In the interests of full disclosure, Robert Mitchum is my all-time favourite screen actor. No one else has ever been able to turn in such a run of ground-breaking performances whilst always appearing on the verge of nodding off mid-scene. Look, I’m probably going to rapidly run out of superlatives here, but sometimes you have to put on a trench coat, light a cigarette and take a stand: OUT OF THE PAST is the greatest film ever made. OK, probably the greatest film ever made.
FLASHBACK: In the forties RKO was regarded as a “major-minor” studio: not in the same league as Paramount or MGM, but bankrolled by Howard Hughes, and consistently churning out low budget pictures that more often than not made them a decent return. RKO attracted the likes of Robert Mitchum rather than Jimmy Stewart. They also produced a string of cinematic masterpieces which a group of French critics would come to label “film noir”, though only the big boys (Warner Brothers for THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) and Paramount for DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)) would ever achieve any recognition from the Academy. This is largely because it was regarded by many Hollywood studio heads as subversive and it’s no coincidence that it all but disappeared as a genre in the fifties as blacklisting and the House Committee on Un-American Activities cast out many of its finest practitioners.
OUT OF THE PAST is one of the earliest films to play with a flashback structure in any significant way. It starts in the middle, goes back to the beginning then finishes at the end. If that sounds potentially confusing, well, like some of the best film noir (hello, THE BIG SLEEP (1946)) on first viewing, it is. You know, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-you’s. But the point of noir was not really to construct intricate Agatha Christie whodunnits; the emphasis was always on style, characterisation and (yes I’m going there, stand back) mise-en-scène. Almost all of OUT OF THE PAST takes place at night: Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography casting abstract shadows on the walls and the low camera angles creating a sense of intimacy with the players. Musuraca had previously worked with director Jacques Tourneur on CAT PEOPLE (1942), a horror film where the horror is built out of shadows and misdirection in lieu of an actual monster. Together they fill the frame with little visual cues, like the fishing nets that frame Mitchum as he’s about to walk into the trap.
Mitchum plays Jeff Bailey, who as the film opens is attempting to live a quiet life as the owner of a gas station in a rural backwater town. As the title implies, his secret past soon catches up with him. “Bailey”, choice of name surely inspired by IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), is really Jeff Markham (presumably he couldn’t think of another Christian name), a former private eye in New York still on the run long after notorious gangster Whit Sterling hired him to track down his girlfriend Kathie, played with murky complexity by Jane Greer in the performance that arguably defined “femme fatale”. According to Whit, Kathie has made the dating faux-pas of stealing $40,000, shooting him four times and leaving him for dead. Jeff tracks her down in Acapulco, falls for her (“And then I saw her, coming out of the sun, and I knew why Whit didn’t care about that forty grand”) and they go on the run to start a new life together. Or so Markham believes.
“You can never help anything, can you? You’re like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another.”
One of the defining feature of noir was its scripts packed full with snappy, hyperreal dialogue, and OUT OF THE PAST has one of the best. You could accuse the script of being little more than a collection of one-liners, but when they’re this good, frankly who cares. It’s based on the novel ‘Build My Gallows High‘ (also the name the film was released under in the UK, the first time I saw the film on the big screen at the NFT it was under this title) by “Geoffrey Homes”, the pen name of Daniel Mainwaring. Mainwaring was recruited to adapt his own novel, and though he would go on to make a name for himself with THE BIG STEAL (1949) and the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956), the credit for the quality of the finished product should go mostly to obscure B-movie writer Frank Fenton. The innovative flashback structure is there in Mainwaring’s book, and would survive through every iteration of the script, though sadly Jane Greer’s character had her name changed away from the novel’s antagonist “Mumsey McGonigle” (happily though, the lawyer’s name “Leonard Eels” makes the transition from page to screen. A slippery character).
But Robert Mitchum and a bunch of wisecracking dialogue aren’t the only selling points. The film features a mighty triumvirate of performances from Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas as violent gangster Whit in what is incredibly only his second film role. Roger Ebert described OUT OF THE PAST as Mitchum and Douglas “smoking at each other”, and it’s interesting to compare the opposing styles of the two men. Rather than dominating a scene, Mitchum, much like Robert De Niro after him, reacts to the actors around him at his own laconic pace. The somnambulist approach. Douglas is all gritted teeth and barely suppressed menace. Greer is alternately radiant, lit up like an angel whilst Mitchum spends most of the film wreathed in cigarette smoke and darkness, and the embodiment of pure evil. But what makes this one of the finest examples of noir are the multiple layers presented by every single character: no one is one-dimensional, wholly innocent or wholly malicious, and even the most incidental characters aren’t bumped off without reason. Every time I see it I wish Mitchum would just accept Kathie’s final offer to leave for Acapulco, but, of course, Bailey/Markham is the quintessential doomed leading man. Which leads us to one of the biggest unanswered questions in film noir, up there with “Who killed the chauffeur?” and that’s: does she really shoot him point blank in the crotch at the end?