[Sam] Spade pulled his hand out of hers. He no longer either smiled or grimaced. His wet yellow face was set hard and deeply lined. His eyes burned madly. He said: “Listen. This isn’t a damned bit of good. You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once more and then we’ll give it up. Listen. When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him….when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around–bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere. Third, I’m a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing….Fourth, no matter what I wanted to do now it would be absolutely impossible for me to let you go without having myself dragged to the gallows with the others. Next, I have no reason in God’s world to think I can trust you and if I did this and got away with it you’d have something on me that you could use whenever you happened to want to….The sixth [reason] would be that, since I’ve also got something on you, I couldn’t be sure you wouldn’t decide to shoot a hole in me some day. Seventh, I don’t even like the idea of thinking that there might be one chance in a hundred that you’d played me for a sucker. And eighth–but that’s enough…Now on the other side we’ve got what? All we’ve got is the fact that maybe you love me and maybe I love you. Yes, angel, I’m gonna send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means if you ’re a good girl, you’ll be out in twenty years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.”
-from The Maltese Falcon, novel & film
A good deal has been written about the great romantic scenes in movie history, but what about the great anti-romantic ones? Most recently, we’ve had Glenn Close, in Fatal Attraction, being even meaner to Michael Douglas than she was to the 1001 Dalmatians; Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct teaching Michael Douglas (this guy’s a slow learner) about the dangers of unprotected sex with psychopaths with icepicks; Demi Moore, in Disclosure, giving Michael Douglas (who else?) some new perspectives on interoffice affairs; and Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction demonstrating to Peter Berg (Douglas was unavailable?) why small-town boys should never, ever play with big-town girls. Whether any of these particular films will be remembered fifty years from now Is debatable. It’s hard to imagine Fatal Attraction being turned into a musical on Broadway. There are a few anti-romances, however, which have definitely withstood the test of time. Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. has been reborn on Broadway. John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon remains one of American cinema’s greatest, most cynical masterpieces. And then there’s Out of the Past (1947). Not nearly as well known as the Huston and Wilder films just mentioned, Jacques Tourneur’s classic of film noir has a stellar cast and two of the movies’ most memorable, most double-dealing, double-crossing femme fatales. If Canada geese, which mate for life, are our romantic evolutionary role models, the women of film noir tend to trace their lineage back to the less sentimental praying mantis, which has a habit—during mating—of attempting to reach back and eat the head of her much smaller male partner. It’s not surprising that director Tourneur was also responsible for other B-movie classic gothics, such as Cat People (1942] and I Walked With a Zombie (1943).
In Out of the Past, Robert Mitchum is, physically, a whole lot heftier than his co-star Jane Greer, but that’s not going to help him. Mitchum plays Jeff Bailey, a small-time detective for hire by anyone willing to pay. He’s smart enough to get the job done, yet not quite venal enough to get rich by branching out into extortion or blackmail. He’s clever enough to listen while other people talk, but human enough to disconnect his heart from his brain. When high-rolling kingpin Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas, playing a real snake to utter perfection) hires him to track down girlfriend Kathie Moffett (Greer), who’s shot him and allegedly run off with $40,000 in cash, it’s just another job. Until he actually meets her, that is. She walks in out of the Mexican sunlight, smiling, and it’s all over. Jeff knows exactly what he should do, he just can’t do it. It’s a common theme of noir films that men women walk into tragedy with their eyes wide open.
We know exactly what Jeff Bailey’s thinking because he tells us: “I knew I would go [to that bar] every night until she showed up. And I knew she knew it. I just thought what a sucker I was. I even knew she wouldn’t come the first night.” Mitchum does a lot of voice-over narration in this film. It’s a another time-honoured tradition of film noir. Mitchum’s delivery is as deadpan perfect as Bogart’s. When Kathie asks, “Did you miss me?” and Bailey answers, “No more than I would my eyes,” you believe him. Passion in this particular cinematic genre is almost always expressed through a unique combination of hyperbolic sentiment and laconic understatement: “I never saw her during the day. We seemed to live night. What was left of the day went away like a pack of cigarettes you smoked. How big a chump could I be? And then she’d come along like school was out….” With Mitchum’s recent death, this a good time to get better acquainted with some of his finest work. Along with this fim, check out The Night of the Hunter, Farewell, My Lovely, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Yakuza, and River of No Return (co-$tarring Marilyn Monroe).
