Movies We Like
Out of the Past
Of that post-WWII generation of male actors who came of age in war flicks but really defined themselves in the Film Noir genre, none was cooler than Robert Mitchum (and that was a group of cool dudes that included Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Sterling Hayden, Robert Ryan, and his co-star here Kirk Douglas). Whether playing a hero or a villain, Mitchum reeked of both danger and manly charm even when he spewed indifference. His career spanned decades with a number of signature roles and important films, but of the Noir period none was better than that of ex-detective turned gas station owner Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past.
Director Jacques Tourneur is more known today for his groundbreaking horror flicks with producer Val Lewton: Cat People, The Leopard Man and I Walked With a Zombie. Though in retrospect those eerie and strange shadowy black n’ white flicks could be called horror noir, making the Frenchman the perfect director to bring his almost Expressionistic approach to a crime mystery in what was then considered a B-genre. Like much gothic horror, Jeff Bailey is a guy haunted by his past, trying to escape from his own mind and hide from his own instincts.
All is seemingly peaceful for Jeff, living in the middle of nowhere in picturesque Bridgeport, California, working his gas station, dating a cute townie, Ann (Virginia Huston), and hanging with his deaf sidekick (Dickie Moore of the Our Gang series) until he is spotted by some traveling gangsters who tell him their boss, Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), wants to see him in Lake Tahoe. Knowing his fate may be in jeopardy he spills the beans to Ann about who he once was in a flashback…Working as a private eye, he was hired by Whit, a successful criminal businessman, to find his missing lady, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who stole some cash from him. Jeff finally caught up with her in Mexico and before he lets Whit in on his discovery the two fall in love and decide to run off together. They went into hiding in San Francisco and life seemed to be good for the lovebirds until Jeff’s ex-partner tried to blackmail them and, oops, Kathie shot and killed him and then disappeared again. Jeff ended up pumping gas wondering whatever happened to her.
Present day, Jeff finally goes to see Whit, who sends him on another missing person job, but it turns out to be a murder set-up with Jeff being the fall guy. This leads to a number of shootouts between Tahoe and Bridgeport with Kathie usually the shooter. Eventually after much mayhem, Ann is the one forced to run from her past and as the film ends she is now the one who will have to go on haunted by what was and what could have been.
Greer and Mitchum reteamed two years later in Don Siegel’s forgotten thriller, The Big Steel, before Greer faded into less memorable TV work, but with Out of the Past she found the perfect vehicle. She’s definitely beautiful, ahead of the late '40s curve. Greer also easily supplied the femme fatale requirements we have come to expect from Film Noir. She’s mysterious, she’s vulnerable, but when need be she proves to be even more dangerous than Mitchum. Of course Mitchum, with his thick chest, deep voice, and droopy eyes, is pure tough guy on paper, but the great twist is that over and over in the film he turns out to be the victim of both Kathie and Whit. With Whit, in just his second film, Douglas continued to hold serve until he really broke out as a leading man a few years later with classics like Ace In The Hole and The Bad And The Beautiful, using almost the same yuppie power-chin charisma that he gave Out of the Past, but moving to the more righteous side of the law.
For me, Out of the Past may be my favorite in one of my favorite genres. It’s certainty up there with Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly, The Postman Always Rings Twice (fill in your favorite Noir flick here…). It also makes for a great "California film," using locations marvelously; a great "cynical post-WWII film," questioning the myth of the American dream as so many of these films did; but best of all it’s a great "trapped by the past" movie. Often in thrillers it’s the audience's knowledge of what may be in store for the hero - the future, what’s coming - that is scary, but here it’s the past that scares the characters. For Mitchum’s Jeff, knowing what he was once able to feel and dreading that feeling is worse than a bullet, making Out of the Past also a great ode to a broken heart.