Friday, April 23, 2010

#2: Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)

Released: November 13, 1947 (U.S.A.)

Director: Jacques Tourneur; Screenplay: Daniel Mainwaring (as Geoffrey Homes), based on his novel Build My Gallows High; Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca; Studio: RKO; Executive Producer: Robert Sparks; Producer: Warren Duff

Cast: Robert Mitchum (Jeff Bailey), Kirk Douglas (Whit Sterling), Jane Greer (Kathy Moffat), Paul Valentine (Joe Stefanos), Rhonda Fleming (Meta Carson), Steve Brodie (Jack Fisher), Virginia Huston (Ann), Dickie Moore (The Kid), Ken Niles (Eels)

Even I am shocked at this placement. This had to be the odds on favorite to take the top spot in the countdown and it came very close to doing so. If I were asked for a recommendation of a single film to show someone as an example of film noir, it would be Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past. If I had another day to think about it, this one might be swapped into the #1 position. It is such a toss-up for me on how to separate my top two that I almost need to go with the classic copout of 1a and 1b. But, I’ll refrain from taking the easy way out, and instead make the toughest call that I have had to make in any of the lists made at this blog.

It truly is a testament to the greatness of this film that I am scrambling to rationalize why it did not finish in the _top spot_. Think about what praise this is for a movie to be ranked #2 in a field as storied as film noir. Out of the Past is so good that it is jarring not to see it at numero uno.

The combination of director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nick Musuraca is one of the great duos in the history of Hollywood. They worked together on a number of masterpieces – I Walked With a Zombie was chosen as my top film of 1943 and Cat People is routinely cited as one of the greatest horror pictures ever made – but even those classics pale in comparison to Out of the Past. The two masters were responsible for preparing the template that allowed Robert Mitchum to deliver his most iconic performance and for Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas to turn in towering performances as well.

If you can’t tell, I almost feel guilty not putting this at #1. No amount of analysis or examination can do justice to how great this film is and how well it holds up to countless viewings. Movies like Out of the Past are why I am obsessed with cinema.


There are certain films that I find extremely hard to write about or critically examine. These are films that I have some kind of deep emotional connection to – favorites from my childhood, movies that I saw at a key point in my life, or films that were absolutely essential to my development as a fan of cinema. So, I’m usually hesitant to try and overanalyze why I love them so much. This is one of those films. Out of the Past was the first film noir that I ever watched and it was nothing short of earth-shattering for me. I’ve been a noir junkie ever since, getting my hands on every noir I can, but all the time failing to find a single one that matches this 1947 classic. So, with that warning, I’ll go ahead and try to analyze it anyway. If I’m gushing in the review, it’s because this is one of my all-time favorite movies.

Out of the Past is on a shortlist of noirs that I would categorize as quintessential. If someone were to come to me and ask for a definition the style, I would direct them to this and Double Indemnity. If neither of those caught their attention, then it would probably be safe to assume that noir is not for them. The reason for such a bold proclamation? Out of the Past contains all of the archetypal elements of great noir. Adapted from a pulp novel. Private eye main character. Ruthless femme fatale. Shady gangster businessman. A story told in large measure through flashbacks and narration. And an unrelenting sense of destiny at every turn.

Oh, and Robert Mitchum. If Humphrey Bogart crafted the mold for the cool, tough guy noir P.I., then Mitchum perfected it in this film.

The story opens with the Mitchum character of Jeff Bailey working at a gas station in a small rural town. Little is known about Bailey’s history and this secretive nature arouses a bit of suspicion in the small town of Bridgeport, as evidenced by the negative reaction of his girlfriend Ann’s (Virginia Huston) parents. His attempt at distancing himself from his past is destroyed when gangster and ex-acquaintance Joe Stefanos (Paul Valentine) tracks Jeff down at the gas station. Joe tells Jeff that his ex-employer, wealthy gambler Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), is looking for him and sets up a meeting.

At this point Jeff is forced to reveal the truth to Ann concerning his life before Bridgeport. While driving to the meeting with Whit, Jeff recounts the tale to Ann, warning her that “Some of it’s gonna hurt you.” He says that his real name is Jeff Markham and that he used to be a New York private eye. A few years earlier, Whit hired Jeff to track down his runaway girlfriend and $40,000 that disappeared with her. The search takes Jeff to Mexico, where he finds the stunningly beautiful Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer). Rather than bringing her back to Whit, Jeff falls in love with her. They sneak away back to the States and begin to live life as a normal couple. But Whit has not forgotten his former love interest, the $40,000 dollars, or the private eye that he hired and who then vanished. Whit enlists Jeff’s old partner, Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie), to track him, which he does after randomly spotting him at a local racetrack. When the partner finds the couple and tries to extort them, Kathie insists that he won’t be revealing anything to Whit. She ensures this by gunning Jack down, then speeding away from the scene and leaving Jeff to bury the body. With Kathie again in the wind, Jeff then moves to Bridgeport and attempts to finally be rid of his former life. This pipedream is forever wrecked when Joe catches up with him at the gas station. Realizing that he has no choice but to confront his past, Jeff agrees to the meet with Whit and plunges himself back into the shady world he tried so desperately to abandon.

