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Out of the Past

Out of the Past
Warner DVD
1947 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 97 min. / Build My Gallows High / Street Date July 6, 2004 / 14.97
Starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Richard Webb, Steve Brodie, Virginia Huston, Paul Valentine, Dickie Moore
Cinematography Nicholas Musuraca
Art Direction Albert S. D'Agostino, Jack Okey
Film Editor Samuel E. Beetley
Original Music Roy Webb
Written by Daniel Mainwaring as Geoffrey Homes from his novel Build My Gallows High
Produced by Warren Duff, Robert Sparks
Directed by Jacques Tourneur

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

In every genre or category of movies there are films that transcend academic pigeonholing, and Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past is a prime example. One leaves a screening of this doomed romance with a profound appreciation of a key awareness behind film noir: Disillusion and despair in a corrupt but seductive world. A critic once pegged this picture as the perfect "annihilating melodrama." Almost everyone winds up as a corpse, but they're very entertaining on the way to the graveyard.

In this postwar phase RKO was supposed to be putting together economical program pictures but this one overachieves on all counts. Howard Hughes favorite Robert Mitchum has his big break here, finally playing the ultra-casual pre- hipster who could have taught Jack Kerouac a few things about the Beat life. Unappreciated Jane Greer plays her femme fatale as a self-contradiction in a tight dress, the irresistable woman whose real name is Trouble. Mitchum's character knows that she's poison and she admits that there's only grief in their future. His answer is "Baby, I don't care!"

This better-than-classic film gets a super presentation on DVD as part of a new Film Noir package. Warner has been digging into the RKO library for over a year now, and Out of the Past is an excellent scheduling choice while more difficult restoration problems (King Kong, the Astaire-Rogers musicals) are still being sorted out.


Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum) has changed his name to Bailey, opened a filling station in Bridgeport and formed a promising relationship with a small town girl, Ann Miller (Virginia Huston). But his traumatic past returns in the form of oily gangster Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine). Markham tells Ann about his past He ran away with the treacherous Kathie Moffatt (Jane Greer) instead of returning her and a stolen forty thousand dollars to her boyfriend, gambler Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). Now Markham has a murder pinned on him and must go back to face the music. At Lake Tahoe Markham discovers Moffatt has returned to Sterling. The gambler wants Jeff to go to San Francisco to recover some incriminating tax records from lawyer Leonard Eels, assisted by Eels' untrustworthy assistant Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming). Markham has no choice but to oblige, even though he's obviously being set up. "I think I'm in a frame" says Jeff. "Doesn't sound like you," answers a friendly taxi driver (Wallace Scott). "I don't know," answers Markham, "All I can see is the frame."

Out of the Past is profound and unpretentious. Tourneur and RKO marshalled the standard elements of Geoffrey Homes' hardboiled novel and brought out the romantic side of noir in ways that previous tough-guy pictures had not. This story is slick, but not cynical. The proceedings drip with a failed romanticism forever defeated by greed, jealousy and pride.

Jeff Markham is a particularly low-rent detective, a Philip Marlowe no longer searching for the honorable thing to do. When he's first interviewed by Whit Sterling's "big operator," Jeff slouches in his chair as if nothing in the world could get his blood circulating. A $5,000 fee motivates him to pick up the trail of a wayward girlfriend described by Jeff's partner as a "wild goose with 40 Gs." Good sleuthing instincts lead Markham directly to his prey in Acapulco, where the Mexican heat, Roy Webb's seductively plaintive music and especially the sight of Kathie Moffatt take their toll. Jeff forgets his professional obligations and even his sense of self-preservation. Lots of movies ask if a love that will make us forget everything really exists, as the genie professes in The Thief of Bagdad. In Out of the Past confronts us with the argument that romantic suicide may be the only way to live.

Whit Sterling is dead serious when he says that there aren't any other women like Kathie Moffatt. Markham's mercenary partner calls her a cheap piece of baggage while admitting that "Your picture don't do you justice, baby." Kathie's first couple of appearances are almost hallucinatory. She literally materializes out of the glare of the Acapulco afternoon, revealing herself in the shadows as a creature with huge, knowing eyes. She can match Markham's suggestive flirting - no adolescent double-entendre The Big Sleep games here. But most importantly, Kathie carries an erotic aura wherever she goes, no doubt because the scenes that introduce her are filtered through Markham's subjective awe. She appears to him on the beach as a barefoot apparition, and when she enters the night club that "plays American music for a dollar" the violinist launches into her personal theme, a love melody that promises everything.  1

In Jeff Markham's hazy reveries Kathie Moffatt is mostly an idealized love object. When the narrative leaves flashback mode (a structure that likely threw 50% of the viewing audience) their relationship is knocked down a few notches. Kathie's aura vanishes in the harsh light of day. Her undisguised dishonesty elicits nothing but contempt from Markham - she's obviously a dangerous sociopath.

