Out of the Past: The definitive Film Noir classic that established Robert Mitchum as the ultimate Noir hero

Out of the Past(1947), directed by Jacques Tourneur and starring Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Jane Greer and Rhonda Fleming, may well be the greatest Film Noir ever made, with Mitchum giving one of the greatest Noir-hero performances of all time.

Baby, I don’t care” was the title of actor, Robert Mitchum’s biography written by Lee Server. The title was taken from an immortal line spoken by Mitchum in the classic Noir, “Out of the Past (1947).” What’s so great about the line is that it perfectly captures the essence of the doomed, cynical, Noir-hero. In the film, Mitchum plays Jeff Bailey\Jeff Markham, a private eye hired by gangster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to track down his moll, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer); Kathie has put four bullets into Whit (only one of’em she could make good, and hence he’s still alive) and ran away with 40Gs of his money. Jeff accepts the job and successfully tracks down Kathie to Acapulco. But once in Acapulco, when he sees Kathie ‘come out of the sun,’ he forgets his job, and his loyalty to his employer, Whit. He falls in love with her- instantly and hopelessly. Rather than taking her back to Whit, he lets himself be swept away by the sexy, little dame whose motives he can never be sure of. Kathie tries her best to convince him of her innocence; that she never took any of Whit’s money. That’s when Jeff retorts with that immortal line about him not caring; it doesn’t matter whether she is any good or not; maybe he knows very well that she’s no good – though by the end, even a cynical, nonchalant tough-guy like Jeff will be shocked to see how bad she really is – but he falls in love with her anyway. She would change his life forever, and not for the better; she may ultimately destroy him, and he knows that too, but he can’t help but keep falling in love with her again and again: She’s that alluring and irresistible, and he’s that much of a chump. “Baby, I don’t care” is the ultimate mantra for every Noir hero, and it really took Mitchum (the ultimate Noir hero for me) to say it out loud; and for that alone, this film (and Mitchum) deserves a special place in the pantheon of Noirs. Though Film Noirs have been made since the early 1940s; and quite a great many Noirs had already been made by the time “Out of the Past” came out, somehow, this is the film ( for me) that comes across as the greatest (or at least the definitive) film Noir. It’s not as broad, archetypal and polished as Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity.” That film, which is considered the prototype for all film Noirs, is too obvious in its plot development and too stereotypical in its characterizations that it screams ‘Noir’ in every frame.

“Out of the Past” is much more complex and rich in its plot construction, and the characters have much more humanity. The casting\acting, I feel, is also a notch above. For one, as I said, it has the sad-eyed, macho, Robert Mitchum embodying the Noir hero with all the fatalistic, nonchalant, hard-boiled attitude. Then there’s the femme fatale, Kathy, embodied in all her diverse hues by Jane Greer; a stark contrast to Barbara Stanwyck’s character\performance in “.Indemnity,” which i felt was too one note in its icy blonde coldness. There’s a misconception about femme fatales being women who unscrupulously and intentionally lead men to their doom. Actually, that’s not the case, or at least that’s not their prime motivation; a femme fatale’s first loyalty is to herself and her survival, especially in a dark, immoral masculine world; the immoral or amoral acts she indulges in – including leading men to their doom – is basically a by product of her actions in ensuring her survival. I think that this aspect of the femme fatale is most clearly illustrated in the characterization of Kathy. Kathy’s love for Jeff is genuine; so when Kathy runs away with Jeff to San Francisco, she truly believes this is happily ever after. But then they run into Jeff’s partner, Jack Fisher, who’s now working for Whit, and Kathy’s survivalist tendencies comes to the fore; now, they take priority over her romantic feelings for Jeff. She kills Fisher and takes off again realizing that, even though she loves Jeff, being with Jeff is not good for her future. She goes back to Whit, because he’s the only one who can ensure her survival. When Jeff comes backs into her life, she wants to be with him , even when she’s attempting to frame him at Whit’s orders. Finally, when she kills Whit and puts an end to this weird ménage a trois, she decides to let Jeff live- she could have easily killed him or imprisoned him, but she wants to go away with him to try another happily ever after. But these people are so twisted that managing a happy ending is impossible for them. Jane Greer’s performance encompasses a myriad of emotions, in which, one moment she looks frightened and confused as a deer in headlights, and, in the next moment, she’s ice-cool and totally in control of the situation. She’s not the usually caricatured scheming black widow, or a sexually starved ambitious young woman married to an older man. Here, she’s a totally selfish, confused & cowardly woman – almost as existentialist as the hero – who feels no remorse for anything she does, as she ‘s doing everything in service of her survival. She also happens to be beautiful and alluring enough that we can believe any man, even a smart and tough one as Jeff, or a ruthless and cold-blooded gangster as Whit, would fall for her. 