Robert Mitchum is superb in Out of the Past, and so are his leading ladies. You want to believe Greer when her character says she can’t help it (whatever “it” may happen to be at the time–murder, infidelity, theft, etc.), even when you know she’s lying. Bailey describes her as a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another. Watch the extraordinary play of expressions on her face in the scene where Mitchum and his former partner confront one another. Rhonda Fleming, playing secretary to a shady accountant, has a lesser, but not less lethal, role. Bailey calls her employer an idiot. When she asks why, the laconic answer is no surprise: “He’s in love with you.”
Like the voice-over narration, the shadows in Out of the Past are also traditional to film noir. The lead actors are always in shadow—at night, in broad daylight, even fishing by a mountain river. Shadows are essential in a world where nothing is what it seems, and black and white always collapses into grey. Many of the effects are generated using single- source lighting to create the sharpest possible contrasts. It’s not a coincidence that the golden age of film noir predates the era of color films.
If hard-boiled films such as Out of the Past were just about doom & gloom and existential dead ends, they’d have a much more limited audience than they do. The language of these movies is a joy to listen to, filled with slang and razor-sharp wit (“All women are wonderful because they reduce men to the obvious.”/ “So do martinis.”). The protagonist is betrayed rather than betraying, living (and often dying) by an almost chivalric code of honor. And like Cyrano de Bergerac, he/she knows a lot about panache.
We empathize with Jeff Bailey because he’s ultimately as susceptible to illusions as the rest of us. One such illusion is that you can leave the past behind. Yeah, right. Build that gallows high, baby.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Kathie: “Do you believe me?”
Jeff: “Oh, baby, I don’t care!”
I first saw Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past almost 40 years in a small movie theatre in Paris, and from that moment I knew that there’d be a lot of film noir in my future. Asked to name the classics, I’d put Out of the Past on a shortlist with The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity and D.O.A. The key ingredients are all there: an A-list cast (Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Jane Greer), top-notch sculpting-with-light black & white cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca, a screenplay (by Daniel Mainwaring from his own novel) that piles betrayal on betrayal and yet leaves a tiny window open for an ultimate act of selflessness, one of noir’s deadliest femme fatales, some voice-over narration by Mitchum that’s as good as anyone’s ever done, a whole lot of cigarettes being smoked, and one of the coolest, most despairing noir lines of all time (“Build my gallows high, baby”). Unique to this film is the fact that so much of it is shot outside the mean streets of the city, in places like Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada mountains. The tension that’s often generated in film noir by urban shadows and heavy rain is amplified in Out of the Past by the constant shifts between rural and urban settings. Jeff thinks that he’s found a new Eden, but two minutes into the film a snake’s already on the scene.
My original review of Out of the Past had a couple of omission that I’d like to correct. I made no mention whatsoever of Dickie Moore’s key role as the deaf & mute young man whose loyalty ultimately helps remind us that universe offers kindnesses as well as casual cruelties. I also failed to give Rhonda Fleming her due. It’s rare for a film noir to feature two femme fatales. Fleming holds her own against Jane Greer, her Meta Carson character representing a cool, calculating menace to counterbalance Greer’s compulsively amoral drive-to-survive. Finally, I should have acknowledged the importance of Virginia Huston’s role as Ann, the straight-arrow small-town girl who’s willing to defy her parents and all the local gossips to stand by her man. Jeff Bailey’s fate hits us harder because Ann shows us what he’s got to lose. Without her, the story would be sordid rather than tragic.