Film: Out of the Past
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.
I like film noir. I like it as a genre and I like what filmmakers did with it before they realized it was a genre they were creating. Out of the Past is one that I knew nothing about until I found it on the library shelves today, and I was immediately attracted to it. I dig Robert Mitchum as an actor. He played a villain like no one else, and even in cases where he played the hero, as in this film, there’s something of the heavy about him. Mitchum always comes across to me not as a man playing a role, but as a man existing in a real world. He was always a compelling screen presence, and when he’s on camera, I want to watch him.
Out of the Past is in many ways a stereotypical noir, succeeding as a film not because it plays with the genre, but because it toes the noir line diligently, faithfully, and very, very well. Jeff Bailey (Mitchum) runs a gas station and dates Ann (Virginia Huston) on the side. Then one day, a man from his past shows up at the gas station. This is Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine), who works for one of Bailey’s old clients, who wants to see him. Jeff takes Ann with him on a drive up to Lake Tahoe, and he tells her about his past.
It seems that once upon a time, Jeff Bailey was actually Jeff Markham and he was a private detective. A criminal named Whit (Kirk Douglas) hired him to find his girlfriend, Kathie (Jane Greer). Kathie shot him and ran off with $40,000; he doesn’t care about the money, but wants the girl back. Jeff follows her trail and catches her in Acapulco, and he immediately falls for her. They decide to give Whit the slip and head up to San Francisco. It’s here that they run into Jeff’s old partner, Fisher (Steve Brodie), who wants the money Kathie stole, although she claims she didn’t. To get out of it, Kathie kills Fisher and runs off.
From here, of course, it gets a lot more complicated because it’s a film noir. The essence of film noir is to get as complicated as possible before anything gets resolved, and that certainly happens here. We get double-crosses and more murders, and a lot of bad acting on the part of our femme fatale, Kathie. As it turns out, she’s a vicious little woman, the cold heart of any film noir, and hers is the coldest in recent memory.
But if Kathie is the cold heart of the film, it is Mitchum’s portrayal of Jeff that is it’s warm soul and center. He plays Jeff not as one of his typical villains, but as a man truly wanting only the life that he wants. But he’s also a man who gets in deeply over his own head and becomes unable to do anything except follow the path in front of him. He’s easy to root for, even when it becomes increasingly obvious that any good options for him are closing off and there’s no way out for him. Mitchum plays an interesting hero.
Out of the Past is as good a film noir as I’ve seen. It doesn’t have the same cultural weight as a film like Double Indemnity, but it’s no less entertaining and no less worth watching. The story is one that manages to be both believable and gripping. Even better, Kathie is so dangerous and so smooth about it that we don’t really understand the threat behind her until Jeff has realized it as well. We fall into the same trap he does, believing that a pair of soft eyes must similarly represent a soft heart.
I’m sold. This one moves near the top of the list when it comes to the genre for me, and I think it will be quite awhile before another film challenges it. Out of the Past hits on every cylinder, and is as gutsy and compelling today as it was when “noir” was a French word instead of a style of film.
Why to watch Out of the Past: Films noir don’t get much better.
Why not to watch: They also don’t end happily.