While it may be true that for some of us, Mamma Mia! or There’s Something About Mary is the best film of all time (Are you sure?), it’s likely that any film aficionado with an eye for quality will draw up a reasonably predictable list of movies that has a certain resemblance to another’s. Of course, there may be the odd obscure title included in there somewhere on account of some personally preferred artistic or inventive merit but generally the same titles will crop up again and again. These lists, and there are countless of them online, are a great way to create a ‘watch-list’.
It wasn’t one of these lists that brought me to watch Out of the Past but rather a moment of web surfing that brought to my laptop screen a poster of Robert Mitchum nonchalantly lighting a cigarette while a demure Jane Greer inspects his ears for wax. The truth is, I’d never heard of this film before but having enjoyed noir-ish revelations with The Killers and Double Indemnity, both of which I watched for the first time a couple of months ago, I felt confident that I was about to view another classic. It came as no surprise to subsequently see all three of these films feature in high positions on numerous lists of best ‘noir’ films ever.
Robert Mitchum plays Jeff Bailey, owner of a gas station in a small out-of-the-way Californian town. His romancing local girl Ann Miller (Virginia Huston) is not viewed well by her parents who are mistrustful of him and sure enough, when a tough guy turns up at his gas station, it becomes apparent that Jeff has a past. This henchman, Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine) informs Jeff that his boss, Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) wants to see him and after some glorious dialogue, Jeff reluctantly agrees to the meeting. That night, after picking Ann up for the drive to Whit’s lakeside retreat, he tells her all about his past.
The next section of the film is told in flashback with Jeff narrating the story of his mysterious past as a private investigator. Together with his partner Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie), he was hired by Whit to find his girlfriend Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) whom he claimed had shot him and run off with $40,000 of his dough. Using his investigative talents, Jeff traced Kathie to Acapulco but on meeting her, fell for her charms and her pleads of innocence and decided not to hand her over to Whit, who would likely have punished her for something she claimed she didn’t do. Instead, the two headed north to San Francisco where they attempted to live together as inconspicuously as possible, out of sight and reach of Whit and his henchman. But (isn’t there always a but?), one day they were spotted by Jeff’s old partner, Fisher, who demanded a heavy payoff for his silence. A fight broke out between the two men, which Kathie brought to a sudden end when she shot Fisher dead. She then drove away, leaving poor old Jeff to cover up her crime. In doing so, he came across her bankbook which had an entry for a $40,000 deposit.
Back now to the present where Jeff and Ann arrive at Whit’s home. Before turning the car around to drive back to town, Ann forgives Jeff for his past and hopes he will return safely to her once his meeting with Whit is over. Jeff is surprised to see that Kathie is back together with Whit, who for his part, displays genuine delight in seeing Jeff again and wants to hire him for one more job in order to make things even between them. The job entails breaking into Whit’s lawyer’s office to steal documents that include income tax records proving Whit guilty of tax fraud, a fraud which his lawyer is using to blackmail him. Jeff refuses the job, suspecting a set-up, but Whit insists and so after trying to warn the lawyer, Jeff returns to the man’s office to find him dead. Now Jeff’s job is to locate the documents, which also include an affidavit from Kathie swearing Jeff was the one who killed Fisher, as well as to prove that he is innocent of the killing of the lawyer but with a henchman on his tail and a femme fatale who switches allegiance more times than Lady Gaga changes outfits, he needs to use all his street-smarts to stay alive. It’s all mildly convoluted, as the best crime dramas are, but well worth paying attention to.
Released in 1947, Out of the Past was directed by Jacques Tourneur, a man perhaps better known for low-budget horror films such as Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, rather than hard boiled crime films but he had a great team around him, many of whom had already worked together for RKO on numerous pictures. The film was adapted by Daniel Mainwaring (under the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes) from his novel Build My Gallows High with uncredited revisions by Frank Fenton and James M. Cain. This point is clearly evident from the superb dialogue so typical of the genre but here somehow a little less contrived and more natural. Don’t forget, James M. Cain was the genius behind, among others, Double Indemnity.
The role of gumshoe fitted Mitchum as comfortably as the raincoat and fedora he wore much of the time and it’s easy to see why he would later go on to portray Philip Marlowe. He breezes through this film with a cool self-assurance and a likability that make you (almost) overlook his potential for violence. Jane Greer’s femme fatale, with her baby face and deceitful eyes, smoulders, like the best of them and Kirk Douglas plays the gangster with controlled intensity – sure, he seems charming enough but you wouldn’t want to be around when he looses his temper.
For a film noir, the locations are worth noting too. Yes, we get the usual nighttime cityscapes and atmospherically lit bar rooms and office interiors, trademarks of the genre, but we also get out into the wide open Californian countryside as well as sunny Acapulco. The way cameraman Nicholas Musuraca captures this variety of locations lifts the film well and truly out of the murky pool where a high number of the genre languor.
In 1991, the film was included in the US National Film Registry as being deemed, “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”. Also, it will doubtless come as no surprise to learn that it features highly in many of the American Film Institute’s 100 Years of cinema lists. For me, it’s a recent discovery I’m very thankful for and yet another reminder that the ’40s was an awesome decade for movies. It’s one that has aged extremely well and one that will encourage me to continue scanning the Internet and the lists of films people consider the best ever made.