements, such a label would be a misrepresentation of the truly unique viewing experience that the film is. Rather than a mere exercise in style, the film is actually an in depth look at a society in transition and a generation coming to grips with a past they cannot escape from. Nearly seventy years later, Out of the Past remains a film that speaks to the present and will remain a fan favorite far into the future.
|"A dame with a rod is like a guy with a knitting needle"|