Out of the Past

Jeff and Kathie

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.

Whit at a table
Bad guy? Whit

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.

Out of the Past – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

The Yakuza

Keiko Kishi and Robert Mitchum

Robert Mitchum in a martial arts movie? That was Warner Bros’ crazy idea back in the early 1970s. Riding the massive success of their collaboration with Bruce Lee and the vogue for all things chop-socky, the next logical step was never to pack a paunchy and ageing Mitchum off to Japan but Warners went ahead and did it anyway. In 1974 came the verdict – a massive commercial flop. Time hasn’t done much to restore its reputation, though there are great things in it, and any opportunity to watch Mitchum is usually worth taking.

After 1973’s monster hit Enter the Dragon, the race was on to get more of the same onto the screens. And so it came to pass that the first screenplay by film critic Paul Schrader – working off a story by his brother Leonard, who lived in Japan at the time – became a hot property. It sold for big bucks, and it looked like Robert Aldrich was going to direct the adaptation, with Lee Marvin starring as the private eye running into trouble with the yakuza in Japan after going there to rescue a friend’s kidnapped daughter.

Marvin got replaced by Mitchum, who forced Aldrich (who’d always thought of Mitchum as a friend) off the production. In came Sydney Pollack, and along with him came Robert Towne, to do rewrites of Schrader’s screenplay.

If you were compiling a list of great US screenwriters of the 1970s, both Schrader and Towne would be on it (Schrader for Taxi Driver, if nothing else, Towne for Chinatown ditto) but neither succeeds in breathing life into The Yakuza. It’s a torpid thing, heavy with a repeated discussion about honour (or “giri”) and the codes of the yakuza, and light on actual action.

From the title credits you’d guess something James Bond-ish was about to play out. They’re lush and sinuous (Enter the Dragon also has a Bond fascination) but once the curtain goes up, introducing Harry Kilmer (Mitchum) as a guy tending his plants, we seem to be more in the territory of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, with Mitchum playing a similar sort of private eye to Elliott Gould’s – one who isn’t quite sure about all the white knight stuff.

Ken Takakura and Robert Mitchum
Brothers in rollnecks: Takakura and Mitchum

Once in Japan, Harry Kilmer rekindles his relationship with an old flame (Keiko Kishi) and uses her as a way of re-activating former yakuza man Ken Tanaka (Ken Takakura, often called the Japanese Clint Eastwood, on account of his impassiveness) and inserting himself into gangland affairs.

Then around 56 years old, Mitchum looks great, in a jowly, gone-to-seed kind of way, and is dressed throughout in superbly tailored clothes that make him look even better, but there’s no way in hell he’s going to be fighting and crying “aiieee”, Bruce Lee style, which is exactly what Takakura is there for.

A languid air hangs over the entire film. Mitchum’s bulk, the incredibly rich Technicolor cinematography (by Kôzô Okazaki) – so much purple! – and Dave Grusin’s wistful soundtrack mingling jazz themes, Japanese elements and film noir thrillerism. It’s all impressive but it sits ill against action that is too-often badly choreographed, really not helped when a chop-socky editing style, cutting into the meat, is applied, as it is in a central action sequences halfway through.

Mitchum is magnetic all the way through, even though at times he can barely be bothered acting (Pollack would complain), but his static style works best in films with a strong story and a forward dynamic. The Yakuza’s story is muddled – the kidnapped girl, for instance, is rescued almost immediately and is never seen again – and it frequently stops to give the audience lectures on honour, and is still introducing new plot twists and people as it’s winding towards a finish.

A mood piece, then, rather than the next Enter the Dragon, which goes to show what a free hand Warners had given Pollack. They thought they were getting an action movie. They weren’t. In that heady dawn of the 1970s, when directors were given their head and the back office were suddenly unsure of themselves, it wasn’t always a Taxi Driver or a Chinatown that popped out the other end. Alas.

The Yakuza – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Cape Fear

Robert De Niro as Max Cady in Cape Fear

Robert Mitchum as Max Cady in Cape Fear

It’s compare and contrast time. Max Cady, a psychopath recently out of stir after a long stretch for rape, sets out to terrorise lawyer Sam Bowden who he believes withheld information about his case at the trial which resulted in him going down. The original, directed by cult British director J. Lee Thompson in 1962, starred Robert Mitchum as the avenging psycho (a role he’d perfected in 1955’s Night Of The Hunter) and Gregory Peck as the apparently decent lawyer. Both turn up again in cameos in Martin Scorsese’s remake, in which things aren’t quite so clear cut. This time around Bowden (now played by Nick Nolte) is a lousy lawyer, and a philandering husband to boot, and Cady (Robert De Niro) isn’t just bad, he’s positively evil. The later version amps up the sex, too. Remember the infamous scene where Bowden’s daughter (Juliette Lewis) sucks the finger of Max Cady in the empty school theatre? And of course there’s Scorsese’s wham-bam hurricane-tossed ending. But sex, a big budget and lots of special effects to one side, the consensus seems to have it that Thompson’s is the better film, that drama as stormy as this works best when set in an age of innocence. As well as an elemental good versus evil thrust, Thompson also has Bernard Herrmann’s jangly score to help him along too, plus his instinct for the pace of a scene. Scorsese is, to be fair to him, after something more nuanced. His isn’t a clear-cut world of good v evil – everyone has done something that stinks in his Cape Fear. But does his finessing of moral positions make for a more satisfying, more humane drama, or a less dynamic film? Or both? Coming one year after Goodfellas Scorsese’s Cape Fear was fighting not just Thompson’s film but his own reputation.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


Cape Fear (1962) – at Amazon

Cape Fear (1991) – at Amazon