Out of the Past (1948)

“That’s one way to be clever: look like an idiot.”

Synopsis:
An ex-private eye (Robert Mitchum) tells his new girlfriend (Virginia Huston) about his previous adventures trailing the moll (Jane Greer) of a gangster (Kirk Douglas) to Mexico, and falling in love with her before being double-crossed — but soon he’s caught up in new webs of intrigue, double-crossings, and murder.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “exceptional ‘B’ movie” by director Jacques Tourneur has “come to be regarded as the picture that best exemplifies film noir,” given that it possesses “tainted characters; entangled relationships; events determined by chance; large sums of money; murder; a tough, morally ambiguous hero with a gun in his trench coat, a dark hat on his head, and a cigarette in his mouth; a lying, cheating, chameleon-like femme fatale… who leads an essentially decent guy down a wayward path; and, ultimately, betrayal, frame-ups, and fall guys”. Indeed, the pulpy, intelligent script (by Daniel Mainwaring, based on his novel Build My Gallows High) is so densely plotted that, as Bosley Crowther of the New York Times warned in his review, the film’s action “is likely to leave the napping or unmathematical customer far behind” — i.e., you need to be awake and paying attention, or risk not quite keeping up.

Yet this is a movie that truly merits one’s full attention, given that there’s so much here to enjoy and appreciate — including atmospheric direction by Tourneur, who has the film taking “place mostly at night”, with “darkness… used metaphorically to express… malignant evil spread[ing] from character to character”; Nicholas Musucara’s truly “outstanding cinematography”, which often relies on “single-source lighting to place spooky shadows on the faces of his characters and across entire sets”; and “solid performances” by Mitchum, Greer, and all members of their estimable supporting cast. In his lengthier review of the film for his Cult Movies book, Peary writes that while Humphrey Bogart was the studio’s first choice to play the lead role, Mitchum is ultimately “a better choice than Bogart”, given that his “reserved style is more in keeping with the way Tourneur directs his actors”, and the fact that he is young enough to play someone who is “unprepared for the likes of Kathie [Greer] and welcomes her with open arms”. Meanwhile, gorgeous Greer emerges here as one of cinema’s most memorable femme fatales — it’s truly a shame her career didn’t go further.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Mitchum as Jeff Markham (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book)
  • Jane Greer as Kathie Moffatt (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book)
  • Kirk Douglas as Whit Sterling
  • Fine supporting performances throughout
  • Nick Musuraca’s stunningly noir-ish cinematography
  • Good use of on-location settings
  • Daniel Mainwaring’s delightfully intelligent yet pulpy screenplay: “My feelings? About ten years ago, I hid them somewhere and haven’t been able to find them.”

Must See?
Yes, as a definitive noir classic. Nominated by Peary as one of the best pictures of the year in his Alternate Oscars.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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2 Responses to “Out of the Past (1948)”

  1. A no-brainer must – and one that holds up very well on repeat viewings.

    I have a unique history with this film (one that I’ve seen many times). I tend to see it every couple of years. And, in the time between viewings, I tend to forget the film’s plot. All I seem to remember before a revisit is that Greer is a femme fatale – but, even then, I don’t recall just how ‘fatale’ she is; how much of it is her fault by nature and how much of it is due to what she gets herself sucked into.

    When I finally do sit again for the film, it all comes back to me, of course – and enjoyably so. And it becomes apparent (again) that the main reason the film is ‘new’ to me each time is that ‘OOTP’ is rather complicated – not so much when you’re watching it (because it’s all laid out rather well and organic-enough for the film’s running time) but a number of details could easily slip your mind if/when you try to recall them later.

    In other words, the film is not too complicated for its own good. To illustrate that, one just has to compare ‘OOTP’ with Dmytryk’s ‘Cornered’ (a title Peary doesn’t mention in his book). While it’s very much also a noir flick, ‘Cornered’ is as dense as ‘War and Peace’, compared with ‘OOTP’. (It’s a very worthy film but it requires a ton more concentration, thanks to a thorny narrative populated with duplicitous characters.)

    ‘OOTP’ is essential film noir, and just a satisfying film in every way. There’s not a false move to be found or a disappointment in any aspect of its economic production. The film will toy with you a bit, just as some of the mechanics of the plot toy with Mitchum – all the more effective for putting you in his shoes. But, along the way, you’ll be helped along with a generous portion of the kind of snappy dialogue that noir fans know and love.

    Mitchum is in top form (but I can say that just about every time I see him; he’s just one of those dependable actors, even when saddled with inferior material) and he and Greer make a great screen couple. Also of particular interest is Douglas’ rather unmannered (and therefore refreshingly natural) performance.

    By the time I start forgetting what this film’s about, I know I’ll be looking forward to seeing it again! 😉

  2. What a great ending line to your review — one I can certainly relate to! This is most definitely a film to revisit every few years.

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