A thrilling crime drama often regarded as the quintessential film noir
Hard-boiled drama, razor-sharp dialogue, and dangerous women are just some of the things you'll find in this week’s classic, “Out of the Past”. Because this captivating fatalistic crime drama is so highly emblematic of the style and attributes associated with film noir, it has become commonly regarded as the quintessential film of the genre. It's even attained cult status. Surprising twists and turns, electrifying characters, and edgy visuals make it intoxicating even today, and just recently the prestigious Sight and Sound poll included it on their revised 2022 list of the 250 Greatest Films of All-Time, placing it at #166. So if you love film noir, want to see a prime example of it, or just want to watch a spellbinding drama, “Out of the Past” is definitely for you.
“Out of the Past” centers around “Jeff Bailey”, who lives in the small bucolic town of Bridgeport, California. He owns a gas station, employs a deaf-mute boy (“The Kid”), and is in love with a sweet, angelic girl (“Ann”). As the film begins, a man dressed in black enters this idyllic world, and from his looks and manner we know trouble has arrived. Turns out to be “Joe”, a man from “Jeff’s” past who spotted him by chance and makes him an offer he can’t refuse – to return as a gumshoe for his former boss, the high-powered gambling operator named “Whit”. It seems “Whit’s” girlfriend “Kathie” shot “Whit”, stole $40,000 from him and fled, but “Whit” wants her back. So he hires “Jeff” to find her and bring her back unharmed. This begins a chain of events that include betrayal, frame-ups, seduction, love, and murder. Because so much of the story is unexpected, I won’t say much more so I don’t spoil the fun. If you'd rather know nothing, you might wish to read this post after you watch the film.
Like any good noir, “Out of the Past” is primarily about mood and exploring the psychology and emotions of its characters rather than having a crystal-clear plot tied up with a pretty bow. The plot becomes more and more complex to the point where you might not understand every detail in a first viewing – but never fear, it doesn’t matter one iota. The characters are so fascinating, the dialogue so snappy, and the action so exciting, what results is completely engrossing entertainment. With its abundance of details, I see new things every time I watch this film and always end up loving it even more.
What we most often call film noir came about after World War II. The end of Prohibition, the end of the Great Depression, and the end of the war brought a loss of innocence, causing a significant change in public tastes and perspectives. In the US, while men were off fighting, women began working. Having witnessed the horrors of war, men returned traumatized. Once back, there was now confusion about women’s roles, and fears about the atom bomb and the beginnings of the Cold War were ever-present. The world had changed. Movie audiences now preferred to see reality reflected on the big screen. This included the dark side of life, its inner anxieties, pessimism, disillusionment, and uncertainty. Gone were the days of movie escapism. Unwittingly, Hollywood film noir was born.
The term film noir (meaning “black cinema”) was coined in France after WWII, when the French began watching Hollywood films and noticed a commonality of dark themes, moods, and lighting, particularly in crime dramas. Unlike musicals or Westerns, noir is not a clean-cut genre. Films within it vary greatly but share a disenchanted point of view and a dark mood.
Many noir films also share common elements (give or take from film to film) which have come to be recognized as staples of noir, and many of these are expertly used in “Out of the Past”. These include an antihero protagonist trying to unburden his past, a femme fatale, crisp dialogue, flashbacks, narration, heavy shadows, darkly lit scenes, cigarettes, cynicism, betrayal, revenge, a psychological viewpoint, a mix of sex and violence, and disillusionment. These all come together so naturally and succinctly in “Out of the Past”, that this film has become a poster child for the genre. You can read a bit more about film noir in my post on “Double Indemnity”. Just click on the film title to open that page.
"Out of the Past" was based on the 1945 novel "Build My Gallows High” by Daniel Mainwaring under the name Geoffrey Homes, which he also adapted for the screen as Homes (and reportedly James M. Cain and Frank Fenton also helped with the script). The film’s dialogue is filled with wit and often biting, sexy banter (such as when “Jeff” and “Kathie” share their first drink). What I find most remarkable about the script is how one never knows who to believe or trust. What characters say or sometimes do rarely shows what’s really going on below the surface, making the film quite tantalizing. As a taxi driver says to “Jeff”, “Buddy, you look like you’re in trouble”. And when “Jeff” asks “Why?”, the driver responds, “Because you don’t act like it”.
