#409) Out of the Past (1947)

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#409) Out of the Past (1947)

OR “Won’t You Come Home, Jeff Bailey?”

Directed by Jacques Tourneur

Written by Geoffrey Homes (aka Daniel Mainwaring). Based on his novel “Build My Gallows High”.

Class of 1991

No original trailer, but here’s a re-creation.

The Plot: Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) runs a gas station in the small town of Bridgeport, California, and has settled down with the lovely young Ann (Virginia Huston). When a former business associate (Paul Valentine) arrives in town, Jeff confesses to Ann his past life as a private investigator, specifically the case in which he tracked down Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), the girlfriend of businessman/gambler Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). Jeff and Kathie have an affair, but eventually split up to avoid further trouble with Whit and his associates. Back in the present day, Whit has become aware of Jeff’s past with Kathie, and hires Jeff for one final job. Will Jeff be able to return to his simple life in Bridgeport, or will his relationship with Kathie return…out of the past?

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film a “classic example of 1940s film noir” and throws superlatives at Tourneur, Homes, Mitchum, Greer, and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. An essay by film critic Stephanie Zacharek is equally effusive, and a dissection of the film’s two female leads.

But Does It Really?: “Out of the Past” is one of those movies that I always knew was a designated classic, but couldn’t tell you anything else about it. The film is well-crafted on each front, and has all the hallmarks of the great film noirs, but it’s lacking that extra “je ne sais quoi” that possesses a “Double Indemnity” or a “Touch of Evil”. “Out of the Past” may be reserved for the film buffs nowadays, but it is respected and referenced enough to earn its NFR designation.

Everybody Gets One: Jane Greer’s film career got started when Howard Hughes spotted her modeling in Life Magazine. Greer made a slew of movies for RKO and MGM (“Past” was at the former), but she blamed studio politics for the lack of momentum in her career. And as always, shoutout to Ken Niles as Leonard Eels, aka “the vic”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Standard ‘40s stuff, but this movie got me to wondering: can ridesharing ever replace cabs in the movies? First off, no one can make a quick getaway if your driver isn’t showing up for 6 minutes, and the old “follow that cab” sequence could never happen. And don’t even get started on the huge insurance risk a chase sequence entails.

Title Track: No one says “out of the past”, but Bailey does utter the novel’s title – “Hang My Gallows High” – near the end of the film.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Out of the Past” was successful in its day, but RKO still considered it a B-Picture, and focused their campaigning on two of their A-Pictures: “The Bishop’s Wife” and “Crossfire”, both of which got Best Picture nominations.

Other notes

  • The opening credits, shot around Lake Tahoe, made me legitimately wonder if I was watching the wrong movie. Quintessential noir never leaves the dark alleyways of the big city. This movie is already throwing me.
  • Wait, Jeff’s girlfriend is named Ann Miller? The Hollywood dancer of the same name was already making movies at that point; wouldn’t this have led to some confusion?
  • Kirk Douglas was still a Hollywood newcomer when he was cast as the heavy in “Out of the Past”. This is also your reminder that as of this writing, Kirk Douglas is still alive at 103! He’s lived in 12 different decades!
  • Robert Mitchum is one of those stars who has never done it for me. I don’t have anything against him, but I don’t have anything for him either. I try to not let that interfere with my viewings for this blog, but overall Mitchum in this movie is…fine.
  • It’s a shame Jane Greer’s career never took off, she’s very good in this. She’s a good match for Mitchum, and hits both aspects of “femme fatale” quite effectively. My favorite shot in the movie is Kathie’s restrained joy while watching Jeff and Fisher fight each other. It’s wonderfully subtle shading to an already dimensional character.
  • It’s thoughtful of Jeff to open up to Ann about his past, but he fails to remember one of life’s most important truths: No one wants to hear about your ex.
  • “Out of the Past” was filmed partially on location in the cities mentioned throughout the film; either for the full sequence or for background projections. The shot of Jeff’s cab arriving in San Francisco is on Broadway Street, not too far from the North Beach neighborhood Jeff and Kathie briefly lived in. Everyone in this movie could probably recommend a good Italian restaurant.
  • “That’s one way to be clever: look like an idiot.” Ooh, that’s a good line, I’ll have to remember that one.
  • It’s around the point where Kathie tells Jeff about his set-up that this film started to lose me. Did the plot become too convoluted? Was I not in the right frame of mind for this movie? Who’s to say? The point is I did not take a lot of notes during the third act for fear of missing something.
  • Like “Stranger Than Paradise”, “Out of the Past” has enough diverse locales that its black and white cinematography is imperative. A color film set in Tahoe, Mexico, and San Francisco would have been too much of a travelogue.
  • Knowing that crime can never pay in a Code-era movie, you can more or less deduce how a film like “Out of the Past” is going to end, but I appreciated that the final few scenes try to subvert expectations and keep things interesting. Points deducted for the obvious model cars used in the climactic crash.

Legacy

  • Robert Mitchum’s film persona as the stoic, somewhat cryptic tough guy was cemented in this film. He branched out for such films as “Night of the Hunter”, but he more-or-less played this guy for the rest of his career.
  • “Out of the Past” was remade in 1984 as “Against All Odds” with Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward. Worth noting is Jane Greer’s appearance as Kathie’s mother, and the title song by Phil Collins.
  • In 1987, Robert Mitchum hosted “Saturday Night Live”, and appeared in a short film called “Out of Gas”, directed by his daughter Trina, and reuniting him with Jane Greer. I can’t find a single clip from this episode that hasn’t been blocked by NBC, so here’s a track from Robert Mitchum’s calypso album instead.

3 thoughts on “#409) Out of the Past (1947)”

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