Kathie sees things differently. She honestly loves the men in her life but events just "happen" to force her to steal from them, blackmail them and plot to have them killed. She double-crosses Jeff. He uncovers her perfidy. She squirms her way out. Jeff catches Kathie red-handed framing him for murder. She comes back with sincere denials. "Save it," says Jeff: "You're like a leaf that blows from one gutter to another." But Jeff falls for her yet again. Once hooked, always hooked - the possibility of regaining their lost idyll is too tempting.

Daniel Mainwaring's script and Tourneur's direction weave a maze of intrigue around Jeff Markham. He's forced to run between Lake Tahoe and San Francisco, from nightclubs to terrace apartments in an effort to stay ahead of Whit Sterling's murderous schemes. Robert Mitchum accomplishes all of this while barely batting an eye. Jeff dodges hoods with the help of a trusty Dashiell Hammett-like cabbie and wrests an important document from a fortified nightclub the way you or I would raid the refrigerator. Rough stuff in Out of the Past is deliciously refined - there's a brawl seen in shadows and cutaways to Kathie's catlike face ("Break his head, Jeff"). In the nightclub Mitchum pulls off his best casual knockdown, decking a thug with a throwaway uppercut on the way to cadging a cigarette. In theaters, it usually brings applause.

Somewhere in San Francisco the plot becomes too thick for many viewers, with Mitchum moving a tad too quickly. On old indistinct 16mm prints Jane Greer and woo-bait Rhonda Fleming were hard to tell apart in long shots (especially seen at 2am - Savant stayed up repeatedly). The first time I saw the picture I was completely lost; I thought the two women were one character until they showed up in the same taxicab together. Out of the Past does have a clear story. It's just that watching the beautiful images and listening to the great dialogue is so pleasant, who worries about it?

Friend Rocco Gioffre once pegged the secret of Out of the Past's superior dialogue - no question is ever given a straight answer. It's always another question, or a smart remark implying or insinuating something. Conventional hardboiled dialogue is meant to be read on a page and savored for its cleverness. Raymond Chandler says "The coupe sped away down the wet boulevard. I made the license plate the way I made my first million." Any ordinary reader has to double back twice to find the joke, a bon mot far too calculated to come out of any ordinary kind of character. Talk in Out of the Past suggests a constant disconnect between characters:

Kathie: "Did you miss me?" Jeff: "No more than I would my eyes."
Stephanos: "You have fun pumping gas, huh?" Jeff: "Yeah, me and the kid laugh all the time."
Kathie: "I don't want to die." Jeff: "Neither do I baby but if I have to I'm going to die last."  

As an added kick, Out of the Past has an early performance from Kirk Douglas before he buffed out to play action heroes. His Whit Sterling is deftly sketched, showing an impressive range from breezy insincerity to sullen anger. He can juggle the stylized dialogue too: "Think of a number, Joe." Sterling isn't the spineless weasel Douglas played in The Love of Martha Ivers but he's still a long way from the broad histrionics of things like Detective Story.

RKO cameraman Nicholas Musuraca shot the influential Stranger on the Third Floor and teamed with Tourneur under Val Lewton on the career-making Cat People. Gentler with his lighting than the stark John Alton, Musuraca matched Tourneur's refined direction with images that carry a full range of tones and are often composed in depth. Even the exteriors around Mono lake are aesthetically skewed and any shot with Jane Greer is a portrait masterpiece. Under the careful lighting, Mitchum's heavy-lidded face combines a young hunk with a tired, wise old man. The film makes lighting up a cigarette into an art form, and Mitchum must reach for his lighter or strike a match at least 50 times.

Out of the Past directs its themes into an inevitable existential dilemma. Kathie's amorous treachery has painted Jeff into an impossible corner and everyone's fate, even Jeff's, is resolved according to their inner nature. He stares out at dawn over the woods he loves so much and knows they're no longer a part of his future. He says "Build my gallows, high, baby" and wears his I-don't-care face to the bitter end. Faithful Ann is ready to carry an unhealthy torch for Jeff, and Jeff's deaf & dumb pal The Kid (Dickie Moore, everyone's favorite tot from early 30s pix like Blonde Venus) winds up the show with a generosity of spirit and a philosophical distance that nobody else in the story can muster. Out of the Past ends as an elliptical enigma. Specific crimes are resolved but the machinery of romantic fate remains a mystery.