Perhaps the biggest factor as to why “Out of the Past” is so gripping is the work of its director, Jacques Tourneur. With a gift for evoking anxiety, fear, unsettling ambiguity, and moody atmospheres, "Out of the Past" fit him perfectly. He employs striking visual compositions, beautiful camera movements, and interesting shots to maximize emotional impact. Take the moment when “Kathie” watches “Jeff” in a fight with another man. Tourneur doesn’t give us a clear shot of the men, but instead focuses our attention on “Kathie’s” reaction as she stands against the wall watching while we see their brawling shadows move across her face. It’s a chilling moment, indicative of the exciting style and emotion with which Tourneur colors the film.
The world Tourneur creates inside “Out of the Past” is so fully realized, it feels as if one could step right into it. Exterior shots taken in Bridgeport, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, the High Sierras, Twin Lakes, Mexico City, Acapulco, and other locations blend perfectly with studio sets, with the scenes in Bridgeport feeling free and easy, those in Mexico exotic, and the urban settings ominous. Every place has a plenitude of detail no matter how briefly they may be seen (such as inside a Black jazz club, on the beach in Acapulco, or in a San Francisco apartment). Each fully possess a vivid ambiance and mood. Tourneur teamed well with his art directors (Albert S. D'Agostino and Jack Okey), set designers (Darrell Silvera and John McCarthy Jr.), and the film’s outstanding cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca.
Born in Paris, France, to silent film director Maurice Tourneur, Jacques Tourneur moved with his family to the United States when he was ten. His father was a very talented director who became known for having a masterful visual sense, which Tourneur inherited. While in the US, Jacques Tourneur began working as an editor and script clerk while still in high school, eventually becoming an assistant director. He followed his father back to France, and in 1931 directed his first feature film, "Tout ça ne vaut pas l'amour". Moving back the to US in 1934, he began working at MGM as a second unit director while directing short films (including 1937's "Romance of Radium" which earned a Best Short Academy Award nomination). His first directed feature was 1939's "They All Come Out". Tourneur left MGM to work with producer Val Lewton and editor Mark Robson in a small production unit at RKO Pictures. He first directed 1942's low-budget horror film "Cat People” with the new unit, followed by "I Walked with a Zombie" and "The Leopard Man", both in 1943. All three became horror classics and firmly established Tourneur's expertise at creating detailed and emotional worlds. He was then given higher-budget films to direct, including "Days of Glory", "Canyon Passage", and "Out of the Past" (considered his masterpiece). In 1956 he also began directing television, and directed both films and TV until his retirement in 1965. Other titles from his 74 film and TV credits include "Curse of the Demon", "The Flame and the Arrow", "Wichita", "Appointment in Honduras", and "The Comedy of Terrors". He was married to French actress Christiane Tourneur for over forty years, until his death. Jacques Tourneur died in 1977 at the age of 73.
The outstanding performance by Robert Mitchum, who stars as “Jeff Bailey”, is another reason this film hypnotizes. His sleepy-eyed stoicism, cynicism, and understated emotions mark this treacherous story with an easygoing flavor. “Jeff” has a self-destructive side, obsessing over “Kathie” when he knows she will only bring him trouble. Outwardly, nothing seems to rattle “Jeff”, but vulnerability and compassion ooze out of Mitchum’s face and quietness. Being trapped by his own psychological torment is very much what “Out of the Past” is about. Because Mitchum has such an uncomplicated, truthful acting style and natural way with dialogue, it’s easy to think he’s not acting. But if you watch him closely, you'll realize how much he sees, hears, and digests what his fellow actors say or do. That’s not an easy feat and is the sign of great acting. Take the simple moment when he’s by the lake with “Ann” as “The Kid” approaches. Mitchum's reaction seamlessly shifts from serene to trepidation. That small moment (and many others like it) show the depth of Mitchum’s talent. Not surprisingly, the American Film Institute (AFI) named him the 23rd Greatest American Male Screen Legend. Mitchum wanted people to believe his lackadaisical screen attitude continued offscreen and into his approach towards acting, but the opposite was true. He was known to be very giving to his fellow actors, very professional, and took his work very seriously.
