Out of the Past, a 1947 film by Jacques Tourneur, is one of the greatest of film noirs. In fact, if anyone asks what film noir is, Out of the Past is probably the best example. It has the cynical, morally ambiguous protagonist, a femme fatale, and god does it have shadows.
It also has perhaps the most ideal noir performer, Robert Mitchum. Wearing a fedora, a cigarette hanging from his lips, a hang-dog expression and a bass growl of a voice, Mitchum was the epitome of a noir lead. Here he is Jeff Bailey, nee Markham, a former private eye hiding out in a sleepy California town. He owns a gas station, and is romancing a sweet and innocent girl (Virginia Huston).
But one day, by chance, a former associate rolls through town and spots him. (This must have been the inspiration for the brilliant Soprano’s episode “College”). Mitchum is summoned to see a crime boss (Kirk Douglas). It seems that a few years earlier, Douglas had hired Mitchum, then a private eye, to find his moll (Jane Greer). She had taken a shot at Douglas and pilfered $40,000.
Mitchum tracks Greet to Acapulco, and the two end up falling in love, and decide they’re going to try to give Douglas the slip. But Mitchum’s partner finds them, and wants a payoff. Greer kills him, and then takes off, and Mitchum ends up at the gas station.
Douglas, who expertly hides his menace behind a cheerful veneer, is willing to forgive Mitchum. After all, Greer has returned to him. Now he wants Mitchum to get back some tax documents that are being used to blackmail him. But Mitchum is wise to the plan–Douglas is trying to frame him for murder.
The plot gets a bit convoluted–there are more double-crossings that I can could keep count, and Greer, one of the best femme fatales in noir, is constantly switching sides (mostly to suit her best interests, a noir necessity). But through it all there’s a wonderful sense of doom, highlighted by the chiaroscuro photography by Nicholas Musuraca (who also shot Tourneur’s equally shadowed Cat People). Mitchum is frequently in shadow, sometimes nothing but a silhouette, perhaps indicating he is in a kind of emotional darkness, lured by Greer even while he is in love with the fair-haired and pure-hearted Huston.
As good as Mitchum and Greer are, Douglas almost steals the show. This was a very early role for him, and he has star written all over him. He is unfailing polite to Mitchum, telling him he likes him even after being betrayed. He says things like, “My feelings? About ten years ago, I hid them somewhere and haven’t been able to find them.” But you can always tell there’s a murderous criminal beneath the facade, and it comes out late in the film when he tells Greer, “I should have kicked your teeth in.”
The dialogue, by Daniel Mainwaring, is delectable. Mitchum gets most of the good lines. When Greer tells him she doesn’t want to die, he responds: “Neither do I, baby, but if I have to I’m gonna die last.” Or when Huston talks about Greer, “She can’t be all bad. No one is,” he retorts, “Well, she comes the closest.”
The film’s message, so to speak, is that we can’t escape our pasts. Mitchum thought he could change his life, but his past catches up with him, and perhaps that is true of all us–no matter where we go, no matter if we change our name, our past will track us down. That’s a very noir attitude.