As for Kirk Douglas’ Whit, he’s the quintessential ‘third wheel’ in any film Noir – the Noir hero’s frenemy- most notably the kind that Edward G. Robinson immortalized in “Double Indemnity” and Everett Sloane in “Lady from Shanghai.” He is charming, urbane & sophisticated, but underneath that civilized mask, there lies a violent animal ready to pounce on his victims. He’s pretty arrogant and thinks that he is in charge of the situation, but he turns out to be a bigger chump than the Noir hero. He gets betrayed by both the hero and the femme fatale, and then spends most of the time trying to get back; and this leads to more tragic consequences. Here, after he is betrayed, Whit still takes Kathy back – turns out that he’s even more smitten with her than Jeff is – and is willing to take Kathy’s lies at face value (she swears that it was Jeff who killed Fisher). Instead, he diverts his anger towards Jeff, and decides to frame him as punishment for his betrayal. And to this end, he has his chief henchman track down Jeff, who is now living in the rural Bridgeport; after Kathy took off, Jeff also disappeared from the scene- he was quite shocked and disillusioned to see the true colors (thief & murderer) of the woman he loved, even though he had suspected it all along; he has now settled down in the countryside and is trying to lead a honest life running a gas station. He has also found a new love – in the form of Virginia Huston’s country girl, Ann Miller – and friendship – in the form of a Dickie Moore’s deaf-mute kid who runs the station. It’s at this point in the story where the film opens, and all of the backstory relating to Jeff & Kathy’s betrayal of Whit is narrated in the very trademark Noir devices of flashback (and Jeff’s) voiceover.

It’s a unique beginning for a Noir, because usually the geography of Noirs are restricted to big cities only, this one is opening in a rural backdrop; the film will also end in the same rural surroundings. When we first see Jeff, it’s not as a slick detective wearing a trench coat & fedora, but as a rustic guy returning from fishing in the river. Obviously, it’s a metaphor for big-city corruption encroaching into this pristine countryside. Whit’s intimidating henchman, Joe Stefanos, has successfully tracked down Jeff, and he brings a message that Jeff must go to Lake Tahoe to meet Whit immediately. Realizing that he has been caught, Jeff has no other option but to comply. Hoping that he can straighten things out with Whit, Jeff reaches Whit’s estate, but he’s shocked to see Kathy at Whit’s apartment. Now Jeff realizes that he’s certainly doomed, and that Whit has called him to punish him for his betrayal. Outwardly, Whit is charming and friendly, but Jeff realizes that he is being setup; especially when Whit insists that Jeff go to San Francisco to obtain some incriminating tax records from a man named Eels- a crooked lawyer who helped Whit dodge $1 million in taxes and is now blackmailing him with those documents. Jeff is not clear what the ‘frame’ is, but he knows he is being framed; and he goes along with it anyway; he has no choice. This is the most complex part of the film’s plot, with intrigues and double crosses galore. A new character of Eels’ duplicitous secretary, Meta Carson (played by the very glamorous Rhonda Fleming), is also introduced into this mix, further confounding the audience; Carson is there to help Jeff steal the documents. It takes Jeff (and the audiences) some time to figure out that Eels is to be killed by Stefanos, who will then frame Jeff for the murder.

When Jeff discovers the plot, he does his best to prevent the crime, but is unsuccessful. But he manages to grab the incriminating documents and use it as a bargaining tool to recover from Whit’s hands Kath’s signed affidavit that implicates him as Fisher’s murderer. And complicating the plot even further is Kathy’s constantly shifting moral compass (that’s if she has any); in the middle of all these complex machinations, Kathy switches sides so many times – professing undying love to Jeff one minute, only to become Whit’s cold ‘enforcer’ the next – that even she might have lost count. Finally, Jeff puts an end to all the double-dealings by dealing with Whit straight: he confesses that it was Kathy who killed Fisher; and he’s willing to hand over the documents to Whit if Kathy is handed over to the police as Fisher’s murderer – that will exonerate Jeff from the murder charge and he will be free to begin a new life with Ann. Whit agrees to this deal over Kathy’s protestations. Looks like everyone, excluding Kathy, is headed for a happy ending. But only if Jeff & Whit had seen some film Noirs they would know it’s a big mistake to underestimate a femme fatale. In one masterstroke, Kathy eliminates Whit and dashes all of Jeff’s hopes for a new life; he’s now destined to be Kathy’s slave for the rest of his life. In the end, Jeff chooses the only (dignified) alternative for him – death for himself and Kathy. Still, the film ends on an optimistic note, where we see Ann starting a new life, freed from Jeff’s painful memories.