After being in many Westerns and playing many soldiers, Mitchum’s breakthrough came with his 23rd film, 1945's “The Story of G.I. Joe” (earning him an Oscar nomination). He found his way to noir with 1944’s "When Strangers Marry" starring Dean Jagger, and continued in supporting leads in noirs – films like "Undercurrent" starring Katharine Hepburn, "Pursued" starring Teresa Wright, and most importantly, the 1947 classic "Crossfire" starring Robert Young. Then came "Out of the Past”. It was Mitchum's best script to date and first film as top star. His smoldering sexuality, tough, seen-it-all demeanor, and sensitivity made him the perfect antihero, and “Out of the Past” crystalized his onscreen persona. You can read more about the life and career of Robert Mitchum in my post on his later classic, “The Night of the Hunter”. Be sure to check it out.
Costarring with Mitchum is Jane Greer as “Kathie Moffat”, girlfriend of “Whit”. You must be one heck of a woman to shoot someone four times, steal his money, leave and still have him want you back, and Greer as “Kathie” is just that. Captivating, cool, and calculating, she is one of the most seductive and evil characters in movies, yet Greer keeps her from being loathsome. She doesn’t even seem evil until you catch her doing something bad. Greer’s solid performance often has her dubbed “Queen of the noir femme fatales”. Her scenes opposite Mitchum, especially in Mexico, sizzle with mystery, a restrained fervor, and sexual undercurrents, and the two teamed again in the 1949 noir, "The Big Steal".
Born in Washington DC, the beautiful Jane Greer began modeling at the age of 12. At 15, while at a party, she realized her face was partially paralyzed and was shortly after diagnosed with Bell's palsy. She would close her left eye with her hand at bedtime, and push the left corner of her mouth into a frozen smile before heading to school. Over time, her persistent exercises helped her gain back nearly complete control over her face. Greer began her show business career as a Big Band singer. In 1942 she modeled a Women's Army Corps uniform in an issue of Life magazine, which caught the eye of director/producer/
aviator/millionaire Howard Hughes, who put her under personal contract. He lent her out to RKO Pictures starting with an uncredited role in 1945's "Pan-Americana". More RKO films followed including "Dick Tracy” and "Sinbad, the Sailor”, and after a while, unhappy with her career, she bought back her contract from Hughes (which took her years to repay).
Landing a contract with RKO, Greer costarred in "They Won't Believe Me”, and then "Out of the Past". RKO promoted her as "The woman with the Mona Lisa smile". When Hughes bought RKO in 1948, Greer left shortly after and headed to MGM, who didn’t know exactly how to cast her. In 1953, she began working primarily in television. Other titles from her 51 movie and TV credits include "Man of a Thousand Faces", "Run for the Sun", "The Clown", "The Prisoner of Zenda", and her final, 1996's "Perfect Mate". She also appeared in a 1984 remake of "Out of the Past" titled "Against All Odds", as the mother of the "Kathie" character. Her many TV appearances include recurring roles in "Falcon Crest" and "Twin Peaks". She was married twice, to singer/bandleader/actor Rudy Vallee and producer Edward Lasker. Jane Greer died in 2001 at the age of 76.
Third billed is Kirk Douglas who plays amoral gangster “Whit Sterling”. Douglas brings his own brand of intensity, and though he appears affable, you know something dark is going on inside. You can clearly see it in the fabulous scene between “Whit” and “Jeff” when they are chatting on the patio of “Whit’s” Lake Tahoe compound. “Whit” is all smiles and niceties, but it feels as if he could snap at any second. There’s a sense of restrained violence all throughout Douglas’ striking performance, and this was merely his second film. Kirk Douglas quickly became a superstar, and AFI named him the 17th Greatest American Male Screen Legend.
