Out of the Past (1947)

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*. Little remarked upon at the time of its release, Out of the Past is now, in the words of Jim Hillier and Alastair Phillips, “firmly established as an archetypal, indeed quintessential, film noir.” The essential elements are all there: the gumshoe in the trench coat, the femme fatale, the dramatic lighting, the wisecracking patter, and the plot too complicated to follow.
*. So, being a big fan of noir, I wonder why I don’t like this movie more.
*. I think it begins with the structure. The long flashback seems to me to be a mistake, wrong-footing the start of the movie and frustrating any notion of suspense.
*. Also frustrating is the plot. Now noir plots are famous for being muddled, but I honestly can’t sort this one out. To start out with a couple of small things: Why does Jeff drive with Ann all the way up to Emerald Lake when he goes to see Whit? Couldn’t he have driven up alone?
*. Another: Why would Kathie run out on Jeff and leave her purse, of all things, behind? This seems uncharacteristically dim on her part.
*. A couple of bigger things: Whatever happened to that $40,000 Kathie stole from Whit? And what was going on with the business involving Leonard Eels? I understood none of that subplot, or why they had to introduce Rhonda Fleming’s character, Meta. I’m not sure the writers knew what to do with Meta either, as she sort of disappears later, and when we think we’re going to see her next it turns out that her part in the scheme has been taken over by Kathie.
*. Bosley Crowther: “the pattern and purpose of it is beyond our pedestrian ken. People get killed, the tough guys browbeat, the hero hurries — but we can’t tell you why. . . . If only we had some way of knowing what’s going on in the last half of the film, we might get more pleasure from it.”
*. Well, does it make a difference? Do we care if it doesn’t make sense? Crowther cared, and so do I. Complexity is one thing, but the loose ends here seem like sheer sloppiness.

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*. Kirk Douglas’s second movie. Why don’t stars play heavies and villains more often? He’s so good playing Whit, it reminds me of his son breaking bad as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. But I guess you make more money playing the hero than the heel.
*. Pauline Kael: “It’s empty trash, but you do keep watching it.” I’ll give it that much. There are some great lines and some beautiful photography. But it seems to me a movie that never quite gets into gear.

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*. Another problem the film has is Jane Greer’s Kathie. What’s driving her? What’s her game? Does she really want to run away with Jeff? Would she have been content to live the rest of her life with him, betting on the ponies and letting that $40,000 slowly drain away? I don’t believe it for a minute. I see her as being sort of like the character of Amy in Gone Girl, just an erratic psychopath who wrecks lives, sailing into different ports with every storm.
*. There’s an essential element to noir that I left off the list I gave earlier, and that’s the emphasis on fate. There’s something ineluctable in the fatal attraction between Jeff and Kathie, reinforced by lines like his telling her “Baby, I don’t care” when she asks him if he believes her. Because nothing he says or does or believes in makes any difference. He’s building his own gallows high, and he knows it.
*. I think this is also part of what Stephanie Zacharek means when she writes about how Kathie is “the woman who makes him most alive” (unlike the coddling and domesticating Ann). In their relationship she is the active principle, leaving him to follow her lead. Again, one thinks of Gone Girl. Kathie is writing the script here, Jeff is just playing a part.
*. David Thomson is a fan, but I don’t like his review. “Everyone loves Out of the Past . . . ” is how he begins. He describes how the movie opens as “two thugs drive by . . . quite by chance” and discover Jeff in Bridgeport. There’s only one thug and I don’t believe he finds Jeff by chance. I assume Joe’s patter about just passing by is the usual wise-guy irony, because how would he recognize Jeff’s assumed name?

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*. That said, I think Thomson puts his finger on something when he says that it’s “asking a great deal for us to buy Robert Mitchum as so supreme, so omniscient, so lone and secure, and such a chump, too.” “Jeff needs to be several degrees more vulnerable or mortal.” Either that, I would say, or nastier.
*. Of course we all love noir lighting, perhaps because it’s so dramatic and unnatural. It’s quite striking in this film, but I was often wondering where all the crazy shadows were coming from.

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*. I don’t usually groove to Mitchum’s minimalist acting style, but it fits with Jeff’s tragic passivity here, and he does have a few great moments. When Kathie asks Jeff if he can forgive her, the very slight widening of his eyes and shake of his head that accompanies his response (“I’m not going to try”) is priceless.
*. The one really unconventional sequence is the use of the fishing pole to dispatch Joe. I think this must have been the inspiration for the similar use of a rod in The Parallax View.
*. Aside from that, this seems like a very conventional film to me. It’s very well done in all departments, but I feel more like taking notes than sitting back and enjoying it. And finally there’s just too much going on that doesn’t add up.

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