starring: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, and Paul Valentine
written by: Daniel Mainwaring, James M. Cain, and Frank Fenton, based on the novel by Mainwaring
directed by: Jacques Tourneur
NR, 97 min, 1947, USA
Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is a simple gas station owner who steals off to the lake for picnics with the love of his life, until a visit from his past reveals that his name is actually Jeff Markham, a former private eye on the run from prominent gambler Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). As he explains to his love on the all-night drive to Lake Tahoe, he was once hired to track down Sterling's former lover (Jane Greer), who had shot him 4 times and absconded to Mexico with a rumoured $40,000. He finds her, falls in love, and they live on the run for years. Sterling, of course, learns of all this in due time, and it is the threat to make good or pay the price that forces Markham to steal some incriminating evidence in order to make good. Things get worse from there.
Out of the Past is your typical film-noir (some would say a perfect noir example, but I hesitate to agree). It's all darkly lit and full of characters who smoke a lot, talk in sharp one-liners, and have a penchant for all kinds of treachery, but what seems to make Out of the Past stand out from your normal noir is just how cognisant Markham is of the machinery around him. At one point he mentions to the holder of the documents he's trying to get, "I think I'm in a frame" simply because he's been given a martini, and with it an opportunity to leave some fingerprints laying around. But what's odd is that he doesn't at that point (or at any point, for that matter) make even the slightest attempt to avoid leaving fingerprints. No gloves, no hankerchief to open a door, nothing. So he's either the dumbest noir hero in history or the smartest, depending on how you look at it. Does he know that no matter how many prints he leaves, it ultimately won't matter? That is, if he can't get out of the frame by other means he screwed? Or is it that his method of getting out of the frame will take him somewhere a manhunt won't find him? I'd like to think it's the latter.
The wild card in all the double-crossing is Kathie Moffat (Greer), the woman who Markham tracked down in Mexico. She spends a great deal of time casting herself as a pawn in this whole ordeal. Over and over she claims that she had no choice, that this was the only thing she could do in the situation, but as the film progresses she appears to have more and more control in the proceedings. Like everyone else in a noir, she's got secrets and hidden motives. She seems to be playing both sides without remorse. These are intelligent men she's manipulating, but I guess when you look like Jane Greer it's a lot easier to convince people you're on their side.
Watching a film like this, it can sometimes be difficult to figure out what's formulaic and what's the standard-bearer. Everyone seems surprised when Markham runs off with Moffat in Mexico, and the film certainly seems to think we should be surprised, but it was exactly what I expected to happen from the moment they met. Is that because the film is following the noir rules (after all, it certainly seems rare when they don't fall in love) or creating them? At the risk of being labeled a fool, I'm going to say Out of the Past is following the formula. 1947 isn't exactly the beginning of the noir movement. Detour (1945) had set up a scenario where it knows that we expect the lead actor to fall for the lead actress, but wisely chose not to, and the film is better for it. But Out of the Past does the expected right down the line. There are few real suprises, and most of them are crammed into the ambiguous ending. In terms of the craft involved in making the film, there's nothing to fault. The direction, acting, writing, and cinematography are all expertley executed, but at no time does the film ever jump out and grab you the way great films do. It's disappointing too, because you certainly expect it to.