Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) has spent the past three years running a gas station in the small Californian town of Bridgeport, where he dates a local girl Ann (Virginia Huston) to the disapproval of her parents and the local sheriff who is sweet on her. Its a quiet, small-town life, one broken when someone from Jeff’s past turns up in town, pulling him back into his old life and the troubles he thought he had left behind. The only person Jeff can confide in is Ann, so on a late-night drive to a rendezvous with his past, Jeff relates his story to Ann. Jeff’s real name is Jeff Markham, and he was once a private eye in New York. He was hired by gangster Whit Sterling (a charmingly threatening Kirk Douglas) to track down a woman, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer in the definitive femme fatale role). Kathie had shot Will and left with $40,000 of his money- Will wasn’t bothered about the money though, he just wanted Kathie back; “when you see her, you’ll understand better” Will told Jeff. And when he does see her, he does understand. And at that point, he’s doomed.
Out of the Past is one of the very best film noir, but deceptively so- indeed, it starts like any other 1940s melodrama, so much so you could be forgiven for thinking you’re watching the wrong movie, with bright scenery of the sierras and idyllic small-town life, complete with gentle music score. Its quite the opposite of, say, Double Indemnity, another classic noir that instead wears its noir credentials from the very first titles. Its only when Jeff relates to Ann the truth of his past that the film’s visuals turn towards the traditional nightmare dark of noir, as it relates in flashback the events that led to Jeff hiding away in Bridgeport. When we finally first see Kathie, as Jeff tracks her down to Mexico, she just looks like any beautiful woman, maybe even an innocent victim. There is a subtle ambiguity to her- when some noirs would frame her in shadows immediately revealing her true nature, Out of the Past prefers to suggest she may indeed be a victim. We have no idea, just like Jeff, that this woman will be his doom. Greer is simply astonishing as Kathie; beautiful, exuding innocence and sexiness at the same time, Kathie will do anything to survive, even fall in love, only later throwing greed and treachery into the mix.
Robert Mitchum is perfectly cast as Jeff- I’m not a big fan of Mitchum, but his real-life laconic, laid-back reputation bleeds into his onscreen persona well here, ignorant of the trouble he is in, always thinking he has a way out, a trick to play, yet always falling back into the mistakes that ultimately seal his fate. When he falls for Kathie he thinks he’s in control. His over-confidence is in his eyes, his smile. At the end he realises he has no escape, his character finally reaching the stature of noir hero. What starts as a simple romantic melodrama slowly darkens into a labyrinthine plot of lies and double-crosses and deceit and murder; its fascinating to see this film turn from romantic melodrama into a completely different movie and earn its reputation as a classic film noir. Out of the Past is a very, very good movie. How strange to think I’d never seen it until now. Looks like that unwatched pile still has plenty of surprises…
4 thoughts on “Out of the Past (1947)”
I like your statement about the femme fatale: “Kathie will do anything to survive, even fall in love, only later throwing greed and treachery into the mix.” I wrote a short essay on Out of the Past called “The Femme Fatale.” If you would like to read it, here is the link: https://christopherjohnlindsay.wordpress.com/2014/03/14/out-of-the-past/
btw; you should add an ARCHIVE button to your site. Take a look at my site layout.
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