1 Hr., 37 Mins.
Out of the Past April 29, 2019
t’s difficult to erase the past, and wouldn’t Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), the protagonist of Out of the Past (1947), know it. At the beginning of the film, he’s doing his best to stay anonymous. He’s relocated to the small Californian town of Bridgeport; he’s working at a gas station; he recently began courting a young woman named Ann (Virginia Huston), who’s considered one of the genuinely nicest of the local girls. But all this can’t
stop people from looking for him. Before we even meet Jeff, who has tired-looking eyes, a teased mop of hair, and a pugilistic build, we hear about him through a man named Joe Stefanos (Paul Valentine), who has descended on Bridgeport for the sole purpose of finding him. Joe is probably one of the last people Jeff wants to see — he’s out of the past.
Inevitably in Out of the Past, which is generally viewed as one of the most definitive of films noir, the life Jeff led before pumping gas day and day out and looking forward to seeing Ann in the evenings is dragged up. Keeping in line with a classic film-noir trope — that of a great portion of the narrative unrolling via flashback (Laura, from 1944; The Locket, from 1946) — Jeff tells us his story, essentially through Ann, as he drives, with her in tow, to confront his bygone days after Joe tells him something he cannot sweep under a rug.
Through flashback, we learn that Jeff’s real surname is Markham, and that he previously worked as a private investigator. When we first meet the Jeff of the past, he and his partner (Steve Brodie) are being hired by the gangster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to find his slinky girlfriend Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who has allegedly stolen $40,000. The abridged version of the story is that Jeff, once he finds her, not only falls in love with Kathie but runs off with her. More troubling, though, is that she also winds up killing Jeff’s partner, and has, in fact, stolen the money from Whit. The Jeff we meet at the beginning of Out of the Past is one, obviously, who trying to get as far away as possible from Whit and his people. Once Ann drops him off at the former's at the conclusion of the flashback-welcoming story, however, he personifies a truism. Specifically the one that you can never truly run away from your past.
Once Out of the Past settles in the present — where the untrustworthy Kathie is again linked with Whit but trying to get Jeff back, where Whit’s lawyer (Ken Niles) is threatening to blackmail his client — it gets murkier. But like many a film noir, a streamlined narrative is not necessarily all that important a thing if you’re able to get your thrills elsewhere. With Out of the Past, it isn’t so much a full understanding of who’s getting betrayed and who isn’t that keeps us compelled. It's more the crackle that hovers in the air while these characters speak, and the eerie, Nicolas Musuraca-photographed world in which they dwell.
The movie is made especially distinctive by its central triumvirate. Mitchum is among the most immediately intriguing of noir heroes — a pessimist whose world-weariness is matched by his hardened exterior. Greer is a preeminent femme fatale, thrilling to watch manipulate reality to her liking; Douglas, in just his second film, is a charismatic viper. To watch the focal three size each other up — with our constantly wondering who’s playing whom, and if there is perhaps a double-cross brewing as part of a moment of apparent sincerity — is to watch a feature-length game of cat and mouse (and one that never loses its luster). Greer makes for a particularly clever feline — and a great encapsulation of the moral ambiguities, and the appealing brand of arcanity, Out of the Past is made so fascinating for barely keeping contained. A-