From the shadows of the past stumble the memories of your misdeeds — they lug themselves towards you in heavy coats and hats — packing heat and chewing on cocktail sticks. Whatever you do, wherever you go, fate can catch you — fate WILL catch you. That’s the message of Out of the Past (1947) director: Jacques Tourneur, and starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas. Out of the Past is one of the most heavy duty, hard wearing, cigarette smoking film noirs out there — hoods, hats, hold ups and past actions dredging up the most awful barrelfuls of darkness. The debasing cult of noir has rarely seen such a troublesome bunch as this flick throws up, so much so that resolution seems impossible. Crime don’t pay, bub — it only costs.
There are a couple of reasons why Out of the Past remains as loved as it is. Firstly, it’s always had a reputation as being one of the greatest of all film noirs. I’m not sure if it’s ‘the ne plus ultra of forties film noir’ as Robert Ottoson described it in his 1981 A Reference Guide to Film Noir (1940 – 1958), but the fact that nearly everybody places it on such a peak means that there must be something special about it.
One of the other reasons that Out of the Past is so well admired is because of the huge amounts of cigarette smoking that takes place. More than any other movie, Out of the Past seems to have everybody smoking, and all of the time. If Robert Mitchum isn’t smoking, he’s lighting one up or putting one out, and we even see shared cigarettes, cigarettes tossed on the floor or out of shot, people blowing smoke at each other and for ambience, smoke puffed into the path of the film’s lighting.
The female lead in Out of the Past is not as typically in charge as her colleagues in other films of the time were, although she is trying to control matters. If there is a general issue with Out of the Past it is hard indeed to buy that Mitchum’s character is any way vulnerable and at the mercy of his emotions and his past. Mitchum’s confidence doesn’t allow this to play at all — and yet his character is supposed to be putty in the claws of the gangster’s girl that he falls in love with.
Here is the noir checklist in brief, as applied to Out of the Past
- A heel in the form of a weak male lead - NO
- A strong female lead - YES
- Lighting - YES
- Psychology - YES
- Fate plays its hand - YES
The convulted plot was pretty much invented by the creators of film noir in the 1940s. We should always remember that none of the writers, producers or directors involved were consciously making noir — the term was first used in 1946 in France and was applied rather retrospectively on the genre.
So while there was no formula to producing what we now call film noir, there were instead trends, some of which were experimental. The convoluted plot as a device arose in the era in efforts to disguise and adapt the storytelling pattern which had evolved throughout the 20s and 30s, in the classic crime films of that time. All that is happening therefore in a convoluted plot such as in Out of the Past, The Maltese Falcon and Murder, My Sweet, is that although the story remains the same, the point of view and emphasis changes hugely.
This still works as a trick, and is best seen in Quention Tarantino’s films. When examined, Tarantino’s stories are quite straightforward, although a more exciting and compelling picture is made by shuffling time, point of view and emphasis. One of the great pioneers of this was Raymond Chandler, whose work informed noir screen-writing to an high degree. But in Out of the Past, there is a major shift in time and although most of the film is seen from the point of view of Robert Mitchum’s character, often matters are confused. This works as it takes a reasonably uncomplciated story and confuses it in the mind of the viewer.
The uncomplicated take on Out of the Past would be — sleuth is hired by hood to find lady — sleuth finds lady and falls in love with her — hood reclaims lady and enacts revenge. Draped on this basic structure is the overwhelming idea of the past, haunting the Mitchum character, chapping on the window, blowing smoke in his face at every opportunity, and it adds depths galore to all the characters. A large part of the film is set in the past, which has a strange effect on the viewer when later you may have to wonder if you’re in the present or the past.
Robert Mitchum has star power, that’s true, although he’s more of a cowboy than a noir detective, but he’s so well matched with Kirk Douglas that Out of the Past works well. Kirk Douglas is the bad guy in Out of the Past, and he’s great. Like his son Michael he can have it both ways, and be the hero or the villain. He’s neat, confident and plays the gangster to perfection, working his malice via a selection slick suit and threats.
Robert Mitchum’s character as an actor doesn’t do a great service to the noir canon, however, he’s almost too powerful a presence, with too honest a face. We see him dealing with the idyllic practice of fishing, several times, and he just seems such a cowboy that you may blink and wonder if you aren’t in the wrong film. This brief however, and is shown as a halcyon idyll, a contrast to the unforgivingly seedy world of crime that Mitchum’s character is trying to escape from.
In general terms, Out of the Past is a love story, tangled up with crime. When Robert Mitchum sees Jane Greer entering a bar in Mexico with the sunlight behind her, he knows that he would rather have her than the $40 grand he has been promised to find her — highly romantic, and very noir. The woman as victim, merges seamlessly with the woman as prize, here precisely valued by the men that are going to be fighting over her. And Out of the Past, interestingly, delivers a well travelled struggle, with scenes in Mexico, and all over California, with Mitchum and his tail gumshoeing it around LA, and then into the northern woods. The scenes turn quickly from place to place, blending real landscapes with studio sets, expressionistic rooms and bars, with Ansel Adams mountain scenes.
Emotionally shaded, Out of the Past is one of the few noirs that bears re-watching, merely because you want to try and grasp it, and even though there is so much going on, it never feels overworked. Jacques Tourneur took film noir damn near to the cliff-edge of tragic poetry in Out Of The Past, and raised the standards of the noir cycle as high as they would ever be, without technical innovation, but instead with a melnacholy and an emphasis on what the cruel world of crime is doing to the frail human personalities it sucks up. This is neatly expressed in a casino when Jane Greer asks, "Is there a way to win?" and Robert Mitchum answers, "There's a way to lose more slowly."
There are of course plenty typically characterful and often unpleasant noir-style lines of dialogue, such as:
‘You know a dame with a rod is like a guy with a knitting needle.’
‘I sell gasoline, I make a small profit. With that I buy groceries. The grocer makes a profit. We call it earning a living. You may have heard of it somewhere.’
Kathie Moffat: Oh, Jeff, I don't want to die!
Jeff Bailey: Neither do I, baby, but if I have to I'm gonna die last.
I never saw her in the daytime. We seemed to live by night. What was left of the day went away like a pack of cigarettes you smoked. I didn't know where she lived. I never followed her. All I ever had to go on was a place and time to see her again. I don't know what we were waiting for. Maybe we thought the world would end.
That final quote, delivered by Mitchum, is a full on existential expression of noir, including fate, cigarettes, the hopelessness of love, and the awful confusions pertinent to being alone in a cruel universe.
Jane Greer is not only the big-eyed beauty in the film, she seems to be the one generating all the tension, all of the time. Like Mitchum she is cool and weary and knowing; but she is also totally amoral, a hideous contrast to Mitchum’s innocent , stone-faced character. When Mitchum is fighting the detetcive that trailed them to the woods in their small cabin, Greer’s excited and fearful face is the centre of gravity for the entire picture, the full on focus of all the struggles and vile behaviours
Here is a great quote about Out of the Past from Roger Ebert, a quote from his article '200 Cigarettes'.
The trick, as demonstrated by Jacques Tourneur and his cameraman, Nicholas Musuraca, is to throw a lot of light into the empty space where the characters are going to exhale. When they do, they produce great white clouds of smoke, which express their moods, their personalities and their energy levels. There were guns in Out of the Past, but the real hostility came when Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas smoked at each other.