Out of the Past (1947)

Dir. Jacques Tourneur. Starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas

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Out of the Past is a film which doesn’t work well unless you believe with a full heart in the inevitable stupidity of men, a stupidity which is born out of arrogance and self-importance, and which is compounded by an inability to really learn from that stupidity. (I don’t intend that as a criticism of Out of the Past.) Whit (Douglas) seems to believe that Kathie (Greer) will live under his thumb once Jeff (Mitchum) brings her back from Mexico. Jeff seems to believe he can outrun his past by changing his name and buying a gas station. If the wages of sin is death, then either stupidity is sinful or there’s a different verse which gets brought up as wisdom in ’40s California.

The most outstanding character in the film is Kathie, who more than Jeff or Whit is at the center of just about every malfeasance in the film. Whit is well-off from his winnings and showy about them, but seems to be essentially a small potatoes crime lord. In truth, we don’t ever see him do very much at all. He insulates himself from any serious criminal activity by having henchmen carry out his orders, and when they remake this film he’ll probably be more venture capitalist, less gangster. And Jeff, who is fooled badly by Kathie the first time out, only knows which bad things he wants to ensure he won’t have to deal with: namely, the frame job he’s set up for. Kathie is a whirlwind of trouble almost immediately. She seduces Jeff with a little help from a moonlit Mexican beach. She plays dumb, but not too dumb. She lets Jeff know she’s smart enough to have figured out that Whit sent him after her and the $40,000 she stole, asking when he’s going to take her back to her former lover; she doesn’t let Jeff know that her damsel in distress bit is just that. It’s hard to like her for perfectly good reasons. She’s a duplicitous double-crosser and is responsible for a higher body count than any other single character. But as surely as The Exorcist represents a certain anxiety about women and their emergent sexuality, so too does Out of the Past. In a male character, we would accept some level of sexual unfaithfulness and amorality; think of how we sympathize with Walter Neff in Double Indemnity and find ourselves fascinated by Harry Lime in The Third Man. Neff kills a man for a chance at his widow and a $50,000 cut of his insurance money. Lime weakens medicine for children in a war-torn city trying to recover and abandons his moll. They are distasteful but not repulsive. Our impulse to hate Kathie comes from something much darker in us as a culture, something which is as present in 2017 as it was in 1947. We don’t necessarily mind women who do bad things as long as the bad things they do are coded as appropriately masculine; Katniss’ heel turn in the second Mockingjay movie has a whole bunch of killing with arrows, for example. But let that woman wear too much makeup or cry too often or play up her girlishness and people absolutely lose their minds. The example from our own time is Skylar White from Breaking Bad, who got weepier (and more relatable!) over the course of the series, and the increasing fan hate crescendoed alongside that change. Kathie is less virtuous than Skylar, but reasonably we ought to feel for her at least a little bit. She appears to have made a bad decision about stealing money from Whit (her $40,000 then is more like $450,000 now) and spends most of the rest of the movie hedging her bets, trying to stay one step ahead of execution or imprisonment or both. In the strict man’s world of the ’40s, there isn’t much for her to play on besides her looks and her sex appeal. Her whimpering calls for pity are obnoxious but they are also the only thing she has to defend herself with absent a pistol. No femme fatale I’ve ever watched has been less likable, but at the same time none of them have been so vulnerable, either; she’s like those characters in Disney movies who stand around on rocks in rivers of lava. And people like her in other movies smack their audiences in the face. We should know better than to trust her at any point, and yet we’re fooled by her just like we were fooled by a million and one women like her on screen before. Audiences like to be led, I think; this is how twists work, and people will always be suckers for a twist. But audiences don’t like to be fooled. They didn’t come to the pictures to look stupid, even to themselves, and when a woman like Kathie does it, it’s vexing.

Aside from Kathie, who is on a different level than the average dangerous woman in a noir, the film uses its setting to create a noir which is unusual in comparison to its fellows. There’s nothing odd about a California noir – arguably the two best examples of the genre, The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity, take place in San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively – but much of the action in Out of the Past takes place in small town California and Lake Tahoe. Jeff’s newest model, Ann (Virginia Huston), is a little elegant in the face to be a real girl-next-door type. (If she isn’t Nancy Olson, I don’t buy the act.) She suffices because there’s a small-town guy, Jim (Richard Webb), who resents Jeff cutting in on the girl he’s been in love with since they were kids. Ann and Jim, down to their All-American names, give the movie ample corn-fed bona fides. When Stefanos (Paul Valentine) shows up in barren little Bridgeport, obviously an outsider, that late-’40s anxiety about infiltration amplifies. While “Stefanos” is clearly no good, Whit is not what you’d expect from a gangster. Kirk Douglas wasn’t Kirk Douglas just yet, so he isn’t precisely playing against type, but the name, replete with its bougie affectation, clue us in on the fact that he’s different from the average tough. He’s not dark like Humphrey Bogart or ugly like George Raft; he’s bigger than both of them, and of course has the swell cleft chin which would make him an obvious hero in later movies. His mansion, complete with idyllic view of Lake Tahoe, is nothing like the grimy getaways we usually associate with men like him. And so the uncertainty leeches on not to the simply greasy guys we think of as criminal, but also on the wealthy, shining men who could cosplay as a “Mac” or “Biff” at Farmers Only Con.

Ann’s parents already don’t trust Jeff; despite having settled down in Bridgeport, he too is an outsider. No one in this town knows Jeff’s pappy, and no one in this town watched Jeff play high school ball for them. He may as well have come from Mars, and when the news leaks that Jeff is a double murderer, it only serves to confirm the suspicions of the Bridgeport set. Out of the Past leaves the real crime – killing, blackmail, fraud – to a bigger place, but Bridgeport will still bear the acid scars of association. Kathie proves her marksmanship and Jeff finds the proof of her theft in a little cabin far away from civilization one night. Even Tahoe, which is no real metropolis itself, is a little small for the kind of malfeasance which goes on in the film. Even if the suspicion about Jeff is a touch hysterical in Bridgeport, Out of the Past is not shy about making the movie feel like it could be happening anywhere in America; it ends with a shot of the town’s local deaf-mute (Dickie Moore) staring off onto the road going far away into the distance, with the prosaic facade of the gas station to his right. There’s something terribly seedy about your own hometown, Out of the Past warns us. The paranoia of the world war immediately preceding it and the cold war which its viewers were already knee-deep in have created a similar sense of worry in the film’s bystanders, who, if we’re honest, are pretty clueless about the particulars.

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