Filled with every classic Noir element one can imagine: high-contrast photography, detectives & hoods in trench coats and hats, unexpected plot twists, irresistible & dangerous women, a twisted love triangle, a sustained mood of paranoia & sexual heat, and lots & lots of cigarette smoking (critic, Roger Ebert called this the best ‘smoking’ film ever where characters engage in dialogue through cigarette smoke), “Out of the Past” is directed with great style, vitality and technical flourish by Jacques Tourneur. Tourneur’s dark & tragic sensibilities complimented by the brilliant work of the great cinematographer (& Noir specialist) Nicholas Musuraca. Though the film is bookended by scenes shot in bright sunlight, it mostly has a dark, brooding visual style that supports the mood of the material, with most of scenes taking place in the night (that’s typical of Noirs). The film is adapted from Daniel Mainwaring’s novel “Build My Gallows High” by the author himself, though the title was changed to reflect the main theme of the film: the events of the characters’ past coming back to haunt their the present and future. And as in any Noir film, the script is chockfull of one-liners and witty, gritty repartee, with Mitchum getting the best lines and delivering them emotion-perfect in his quite, laidback style. There are several of those classic Mitchum lines in the film; like when Kathy asks “Is there a way to win?” and he answers, “There’s a way to lose more slowly.“; again summing up in one sentence the nature of these Noir films and characters- nobody wins at the end in these films, everybody loses; only that the hero & heroine loses slowly than the other characters. When Kathy says she’s sorry the man she shot didn’t die, he murmurs dreamily (my favorite line-reading of Mitchum’s; it’s almost like he’s saying something very romantic), “Give him time.” “She can’t be all bad. No one is,” Jeff’s nice girlfriend, Ann Miller, says of Kathie, and he retorts, “She comes closest.“; as you see, the character’s cynicism is not random, it’s very much rooted in (self) awareness.

All the performances in the film are terrific. Mitchum’s Jeff is the epitome of ‘Noir’ coolness. There are absolutely no big ‘acting’ moments for him in the film, but he slowly & solidly builds the character until the smoldering nature of his performance burns a hole in your psyche. Jeff is a mysterious & paradoxical character; he is someone who looks totally in control of everything around him; he talks and behaves like this all-knowing wise sage; no one can get to him, and no one can get anything past him without him knowing, but he still passively allows himself to be drawn into perilous situations against his own better judgement. Despite his very understated acting style, Mitchum dominates the film. This film came at a time when Mitchum had made one of the worst films in his career, “Desire Me.” This role\performance launched Mitchum into major stardom, cementing his iconic screen persona as one of Hollywood’s coolest and most macho actors. Jane Greer’s layered performance is exquisite in its economy. With very subtle changes in her eyes and voice, she shifts from warm & sincere to coldblooded in an instant – the killing of Jack Fisher is a classic case, and so is the final conversation between her and Mitchum. Mitchum and Greer make a great pair; both are sultry and rather hard to read, though, in true Noir style, every step of their twisted journey feels inevitable and tragic. A young and dashing Kirk Douglas, only in his second film, is perfect in the flashy role of the arrogant Whit. His more extroverted acting style is a good foil to Mitchum’s and Greer’s understated acting; his affable & charming exterior masking a violent, vengeful & abusive man. “Out of the Past” was remade in 1984 by Taylor Hackford as “Against All Odds,” with Jeff Bridges, Rachel Ward and James Woods standing in for Mitchum, Greer and Douglas respectively. Jane Greer played a supporting role in the film as Ward’s mother. That’s not a bad film, but it’s a very different kind of film, with the tone and characterizations radically altered. It’s more of a contemporary, slow-paced drama, and just doesn’t have the zippy smoothness of the original.

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