You can run but you cannot hide is the sentiment driving Out of the Past, Jacques Tourneur’s bleak film noir masterclass from 1947. Just when you think you’ve got clear of something, so the story goes, up it comes from your history and bites you in the ass.
Robert Mitchum plays Jeff, a private detective hired by a big “operator” to go and find the woman who’s run off with his $40,000. What Whit (Kirk Douglas) really wants back is the woman rather than the money, and when Jeff tracks her down in Acapulco he discovers why. Jeff, instantly smitten, does the thing a private eye shouldn’t do and, after trading dialogue that’s all heading towards the bedroom door, embarks on a passionate relationship with Kathie (Jane Greer). “I never saw her in the daytime… we only seemed to live at night,” Jeff says in voiceover. A portent, but one Jeff does not heed. The pair of them decide to run away together and start a new life in San Francisco.
Enough plot for a film, you’d have thought, but all of this is actually just a prelude. As the film opens, Jeff is explaining this chunk of his backstory to the current love of his life, smalltown gal Ann (Virginia Huston), having been accidentally flushed out of backwoods anonymity by a summons to see Whit, who now has Kathie back “in the fold”, all hard feelings about her time with Jeff buried. But how deep?
While none of this exactly squares up in terms of human psychology (much of the plot of Out of the Past is a touch implausible), it’s enough of a frame on which to hang a picture of a bad-to-the-bone femme fatale. Kathie is a wrong’un all the way through and Jeff is in her thrall. From the moment he sees her again, all thought of a future with Ann is consigned to history. She’s not the only collateral damage.
Doom, fate, destiny, call it what you like but it hangs heavy in Out of the Past, as if every character in it knows that something dire is heading down the road towards them. Jacques Tourneur, again working with his Cat People DP Nicholas Musuraca, drapes this superb-looking film in shadows. Almost all of it takes place at night time, and when the sun does shine it means something really significant.
In a Virgin/Whore dualism, Virginia Huston and Jane Greer could be playing different sides of the same person. They even look similar, though Huston is blonder and plays Ann as a sweetie pie, while Greer’s slightly lopsided grin suits the role of a woman who might not necessarily be evil but is certainly dangerous, possibly because she has no integrity. She’s a woman who fatally doesn’t know what she wants. Is it Jeff, is it Whit, or is it anything or anybody who can give her an easy life?
Mitchum and Douglas (still in supporting roles in 1947 when this was made) each play to their strengths – Mitchum ambling, sardonic, laconic, Douglas the firecracker, his lips barely parting as he machine-guns out his dialogue.
Talking of which, Out of the Past is one of the great movies for dialogue nuts. “I don’t want to die,” Kathy says to Jeff at one point. “Neither do I, baby,” Jeff replies. “But if I have to, I’m going to die last.” It’s also the movie that gives us the phrase, “Baby I don’t care” which went on to become so associated with Mitchum that it was used as the title of Lee Server’s very readable Mitchum biography.
If you’re going to level a criticism at Out of the Past, it’s that everyone in it seems to have the same whipsmart brain for this way of speaking. Everyone’s a wiseguy – Jeff, Whit, Kathie and everyone they meet, right down to Marny (Mary Field), a diner owner who turns up early on to help set the scene. All except Ann, poor Ann, who exists only to make Kathie look even badder than she already is.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022