While at the meeting with Whit, Jeff discovers that Kathie has reunited with the gangster. Rather than being angry with him, Whit enlists Jeff for another job. But sensing that he might be getting caught up in a frame, Jeff has to navigate a path that keeps him safe from his employer, the law, and a variety of characters he comes in contact with along the way. Will this job set Jeff free from his past? Can he pay his debt to Whit and then resume his life with Ann in Bridgeport? Whose side is Kathie truly on? I’ll let you discover the answers to these questions yourself, as it’s a wild ride for the entire 97 minutes, chock full of plotting, double crossing and tense face-offs. For those that have already seen the film, I’m sure you’ll agree that the answers are always shifting and keep the viewer wondering.

The story has been characterized by some as convoluted, and it is, but don’t let anyone fool you into believing that it’s incomprehensible. The script is expertly crafted by Daniel Mainwaring, adapted from his own novel Build My Gallows High (both written under the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes). For as many twists and turns that take place throughout the story, the screenplay is surprisingly tight, with none of the conspicuous plot holes that have plagued some otherwise great noirs. And the dialog… oh my, the dialog. The lines come shooting out of characters’ mouths like daggers. Some of my favorite lines in all of cinema come from this film and from Mitchum in particular. The examples are numerous and outstanding:

“Kathie: Oh, Jeff, I don't want to die!
Jeff: Neither do I, baby, but if I have to I'm gonna die last.”
“Ann: She can't be all bad. No one is.
Jeff: Well, she comes the closest.”
“Kathie: Oh Jeff, you ought to have killed me for what I did a moment ago.
Jeff: [dryly] There's time.”

I could go on for pages. I’ll forever maintain that Jeff’s response in the first example is my favorite line of all time. This dialog is razor sharp and the epitome of cool. The brilliance of these lines is in large measure due to Mainwaring, as just reading them is terrific. But a lot of credit must also go to Mitchum. As Jeff Bailey, he is the personification of the detached anti-hero and makes these words come alive. These witty expressions would be nowhere near as powerful if they weren’t being delivered by the droopy-eyed Mitchum, adorned in an overcoat and stylish hat and with a cigarette hanging between his lips. The way that Jeff Bailey navigates this underhanded world and interacts with such shady individuals, the role calls for someone to be able to add the necessary cynicism to the character. Mitchum is precisely the man. It’s no coincidence that despite being his first top-billing, this is the role for which Mitchum is best remembered. He is that good.

As previously mentioned, the major themes that are found throughout all film noir are on display here, but this film outdoes nearly all of them in key areas. The sense of danger hanging over a likeable, yet flawed character has never been done better. It is impossible to ignore the fact that Jeff _willingly_ walks back into a world and situation that he knows could very well be his downfall. The audience knows this too, and it is distressing to see him continue down a path that everyone involved – audience and characters, Jeff in particular – knows is not likely to end well. To say that there is a sense of doom hanging over the events would be an understatement. And yet, in the end, there is redemption of sorts. The closing scene between Ann and Jeff’s deaf gas station attendant is poignant and reveals that Jeff may have been in control of his destiny all along.

The direction of Jacques Tourneur also deserves recognition. Darkness and shadows are the staples of any director working in film noir. However, few were ever able to utilize them as effectively as Tourneur, as he juxtaposed them with beautiful pastoral settings. Whenever Jeff is in Bridgeport, the scenes are wide open and bright, setting Jeff and Ann in front of a backdrop of rolling mountains, streams, and the country. But as soon as Jeff comes into contact with anyone from his past – be it Kathy, Whit or Joe – the scenes become dark and gloomy. Faces are obscured by shadows and movement becomes sinister as silhouettes creep across the screen. These are interesting contrasts and emphasize the wildly different worlds that Jeff is attempting to jump between.

After spending so much time referring to this as the quintessential film noir, I have to admit that such praise is almost doing the movie a disservice. Pigeonholing it as the best of a specific genre is too restricting for a film this good. Out of the Past is not just one of the best films noir, it is one of the greatest films of all time, period.


