Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Out of the Past (1947)

[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.

Movie Information

Genre: Film noir
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Actors: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Dickie Moore, Paul Valentine
Year: 1947
Original Review: September 1997


What came before “Daughters of the Dust”: A new series focuses on little known works from black female filmmakers

One Way or Another: Black Women’s Cinema, 1970-1991

From the beginning of the article at

“The paradox of groundbreakers — the artists who shatter barriers — is that their work is often at once ahead of their time and long overdue.  Take for instance the work of the writer and filmmaker Julie Dash. In 1991, Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust,” a film about the conflict within a Gullah family surrounding the move north during the Great Migration, became the first film directed by a black woman to garner a theatrical release. Despite the film’s success at the box office during its limited 1992 New York run — the film packed theaters and brought busloads of black women from throughout the tristate region into the city — many critics misunderstood the film and Hollywood rejected Dash….”

The second link, from the festival referenced in the article, provides capsule descriptions and trailers for 21 films by black female filmmakers.

You Can Now Stream 22 Hard-to-Find Films From Black Cinema’s Earliest Pioneers on Netflix

Pioneers of African-American Cinema

From the beginning of the short article at 

“In 2015, Kino Lorber released a treasure trove from American history in a DVD box set, Pioneers of African-American Cinema. Hours upon hours of feature-length and short films spanning the 1910s to the 1940s were featured, from Oscar Micheaux’s famously searing indictment of white America’s love affair with preserving whiteness and lynching, Within Our Gates, to writer Zora Neale Hurston’s short documentary Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort South Carolina, May 1940. As a document showcasing the work of early black filmmakers who paved the way for the Spike Lees, Julie Dashes, and Ava DuVernays of today, it’s invaluable.”

The second link takes you directly to the Kino Lorber catalogue, where you’ll find a list of all of the films & directors.  No telling how long the series will be available on Netflix.

Films Worth Talking About:

Les Maudits (The Damned), Scarlet Street, Uloupena Hranice (The Stolen Frontier), Gran Casino, Copie conforme, Crossfire, Dark Passage, Kwinna utan Ansikte (Woman Without a Face), Antoine and Antoinette, Selskaya Outchitelnitsa (The Village Teacher), Body and Soul, It’s a Wonderful Life, Odd Man Out, Ivan the Terrible Part II, Boomerang, Duel in the Sun, Le diable au corps (Devil in the Flesh), Le Silence est d’or (Silence is Golden), Black Narcissus, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Life With Father, Quai des orfèvres, Gentleman’s Agreement, Brute Force, The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, Kiss of Death, Macbeth, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Forever Amber, Nicholas Nickleby, Daisy Kenyon, Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, The Czech Year, Miracle on 34th Street, Unconquered, Monsieur Verdoux

The Bigger Picture

FilmsDetour (1945), Scarlet Street (1945), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), Double Indemnity (1944), Criss Cross (1949), Farewell, My Lovely (1975), Too Late for Tears (1949)

Music:  The “Nick Danger” sketches included in The Firesign Theatre’s Box of Danger.

Books:  Daniel Mainwaring (writing as Geoffrey Homes), Build My Gallows High; Eddie Muller, Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir; David J. Hogan, Film Noir FAQ; Richard Lingeman, The Noir Forties; James Ellroy & Otto Penzler, The Best American Noir of the Century; John Grant, A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir; Alain Silver, Elizabeth Ward, James Ursini & Robert Porfirio, Film Noir: The Encyclopedia

The Word on the Street

How do I love it? Let me count the ways…First, like a few perfect jazz albums, OUT OF THE PAST has a distinctive, coherent sound developed through various moods and tempos and melodies. Robert Mitchum is the lead soloist who dominates the score; the sound of the film is his sound, cool and weary and knowing. Though he doesn’t sing in this one, no performance better demonstrates Mitchum’s musicality, his sense of rhythm, pace and inflection. He referred to his dialogue as “the lyrics,” and treated it that way, delivering his lines behind the beat, the way Sinatra sings. Jane Greer contributes her gorgeous dry contralto and Kirk Douglas adds a light, sneering counterpoint to an inspired group improvisation on the theme of disillusionment.

