Out of the Past is the masterpiece of film noir. Combining actors, writer, director, composer and cinematographer at their peaks makes what could have easily been a forgotten B movie a great film.
The cast is just about perfect. The trifecta of Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas isn't just a winning combination but one necessary for the film's success. Replace any of the three and the film becomes just another thriller. Mitchum as the private detective shows a slouched-over vulnerability behind an indifferent exterior that's both believable and tragic. Jane Greer is beautiful and charming. She spends most of the time looking up at Mitchum with her doe eyes - transforming the cool and laconic PI into a love sick sucker with just a bat of her eyelashes. Douglas – not yet a movie star- is rigidly confident, young enough to be Mitchum's rival and so sure of himself that it's scary.
Casting rumors had Dick Powell in the lead role at one time. I just can't see him pulling off the rugged outdoorsman by the lake Mitchum does. Also, I find Mitchum to be more like Bogart. He's cool and confident until he meets up with the woman that will be his demise. Bogart would have approached Kathie Moffat with caution, however. Mitchum is heads-over-heels for her the second she makes that angelic-like walk into the Acapulco bar out of the bright sunlight. When he utters, “Baby, I just don't care.” after their romance gets hot and sticky in Mexico you know it's the truth. He really doesn't care if she's manipulating him. As long as he can be with her he's fine. Whenever there's backstabbing or dumping to do it's done by femme fatale Kathie. And Jeff (Mitchum) knows it.
Explaining the plot of Out of the Past would be a chore and frankly the film's plot isn't meant to be clear. It's a dream-like puzzle that Mitchum is walking through. It's the journey from present, past and present again all the way to the fatalistic ending is what makes the film so interesting. It's not about the mystery. The same could be said for The Big Sleep. A brilliant movie that both writer and director had no idea who the killer was. That wasn't the point.
Out of the Past is a collection of great scenes at different locations with a number of different sub plots. Determined to understand the plot, I took notes watching the DVD a few years ago and was surprised to see that the movie becomes a totally different film just about a third of the way through. Try to explain that to a screenwriting class.
Most of the film doesn't even look film noir. The uncloudy High Sierra country and summery Mexico seem too bright for noir. Later the story does drift into the familiar rain soaked streets of the city – with cigarette-sharing cabbies and seedy night clubs. Markham noted in his previous article on Out of the Past the contrast “between the bright and sunny world of Bridgeport and the dark, corrupt streets of San Francisco.” Nicholas Musuraca uses that over and over again in the film.
Daniel Mainwaring's dialog - like half-learned foreign language – makes the film sound noir even when the locations do not. Everyone – from the small time Bridgeport residents to Kirk Douglas's cronies - speak noir. They're always ready with a quick, witty comeback. No ones ever left speechless. Not even Mitchum when he finds Kathie back in Whit's (Douglas) arms.
One of the finest scenes in the film – and the most “noir” looking - takes place in a cabin in the woods. It's also the second best entrance in the film, after Kathie walking out of the sun into Jeff's life. Noir vet Steve Brodie plays Fisher – Jeff's former PI partner who's now following him. After Mitchum drives around for days knowing that Fisher is on his trail finally convinces himself that he has lost his tail. He goes to the couple's rendezvous spot confident he's shaken his former partner. You see Fisher in the shadows slowly walk up to Kathie and Jeff's cabin in the woods his identity revealed by a low-angle light. Jeff -via voice over- explains what's happening, “We had played it smart and forgotten nothing. Forgotten nothing except one thing... He had followed her.” The music stings. Then comes the fist fight between Fisher and Jeff inside the cabin. Kathie watches the fight. She looks both aroused and at the same time seems to be calculating out the odds in her head. Finally, she comes up with the best possible solution for her. A bullet in Fisher's gut. Mitchum is shocked. Before he can even ask what the hell she was thinking she's taken off. Jeff finds out that she was lying to him all along. He leaves her and the sorted business in the past. But he can't run from it.
This scene is a real showcase for Musuraca's camerawork – inside of the cabin is lit low and sideways with only a fireplace's flickery lighting the dark space. Add to that Roy Webb's dramatic score and you have one of the most memorable film noir moments ever.
Of course director Jacques Tourneur should get credit for putting this film together. Horror/noir Cat People and the superior western Canyon Passage were made before this but Out of the Past is unequaled.
Want to see how this story could fail under lesser talent? Check out the remake Against All Odds. The scene described above is reshot with Alex Karras taking over for Steve Brodie. Instead of being a private eye, he's a football athletic trainer shot to death in a Mayan pyramid. I'm not kidding. The isn't even a flashback in the movie! The only thing making the remake worth watching is seeing Richard Widmark and Jane Greer. Both look strong and dominate every scene they're in.
Written by Steve-O