  1. Wow Dave I thought this would be your number one. It really is the film that I would suggest a novice see to understand film noir. It is perfect in almost every way. Tourneur is such a great director that I consider both Cat People and Night Of The Demon to be almost as good as this movie. That is what high esteem I regard him as a director. Musuraca is so unsung as a cinematographer He worked on my 2 favorite Val Lewton pictures plus this great noir. Not to mention a handful of other great films like The Spiral Staircase, Curse Of The Cat People, etc. How good is Out Of The Past.....even Bosley Crowther gave it a good review!!!!........M.Roca

  2. Yes just like you when I saw this film I knew I had never seen anything like it before. To me this will always be the definitive noir. It is one that can truly be called timeless. The dialogue really is that good too.
    As an aside how did you like the 'remake' "Against All Odds"?

  3. I distinctly remember having read this review of yours in the yearly countdown, and having commented that this happens to be one of my favourite noirs too.

    As you rightly mentioned, this is the quintessential film noir, and in Jane Greer's Kathie Moffat we have another lethal drop-dead-beaut femme fatale. Further, Kir Douglas' performance, for me, forms a great prologue to his career-best turn in Ace in the Hole.

    Well, I too am surprised that this made your No. 2, as I was quite certain till now that this would take the trophy given how much you like the movie. A Hitchcockian twist in the tale :)

  4. Dave, I too am "shocked" by this placement as I swore this would be your number one. A prototypical noir that is a must see for all.

  5. I am completely floored by this, as I would have lost my shirt, had I placed a bet in Vegas as I had originally planned. Furthermore, as I know the #1 film, I can say without reservation that in my view this Tourneur film is greater. But that's my position, and again as you note in an obviously guilt-written lead-in, it was a painful decision. You towering regard for this great film however, has been amply dmonstrated in the orginal review, and I applaud you for making the tough decisions. As John says it's a "prototypical noir."

  6. Can I go ahead and change my mind?! LOL... I am kidding, of course, but understand everyone's reaction. This is THE quintessential noir, there is no disputing that, and would be a cinch for a Top 10 all time favorite films list for me.

  7. Add my surprise to everyone's. I was actually going to rewatch it anticipating it to be your top choice, but while the library had the box cover they didn't have the disc. Hmph. Anyway, reading your review again makes me want to revisit it even more.

  8. I love this movie too. Tourneur had a real eye, and I really love the way he is able to contrast the landscape of the city with that of the small town.

  9. This is the first movie I watched with Mitch, and I fell in love with him. (I watched The Grass is Greener recently, and I thought I love Mitch even more than Cary Grant. I root for Mitch everywhere, even when he is a "bad guy.")

    "Out of the Past" is an almost perfect movie, and a perfect noir, albeit a bit complicated, much like "The Big Sleep." The only minor complaint is the somewhat bland characters of Mitch's boooring GF and her very annoying beau. I wanted them removed from the screen every time they appeared. The rest of the cast is perfect. The ending is wonderful, though I cry every time Mitch dies on screen.

  10. Of course we all know what film will be #1 in this countdown.

    Before that happens, I want to say a BIG BIG BIG THANK YOU to you, Dave, for doing this wonderful job. Maybe you would consider doing the same for war movies or westerns? (Just sayin'... I would most certainly appreciate that!)

    In short -- BEST. COUNTDOWN. EVER. A huge thanks from me! And good luck in everything!

  11. Let me add that I, too, am absolutely shocked this isn't #1. That said, Dave, you have pulled off an awesome achievement here.

    The reason I thought this would be #1 is the word "quintessential." "Out of the Past" carries the entire DNA of film noir. Take one frame and you can re-create the entire genre. This is my fave noir (its the film that Scorsese screened for the cast of "Shutter Island" to show what he was trying to get at). It's one of the very few films that offers both the straight-forward pleasures of cinema and the complex pleasures of great detective/thriller fiction.

    Be interesting to make a list of other "quintessential" noir films. I don't believe this list would track with your sequential ranking. My list of essential noir films would be:
    • Out of the Past
    • Detour
    • D.O.A.
    • Double Indemnity
    • Kiss Me Deadly

    These film all capture the most essential noir element -- that "fate or some mysterious force" can turn your life into a living nightmare, and you can't wake up no matter how hard you try.

    FINAL ADD -- This is your list, not mine, but I'm a tiny bit disappointed you didn't include one of my fave noirs, "They Won't Believe Me" with our gal Jane Greer, and Robert Young (!). Great cast, sensational ending.

  12. Dave, I just want to echo everyone's kind words! Your countdown has been a tremendous achievement and an inspiration in terms of quality, perseverance, and your extraordinary mastery of the subject at hand.

    Great, great job, Dave!

  13. This was really a nice article and made me feel to watch this classic movie. I hope i can watch it one of this days. Thank you for such an informative article review of this classic movie.