The lure of the sinister film noir is strong for many film fans: The moody lighting, the snappy dialog, the strange characters, the untold secrets. Of all the genres that sprang up during film's first hundred years film noir might be the most purely cinematic. I mean, there could have been no such thing until directors first got the idea to light from above, shoot from below, and let shadows consume their screen.
One of the finest examples of classic film noir also contains one of its defining performances. Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past is as much an archetype for its history-coming-back-to-haunt-you plot as it is for Robert Mitchum's toweringly strong performance. He owns this stylish thriller with both his macho swagger and a surprising ability to come off as wounded, scared and nervous at times. I mean, if it's enough to ruffle this guy's feathers, it's got to be bad!
The film opens in an idyllic California town, with sweet music and quaint images. Almost immediately, however, this peaceful scene is invaded by a tough guy in a black trenchcoat and hat. Joe (Paul Valentine) is pure East Coast cynicism and wastes no time being nice. After rudely flicking a cigarette at a young deaf mute (Dickie Moore) he reveals his mission: He's looking for Jeff Bailey (Mitchum), who we'll soon learn hasn't always been a mild-mannered small town gas station owner. Joe tells Jeff that he'd better go see his old boss about some unfinished business. Everything out of Joe's mouth sounds like a threat and Jeff, well aware that this is something he needs to do, hops to it. Before he goes, however, he unspools the whole sordid story for his new gal, perfect small town blonde Ann (Virginia Huston).
I won't reveal all the details of the rest of the plot here, except to say that it's obviously filled with double- and triple-crosses and that most of them involve classic noir vamp Kathie, beautifully played by Jane Greer. It also gets a little convoluted at times, but that's all part of the mystique of the film noir. If you never wonder what the hell is going on then the filmmakers didn't do their job.
One of the terrific pleasures of Out of the Past is that Bailey's former boss, Whit, is player by a then-unknown Kirk Douglas. Years before the triumphs of Paths of Glory and Spartacus made his one of Hollywood's most famous faces, he has a sharp, sinister style, smiling with a vicious sarcasm, that makes his character the perfect villain for this complex film. After all, Whit may be the bad guy, but the plot only ever got rolling because Bailey, the marginal hero, stabbed his boss in the back. Douglas and Mitchum clearly get the fluidity of right and wrong in this dark world and their verbal sparring is beyond compare.
In fact, all the dialog is top drawer. The script contains countless memorable snaps that the entire cast delivers with perfect smarminess. When Ann says of Kathie "She can't be all bad. No one is." Bailey responds tersely, "Well, she comes the closest." Simple lines like that, delivered with style and attitude, make watching the film a constant pleasure. There are plenty of times when the viewer just has to sit back and say "wow!"
The sparring isn't just verbal. Out of the Past contains one of the most insane fist fights this side of Jackie Chan. About 38 minutes into the film Bailey comes across a former associate who knows too much of his business. They exchange blows in a rhythmic, almost musical fashion that needs to be seen to be believed. It's bloodless compared to all the Die Hard / Lethal Weapon-style pummelings that we're used to, but it's so full of energy and passion. It's really a replay-worthy moment. Similarly, when Bailey needs to incapacitate someone later in the movie, he delivers a sock to the jaw so fast and casual that you need to see it twice. Mitchum's nearly unimpeachable cool clearly makes him the perfect actor for this role.
But that's the beauty of his performance. Many actors could have played the tough guy role here but he brings a vulnerability to the role as well. This is one character who knows the light at the end of the tunnel and wants so badly to be there. The only question is whether his past will allow him to break free and escape. Film noir fans know that the outlook is grim.
Although the film is amazing in nearly all aspects, it's not the most perfect example of its genre. The only less convincing aspect is the undeveloped nature of the romances. Bailey falls for two dames over the course of the film (all-American Ann and dark, scheming Kathie) but both feel rushed and unnatural. Of course, you go with it, but it's only the beautifully poetic narration that gives any sense of the depth ("I don't know what we were waiting for. Maybe we thought the world would end.") And the film never plumbs the emotional depths of the characters on a truly resonant level the way Abraham Polonsky's Force of Evil (also recently out on DVD) does. Still, it's got all the markings of a classic plus a timeless performance from Robert Mitchum.