Born in Amsterdam, New York to Jewish immigrant parents (from what is today Belarus), Kirk Douglas grew up in extreme poverty and decided to become an actor at an early age. To earn money, he worked all kinds of jobs including janitor, gardener, and busboy, and eventually received a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. He became friendly with classmates Lauren Bacall and Diana Dill (who he soon married). Douglas made it to Broadway in 1941's "Spring Again", just before World War II interrupted his stage career. After serving, being wounded in the South Pacific and being discharged in 1944, he headed back to Broadway where his first break came as a replacement for a lead in "Kiss and Tell". That led to more Broadway roles and radio work. When his former classmate and friend Bacall became an overnight movie star with 1944's "To Have and Have Not", she insisted producer Hal B. Wallis audition Douglas for a role in his upcoming film "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers". Douglas got the part and that 1946 film was his film debut. It was followed by "Out of the Past", in which one can already see the rugged good looks and energetic he-man intensity that would become his trademark. He worked continually, including 1940's "I Walk Alone” starring Burt Lancaster, the first of seven films the two actors made together.
Stardom came to Douglas with 1949's "Champion", which earned him his first Best Actor Academy Award nomination and solidified his often cocky, tough guy screen persona. He earned a second Best Actor Oscar nomination for the 1952 classic "The Bad and the Beautiful", and a third and final as Vincent Van Gogh in 1956's "Lust for Life". Wanting control over his career, he formed his own production company in 1949, Bryna Productions (named after his mother), producing (or coproducing) films beginning with "The Indian Fighter" in 1955, in which he also starred. Bryna Productions (later renamed The Bryna Company) produced many films that didn’t feature Douglas, including the classic “Grand Prix” and the Oscar-winning “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.
Bryna Productions also coproduced “Spartacus” in 1960, starring Douglas, and after a week of filming, he fired director Anthony Mann and asked Stanley Kubrick to step in. Douglas also hired blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay. Trumbo was one of the "Hollywood Ten" blacklisted during the McCarthy Era, jailed for refusing to testify and for not naming names. To keep working, Trumbo wrote under aliases, but Douglas insisted on giving him screen credit under his real name, a courageous act of defiance that helped end blacklisting (you can read about blacklisting in my "High Noon" post and about Dalton Trumbo in my post on "Roman Holiday”). “Spartacus” was a blockbuster hit and is considered a classic.
Douglas was a top box-office movie star of the 1950s and 1960s. He continued working until he suffered a major stroke in 1996 which left him nearly unable to speak. After years of speech therapy, he returned to the screen in 1999's "Diamonds", playing a prizefighter recovering from a stroke (opposite Bacall). Not one to be stopped or silenced, Douglas appeared in two more films and two TV shows. His final screen appearance was in the 2008 TV movie "Empire State Building Murders". His nearly 100 film and TV credits include many classics, such as “Paths of Glory”, "A Letter to Three Wives", "Lonely Are the Brave", "Ace in the Hole", "Seven Days in May", "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, and "Detective Story". In 1996, he was awarded an Honorary Academy Award for fifty years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community. His countless other awards and honors include three Emmy Award nominations, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, AFI's Life Achievement Award, the Kennedy Center Honor, and the National Medal of Arts. A philanthropist, Douglas donated millions to charities, schools, and medical facilities, opened the Kirk Douglas Theater, donated playgrounds, established the Anne Douglas Center for Homeless Women at the Los Angeles Mission, and donated $40 million to the Alzheimer's treatment facility at the Motion Picture Home in California. He married twice, first to Diana and then to producer Anne Buydens in 1954, until her death in 2020. He had four children: Oscar-winning actor/producer/director Michael Douglas; actor Eric Douglas; producer Joel Douglas; and producer Peter Douglas. Kirk Douglas died in 2020 at the age of 103. I briefly spoke and joked with Douglas while we were both waiting for our cars at the valet of a restaurant in Beverly Hills. It was very memorable.