The Asphalt Jungle is the most famous title in Warner's great first set of film noir winners, but Out of the Past is the classiest and most refined of the bunch, a show that can hold its own against foreign classics and yet appeal to any American fan with the patience to watch a B&W movie.

The transfer isn't perfect but it comes close, with a transfer element touched only once or twice by an errant scratch or bit of dirt. The full spectrum of tones is faithfully represented. Although the DVD can't replicate the eye-popping experience of seeing an original print on a big screen, this version is sharp enough to impress anybody.

The audio commentary is by the gentle and thoughtful James Ursini, who has been writing about film since the early 1970s and knows his way around a noir like few others. His talk gives some information about the specific title and uses the rest of its time to relate effects and situations in the movie to the classic noir pattern.

As with the rest of the titles in the series, the cover uses original poster art. "Your picture doesn't do ya justice, lady" applies to the poster too, which makes dreamy Jane Greer look more like Bette Davis in The Letter. My pal Rocco saw Greer at a convention once and said that even as a senior citizen her eyes were a knockout - at age 24 he was more than willing to be seduced by a 65 year-old! Jane Greer was one of a bevy of ex-noir vixens who participated with Scott Glenn in a round-table discussion that accompanied a month of Turner Classic Movies noirs several summers ago; they'd be a great extra when Warner brings out a second box of dames, private eyes and snub-nosed revolvers.

This studio has a heady list of RKO, Warners and MGM thrillers to pick from - I've italicized Savant's faves in this selection: Act of Violence, Border Incident, Fury, Lady in the Lake, Mystery Street, The Outfit, Party Girl, Point Blank, Side Street, Angel Face, Berlin Express, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, Born to Kill, Cornered, His Kind of Woman, The Locket, The Narrow Margin, On Dangerous Ground, Stranger on the Third Floor, They Live By Night, They Won't Believe Me, Where Danger Lives, While the City Sleeps, The Window, The Breaking Point, The Damned Don't Cry, I Died a Thousand Times, The Mask of Dimitrios, Night Moves, Nora Prentiss, The Unsuspected, and White Heat. More power - and may other studios get serious about doing the same thing!

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Out of the Past rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary with author James Ursini
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 12, 2004


1. A few years back I rushed to buy a CD of Roy Webb's movie music that had some selections from Out of the Past. But the haunting, romantic main theme wasn't there. Not three or four months later TCM played a late 30s picture called The Toast of New York - and it had the same theme! Evidently RKO repurposed an older tune either from the earlier film, or a library. It's possible that the theme is some standard from years before, as in Aura Lee = Love Me Tender.

Note from Bill Blackwell, 7/29/04: Glenn, I, too, was haunted by that romantic theme from Out of the Past. When Frances Farmer played the harp and sang The First Time I Saw You in The Toast of New York (1937), I knew the lovely song was familiar. A few days later came one of those stopped-at-a-traffic-light epiphanies: Toast is an RKO picture . . . the theme was re-cycled for Our of the Past!

The lyrics were by Allie Wrubel; The Lady in Red and Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah were two of his hits. The haunting theme, derived from the 4th movement of Brahms' 1st---I believe, was by Nat Shiklet, whose most famous melody is That Lonesome Road unless you vividly recall Jeanine, I Dream of Lilac Time from the Colleen Moore-Gary Cooper Lilac Time.

Studios would steal from their publishing houses/libraries for background themes. With the Wind and the Rain in Your Hand is used in The Lady Eve and goodness knows how many other Universal films. And didn't Stella by Starlight from The Uninvited (1944) get used in other Paramount films besides The Nutty Professor? - Bill Blackwell

P.S. I think it bold for '47 that Mitchum sits down at the table with Eunice and her date.

2. The dialogue in Out of the Past also has an odd cadence, a quality Savant attributes to overeager dialogue directors. Nobody slurs anything - each word of every line is articulated to match the phonetic description in a dictionary. Waitress Marny (Mary Field) yaks to her customers across the dinette counter and the word "counter" is said several times, pronounced "kown-ter" as if the film were meant for ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. Everyone I know this side of Shakespeare drops the "t" almost completely: "kown'ner." You'll find this to be true in almost every RKO film of the time. Even a drunk in On Dangerous Ground enunciates his words like Mister Rogers.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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