The movie floats from place to place, blending real landscapes and studio sets, expressionistic stairwells and Ansel Adams mountains. The episodes run together fluid and compulsive as a dream. Sometimes there’s nothing but music and movement: Jeff prowling cat-like around Meta Carson’s apartment while boogie-woogie piano plays in the next room. The cinematography is distractingly gorgeous, drifting into glistening abstract patterns of black and white, like the web of bare tree-branches projected onto the bodies of Jeff and Ann at their last meeting. A seamless blend of romance and cynicism, drama and humor, OUT OF THE PAST is not only a perfect Hollywood studio product, it’s a definitive movie experience. It’s supersaturated, yet it never feels overworked, never tries too hard. It just seems to happen, almost by casual serendipity; the wit and elegance and glamour are so unforced and alive. You succumb to it instantly and helplessly as Jeff succumbs to Kathie’s magic. The spell breaks for him, but not for us. Disenchantment may be the theme of OUT OF THE PAST, but the movie itself is a source of perennial wonder.  [imogensara_smith]

The talent that went into Out Of The Past is manifold. Both director of photography Nicholas Musuraca and Roy Webb, who wrote the responsive score, were old comrades of Tourneur from his earlier days in Val Lewton’s B-movie unit at RKO. The credentials for the screenplay, as above, were impeccable, resulting in chiseled, quotable dialogue….

But the most prestigious palm must go to Tourneur. He had less of a distinctive style to him less of a `look,’ less of a formula than most of the top-flight noir directors; he was a chameleon, who used his talents less to make his own statement as to bring out the best in the scripts he was given. He was born in France and he died in France, but when in Hollywood he brought neither technical innovation nor rigorous theory to his work. Rather he looked for the human element that underlies and informs art – and he relished its complexity. (The movie, for instance, opens and closes on Dickie Moore, as a teenaged deaf mute in Mitchum’s employ, and whose function in the story is far from a merely sentimental fillip.) Tourneur took film noir as close to tragic poetry as it would ever come, and Out Of The Past, his masterwork, raised the standards of the noir cycle as far as they would ever go. It’s not just one of the greatest noirs, it’s one of the greatest movies, period.  [bmacv]

What a sizzler! You don’t get more noirish than this. No matter how many times I see it, it just gets better and better, like burgundy. Jane Greer’s performance is one of the most subtle and sophisticated portrayals of a corrupt female ever filmed. The way she alternates between domination and whimpering submission in the twinkling of an eye, over and over again, like a dog that fawns before it can be beaten, then snarls and snaps, then fawns again, her innate compulsion to lie and conceal, her ruthlessness, her weakness, her lack of hesitation to kill, her need to steal, her passion, her lust, her self-contempt intimately interlaced with an obscene self-love, is all simply spectacular. In this brilliant story and script by Daniel Mainwaring, she seems to replicate her weird relationship with Howard Hughes by being the moll of smooth gangster Kirk Douglas, who at 31 was in only his second film role and pulls it off wonderfully by seeming much older…. The direction by Jacques Tourneur surpasses even his usual excellence. Dickie Moore adds a superb and haunting touch of strangeness as a deaf-mute devoted to Mitchum. Rhonda Fleming, in only her fifth credited screen role, puts plenty of her own glamour about, and isn’t leaving the field wholly to Greer.  [robert-temple-1]

RKO thank you – a wonderful little studio that made memorable films to compete with the best….we all love King Kong,Citizen Kane, Hunchback of Notre Dame to name a few I am sure but it’s films like this, Cat People, Narrow Margin, The Window that deserve top marks for doing the very most with very little and entertaining us so much along the way.  [postermix]

The photography is classic dramatic stuff–watch near the very end how the camera follows Mitchum to one side of the car, the girl gets in, and then it glides across the front to watch him come around and get in the other side. This is so fluid and slight, you never really pay attention, but it’s part of the slick way the movie makers keep the continuity and the verisimilitude at a high, dramatic pitch. Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca is one of the best of the noir style, an unsung master (check his list of credits on [the Imdb] site and see all the great ones he’s photographed).  [secondtake]