Menu | Rating System | Guest Book

  Out of the Past  
  RKO Radio Pictures  
  Jacques Tourneur  
  Daniel Mainwaring  
  Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas  
Release Date:
Reviewed by:
  Inspector Jason  
Brendan's Note:
  Inspector Jason has expressed the desire to write reviews of some of his favorite classic movies. This is a continuing series. More to come.  

Film noir, translated as "black film", is a term that was used by French critics to describe the dark themes and visuals of American dramas and B-movies that thrived during the 1940s and 1950s, when beleaguered men and women were struggling with post-World War II trauma and experiencing the tensions of the early Cold War years. The threat of nuclear destruction was manifesting itself, many people were struggling to keep pace with a postwar economy, and the lines that divided heroes and villains were becoming increasingly blurred. Film noir movies reflected these uneasy times on theater screens with pessimistic tales about shady characters and world-weary antiheroes whose best-laid plans were usually shattered by the hands of fate as they succumbed to weaknesses and small desires. In general, these movies featured shadowy claustrophobic settings, an abundance of cigarette smoke, and beautiful women or handsome men whose striking appearances belied horribly twisted inner moralities. If I had to use one sentence to describe classic-era film noir, then that sentence would be, "This will not end well."

For me, the appeal of watching film noir lies in observing how filmmakers handled the lurid subject matter of these stories while conforming to the censorship parameters of the Hays Production Code, which governed movie content from the 1930s to the 1960s. To place this in a contemporary context, these older films are more fun to watch than the explicit cinema of today for the same reasons that it is more fun to work around the rules of posting in strictly-moderated internet forums than it is to post in forums where anything goes.

I first saw Jacques Tourneur's 1947 masterpiece, Out of the Past, several years ago, after I was introduced to the director by way of his incredible horror films that were produced by Val Lewton during the 1940s (see 1942's Cat People). Over the years, this movie has worked its dark charm on me with each subsequent viewing, and it eventually dethroned Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraļ as my number one all-time favorite movie. For one thing, Out of the Past is one of the best-looking movies that Hollywood ever produced. Nicholas Musuraca's cinematography lends immediacy to visual film noir conventions, namely dark hallways, men in overcoats and fedora hats, seductively-dressed dames, and striking contrasts of darkness and light in every still frame. The story bears the mark of traditional noir bleakness, and one can sense the death clock ticking during every sequence, but Out of the Past still puts a smile on my face with its snappy dialogue and its ability to push portrayals of immoral behavior past the censors with visual symbolism, where cigarettes and other props stand in as sexual innuendos and supposedly innocuous sentences have double meanings.

The endearingly nonchalant Robert Mitchum plays Jeff Bailey, a former private eye who has supposedly closed the door on earlier deceptions and heartbreak by moving to the small town of Bridgeport, California, and operating a gas station with idyllic mountains in the background. A movie title like Out of the Past does not convey the idea of buried lives remaining forgotten, however, and Bailey's new leaf is torn apart the moment that the henchman of a former associate pulls in at the station. An extended flashback, a fixture of film noir, shows us how Bailey was hired by a notorious thug, Whit Sterling, played with a perfect mix of charisma and menace by Kirk Douglas, to find his runaway wife, Kathie Moffat, played by the gorgeous Jane Greer. The story quickly takes us to present day San Francisco, with Bailey struggling to come to terms with the doomed love affair that resulted from the old job and frantically trying to escape becoming the victim of an elaborate frame setup. Chaos ensues in the form of intricate betrayals, seduction, and an offbeat resignation as flawed characters who cannot escape their fates scratch at the figurative walls closing in around them.

I love film noir that showcase a variety of location sets. Out of the Past excels here as it rushes us from rural Sierra countryside to New York City, Acapulco, San Francisco, and back again to the mountains. The visual splendor is matched by dialogue that is laced with wit and nuances that bring life to the characters. During the final scene, when one person does a final favor for a friend, we have grasped the various subtleties enough to enjoy the moment as a touching reward.

Related Links:

Return to the top of this page. | Return to the Film Review menu.