Rhonda Fleming plays “Meta Carson”, another beautiful and dangerous woman in “Out of the Past” who’s about to double-cross her boss. A small but important role, Fleming makes the most of it with her overt flirting and let’s-get-down-to-business attitude. And like all the characters in the film, we are given a glimpse at “Meta’s” reason for her actions when “Jeff” asks her “Doesn’t your conscience bother you, crossing a nice guy like that?” and she responds, “Maybe he isn’t such a nice guy. Maybe he crosses people too”.
Born in Hollywood, California to a mother who was an actress and model, Fleming attending Beverly Hills high school where she was spotted and signed by a talent agent. She began appearing in bit parts in 1943, and was soon put under contract to David O. Selznick and began getting small and supporting roles in films that include "Since You Went Away”, her first substantial role in Alfred Hitchcock's "Spellbound", and Robert Siodmak's "The Spiral Staircase". She was loaned to RKO for "Out of the Past", and her first starring role was in "Adventure Island” the same year. In 1949 came the Technicolor musical, "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court”, in which she got to show off her trained singing voice and the depth of her beauty. Fleming's red hair, green eyes, and milky skin photographed so stunningly, she earned the nickname "The Queen of Technicolor". It's been said no one could photograph her from a bad angle.
After becoming a very popular and sexy leading lady of the 1940s and 1950s, Fleming went into semiretirement in 1960, performing a nightclub act in Las Vegas and Palm Springs before turning primarily to television. She recorded a record album in 1958, and made her only Broadway appearance in a 1973 production of "The Women". Other notable titles from her 68 film and TV roles include "While the City Sleeps", "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" (opposite Douglas), "Cry Danger", "The Great Lover”, and "Abilene Town". Later in life she focused on charity work, especially with children, schools, and women, and in 1991 she opened The Rhonda Fleming Mann Clinic for Women's Comprehensive Care at the UCLA Medical Center. She was married six times, including marriages to actor Lang Jeffries, writer/producer Hall Bartlett, and producer Ted Mann. Rhonda Fleming died in 2020 at the age of 97.
Dickie Moore plays “The Kid”, the deaf mute who works for “Jeff”. Moore is sublime, allowing us to see his mind thinking while not saying a word, as in the very first scene when “Joe” talks to him and realizes he can’t hear or speak and calls him, “Deaf and dumb, eh?”. We see “The Kid” (who can read lips) take in the insult and become wary of “Joe". Just after that, “Joe” turns his head to watch a passing police car and “The Kid” notices. Concern ever so gently registers on his face, immediately letting us know we should be concerned too. Moore’s performance is entrancing. A former famous child actor, “Out of the Past” came towards the end of his acting career.
Los Angeles born Dickie Moore made his first film appearance at 11 months old as John Barrymore's baby in the 1927 silent film "The Beloved Rogue" and kept working as a baby and small infant, mostly in uncredited roles. In 1931, his career began to take off as he started to play notable supporting roles in films such as "The Squaw Man”, "Blonde Venus", "The Story of Louis Pasteur", "The Life of Emile Zola", "Angels with Dirty Faces", and the starring role in 1933's "Oliver Twist". He also appeared as "Dickie" in eight "Our Gang" (later known as "The Little Rascals") short films during the 1932-1933 season. In the 1940s, he worked less, although he appeared in some major films including “Sergeant York”, "Heaven Can Wait", "The Song of Bernadette", “Miss Annie Rooney” (in which he gave former child star Shirley Temple her first screen kiss), and of course "Out of the Past”.
During World War II, Moore served in the military, went to college, and got a degree in journalism. As a teenager, it was more and more difficult for him to get film work so he began appearing on TV in the 1950s. His final film appearance was in 1952's "The Member of the Wedding". He directed, produced, and starred in one short film, 1949's "Boy and the Eagle", which earned a Best Short Subject Academy Award nomination. After having appeared in 103 films and seven TV shows, Moore retired from acting (his final appearance was in a 1957 episode of the TV Series “Omnibus”). He later founded a successful public relations firm and by all accounts was happy. He was married three times, Including his final marriage to actress Jane Powell. Dickie Moore died in 2015 at the age of 89.
This week’s gripping film is a noir masterpiece that captures the essence of the genre and also happens to be riveting entertainment. Enjoy “Out of the Past”!
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