By DREW MORTON
Five years ago, I wrote a retrospective on film noir for Pajiba by honing down my favorite film genre (or movement or mode – depending on who you’re talking to) to the Top Five (5-1: Strangers on a Train, The Killing, The Third Man, Touch of Evil, and Double Indemnity). By the time I unveiled my top choice, I was wringing my hands over the films that did not make the cut for no better reason than I chose to rank five instead of ten. The giant amongst the excluded was Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), probably the sexiest of the classical period because, unlike Double Indemnity (1944), there’s a palpable chemistry between our doomed protagonist (Robert Mitchum) and his femme fatale (Jane Greer). After watching Double Indemnity year after year for my film classes, I’ve begun to agree with Roger Ebert’s observation that these two characters are not drawn together by lust as much as they are brought on a collision course by boredom. On the other hand, Out of the Past has a heartbeat and a soul; it is one of the few film noirs that I can think of where we actually see the star-crossed lovers having fun. In a genre that is typically defined by sarcasm and existential damnation, the tragedies of Out of the Past are only deepened by moments of genuine romanticism. Thus, five years later and on the occasion of the release of the Warner Archive Blu-Ray, it is my pleasure to formally usher Out of the Past into my personal noir pantheon.
Of course, Out of the Past, despite not being “cold around the heart”, is still very much a noir. If we return to one of the earliest essays on the genre, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton’s A Panorama of American Film Noir: 1941-1953, noir is described as being a “state of tension instilled in the spectator when the psychological reference points are removed.” Basically, via its extreme violence and labyrinthine plotting, noir allows the spectator to lose the sense of moral right and wrong because the crooks are charming the and cops are brutes. Out of the Past is cut from this cloth. The villain, Witt (Kirk Douglas), is not a mustache twirling scoundrel. When he confronts Jeff (Mitchum) after being duped, he offers him a cigarette and a seat at his breakfast table. The violence here is a bit more complex than Borde and Chaumeton describe, as there is both a vicious fistfight that culminates in murder and another slaying that takes place off screen, only to be later recounted by the hit man.
However, the film also has the labyrinthine plot that Borde and Chaumeton describe as being central to producing the sense of alienation (“the atmosphere of a nightmare”) thanks to its structure. The film begins in the present: Jeff Bailey has retreated to the California countryside, opened a gas station, and has begun dating the angelic Ann (Virginia Huston). At the start, his past creeps up on him and he is brought back to the doorstop of his former employer, Witt. During the drive to Witt’s Lake Tahoe compound, Jeff tells Ann about a case in which Witt hired him to track down his lover, Kathie (Greer), who shot him and ran off with $40,000 of his money.
Jeff finds Kathie in Mexico, strikes up a romance, throws Witt off the trail, and Kathie ends up committing a murder in the process. Midway though the film, we’ve come back around to the present day and Jeff is hired by Witt on a second – unrelated – case. Thus, just as we become acclimated to one set of narrative coordinates, Tourneur and screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring (the writer of the original novel) wipe them away through the voice over and flashback device that defines many noir films and furthers its fatalism. However, unlike Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd. (1950), Tourneur’s temporal fracturing isn’t as “neat.” The bulk of those films take place in the past, whereas — despite the title — the past only comes out for about half of running time. And while this does not give the viewer the sense of spatiotemporal vertigo that one may experience when watching Pulp Fiction (1994), it does make the viewer a bit dizzy.
Out of the Past has the stylistic (voice over, flashback structure, high-contrast lighting) and narrative tropes (the P.I. stuck in a moral purgatory between law and lawlessness) that have come to define film noir. At one point, much like Walter Neff reflecting upon the fatal path that led him back to Phyllis (“And right then it came over me that I hadn’t walked out on anything at all, that the hook was too strong, that this wasn’t the end between her and me. It was only the beginning.”), Jeff describes the l’amour fou of his relationship with his femme fatale: “It was meeting her somewhere, like in the first times. There was still that something about her that got me. A kind of magic or whatever it was.” Yet, as already noted, there is an intense magnetism between Mitchum and Greer – both in performance and characterization – up to the end of the flashback that culminates in the murder. Their flirting isn’t as coarse as that of Neff and Phyllis; they laugh together when they hit the race track as Kathie playfully puts a dollar between her teeth for Jeff to pluck out. How many noir heroes would be caught dead saying the words “Nothing in the world is any good unless you can share it”? Moreover, the present day relationship between Jeff and Ann– and the final scene –only magnifies the tragedy that has already started to befall Jeff in the first scene (to say nothing about romantic angle of how Ann is aligned with the purifying countryside while Kathie is tied to the city).
Thankfully, Warner Archive has given Out of the Past the HD presentation it deserves. The blacks are rich and deep and the grain structures have a satin presence. Ported over from the DVD release is a commentary track by noir scholar James Ursini, which is the perfect introduction for the noir newbie. Noir fan or not, there is no better time to hunker down with this classic and I’m hopeful, due to this release, that Warner Archive might explore bringing more noir and even some Val Lewton films (who Tourneur started out with) to HD.