Director: Jacques Tourneur
Producer: Warren Duff
Screenwriter: Daniel Mainwaring
Cinematographer: Nicholas Musuraca
Music: Roy Webb
Studio: RKO Pictures 1947
Main Acting: Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, and Jane Greer
When thinking of the quintessential film noir detective, most people (myself included) automatically turn to the names of Spade or Marlowe to represent the genre. On the surface, those two figures possess the seemingly proper ingredients to best symbolize what a sleuth in this classic movement should exhibit. In truth though, those two characters seem to be missing one crucial element that Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) retains as the ultimate film noir private eye. They remain emotionally removed from their respective cases. Marlowe and Spade always solve the crimes and unravel the mysteries, but in The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and Murder My Sweet, they are explicitly immune to the carnal pull of the femme fatale. While they get themselves in deep with the circumstances of a case, the attachment is solely business. Jeff Bailey instead, gets ensnared romantically and personally. His dilemma is that he becomes acutely entrenched within the events until there is no way out. His role as private dick gets blurred with that of hopelessly doomed noir protagonist. The illicit pull of sin and lust drag him into an entrapped grey area where his position as investigator is thus replaced with something more profoundly tragic. If Marlowe and Spade are only sucked into the noir universe on a surface level, Bailey thus becomes the true paramount gumshoe of this movement by allowing himself to get mired deep within the narrative muck and never find a way out. For film noir, this last development is crucial and essential.
Out Of The Past contains my favorite scene in all of film noir. Like an apparition materializing from the warm Mexican sun, Katie Moffat (Jane Greer) walks into Cafe La Mar Azul and enters Jeff Bailey’s world. Repeat viewings make us realize that her appearance into the shadowy cafe spells doom for our narrating guide. This important moment is when Bailey becomes much more than an intelligent flatfoot and instead traverses down a long grim road of destruction. Death comes with an immaculate white dress and a killer smile that could melt the heart of any man. Her expressions and mannerisms are of innocence with a subtle trace of seductiveness at this early junction. Bailey has been waiting patiently for this moment to arrive. Her beauty intoxicates him quickly and we can see that he has fallen under her spell even before she mentions another night spot called Pablo’s. This little cantina is quiet and plays American music she hushes, a further invitation to develop a dalliance for which Bailey is dying for. “I sometimes go there” is her understated parting shot. The detective should flee or replace that craving desire with steely temperance or professional discretion. Instead, he goes and waits every night like she would want him to. Unlike Sam Spade, he succumbs…
Robert Mitchum’s drowsy persona is just right for the role of Jeff Bailey. The fact that Katie is essentially pulling the wool over his eyes throughout the film allows his acting style to be pitch perfect. A willing dupe who is too asleep in his salacious fervor to wake up and see reality. The Night Of The Hunter may be Mitchum at his acting best, but Out Of The Past represents the typical Mitchum style the clearest and at its most effective. Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas also greatly enhance the goings-on and all the acting hits the right note. Jacques Tourneur directs what is most commonly referred to as his masterpiece. With a filmography that includes Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie, and Night Of The Demon, this is no small feat. His ace cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca, lends his considerable talent at establishing the perfect visual mood while Roy Webb adds another typically lyrical score that further heightens the intoxicating tension throughout. The script is top notch and Mitchum gets saddled with some absolutely memorable lines that bear repeating…
“Neither do I, baby. But if I have to, I’m gonna die last.”
“It was the bottom of the barrel, and I was scraping it.”
“I think I’m in a frame…I don’t know. All I can see is the frame. I’m going in there now to look at the picture.”
For many, Out Of The Past holds the most film noir elements that could be associated with the movement. It’s like a recipe that is filled to the brim with flavorful ingredients that will arouse one’s taste buds and palette. This 1947 Tourneur effort unknowingly houses so many noir themes and concerns that you wonder if RKO wasn’t conscious of what truly constituted the genre. Maybe they had Nino Frank and the French on the payroll reciting all the needed aspects to scribble in some secret Noir Constitution. Thou shall have a femme fatale, trapped male protagonist, shady rich business man and so on. If you needed to show an uninitiated friend what film noir is or represents, you couldn’t do any better than Out Of The Past. The story even supplies a convoluted section near the end where everything becomes a mesmerizing jumble of motives and purposes. While most other genres would suffer from such confusion, noir always rises above such mere inadequacies. Isn’t Jeff Bailey in so far over his head that clarity should be the last thing presented to the viewer in making any identifying connections? Our gullible beacon should not walk these lonely bewildered roads alone. Let us hold his hand while he sinks into oblivion.
The ending, while downbeat, seems like the proper conclusion. In film noir, there are laws that should not be broken by anyone. Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe instinctively know where such poor choices will lead you. After all, they are the closest to noir super heros that this stylized world could afford. Never would they fall for such a scheming dame trying to make good. Jeff is the opposite. Just another typical every man who gets tangled up in a duplicitous web without escape. His fallibility is endearing and understandable to us because we can see how obsessive desire can hurt even someone with his smarts. He is everyone. Some get lucky and only end up giving up a fox fur to a woman in Washington Heights, some get the shorter end of the stick. “Build My Gallows High, Baby,” he mutters at one point. Never allowing the chance for self preservation to get in the way of curtailing the possibility of some glorious sex. In Out Of The Past, internal desires and wants end up eradicating another being who should have known better.