(Directed by Jacques Tourneur) (1947) (Script by Daniel Mainwaring (“Geoffrey Homes”) from his 1946 novel Build My Gallows High, with uncredited revisions by Frank Fenton and James M. Cain.)
Before we review this complicated, compelling film, first allow us to modestly refer you to our discussion: what is Film Noir?
Furthermore, in the spirit of commercial DVDs, can we clear away some preliminaries? Don’t you hate it when, having purchased a film with your hard-earned, you then have to suffer some minutes of being lectured against pirating and illegal downloads? Or trying to disable the o-so-welcome options of surtitles (in English, for a film in English) or over-dubbed commentary by some twit writing his thesis at Berkeley on “Hollywood – the early years”? Or, worst of all, previews (why we never get to the cinema until 10 minutes after showtime).
So, now that is Out of the Way, let’s discuss Out of the Past. This is perhaps the ne plus ultra of classic film noir, with a fatalistic, pretzel plot, a sensational script that combines Shakespearean gravitas with Swiftian humour, great performances, and all the trappings and trimmings of the style.
We’ll attempt to sum up the plot, referring to some of the crackling dialogue, even if some of it seems to be in code, and much of the retorts, in real life, you’d only think of the next day:
Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum, in a brilliant turn, insouciant, nonchalant, cheeky and world-weary) runs an auto-shop in Hicksville (actually, Bridgeport), but tends to goof-off fishing with his sweetheart, Ann (Virginia Huston) When asked which place he’d most want to be, he replies right here, with her (“I bet you say that to all the places.” Meanwhile, Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine, amiable, self-deprecating and lethal) drives into town (in an opening sequence that might have inspired scenes from Touch of Evil) and starts asking about Bailey (“Small World.” “Big Sign.”) Joe is the hired thug for shady gambler Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas, in top form, all verve and cunning). Jeff is less than thrilled to see Joe again, especially when Joe issues an invitation (more a summons) to Jeff to come out to Lake Tahoe to see Whit.
The screen having gone a little hazy as the various characters have already smoked a dozen cigarettes, it is time for a flashback. Jeff collects Ann and as they do their trip to Tahoe, he explains (warning of his story that “Some of it’s going to hurt ya!“), that events out of the past have caught up with him, that he used to be Jeff Markham, a detective in NYC, hired by Whit to track down his girlfriend, Kathie Moffat (pouty Jane Greer, perhaps the best on-screen femme fatale, described by Jeff as “awfully cold around the heart“). Whit and Kathie had a serious lover’s spat: she shot him and left with $40,000. Whit isn’t fussed about the money, he says: “I just want her back. When you see her, you’ll understand better.” “What happens to her?” “I won’t touch her.” Jeff is dubious, and his partner annoyed at being sidelined by Whit, but $5,000 upfront and a contract to pay $5,000 plus expenses on delivery seals the deal.
Finding a friend who tells Jeff she and Kathy recently got vaccinated, and that Kathie was going to Florida for the warm weather, Jeff figures that you get vaccinated not for Florida, but Mexico, so he heads down there and sniffs around, and sits around, drinking beer. “And then I saw her, coming out of the sun, and I knew why Whit didn’t care about that 40 grand.” Kathie denies taking any money but has only one regret about shooting Whit: “I’m sorry he didn’t die.” “Give him time.” There ensues a slow stalking, in cantinas, night clubs, on the beach amongst the fishing nets: “I never saw her in the daytime. We seemed to live by night. What was left of the day went away like a pack of cigarettes you smoke.” Jeff is straying from his brief: “And every night I went to meet her. How did I know she’d ever show up? I didn’t. What stopped her from taking a boat to Chile or Guatemala? Nothing. How big a chump can you get to be? I was finding out. And then she’d come along like school was out, and everything else was just a stone which sailed at the sea.” Jeff and Kathie decide to run away and be together, lying to Whit and Joe even when they turn up in Mexico (“Let’s go down to the bar, you can cool off while we try to impress each other“) and sneaking back to the States, setting up in San Francisco. But they are rumbled by Jeff’s former partner, Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie), whom Kathie shoots dead, leaving Jeff behind with the body and a bank book showing a deposit of $40,000. Jeff turns in his gumshoes and retires hurt (“Don’t you like to gamble?” “Not against a wheel.”)
Out of the past into the present: Ann drops Jeff off at Whit’s big house on the lake. Whit is all bonhomie, and Jeff asks him if he has hard feelings: “Hard feelings? About ten years ago I hid them somewhere and haven’t been able to find them.” Whit wants Jeff to recover some compromising tax records in the possession of a crooked accountant, Leonard Eels, who is blackmailing him (“This might sound ridiculous, but you could pay ’em.” “Pay the government? That would be against my nature.” And then Kathie appears at the breakfast table on the terrace. Whit is a smiling villain, whose every pleasant remark veils menace and threat: “You remember Kathie, don’t you?” “You’re working for me now.” Jeff takes Kathie’s re-appearance somewhat badly: “You’re like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another…Just get out will ya? I have to sleep in this room.”
In a complicated pantomime, Eels’ secretary, Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming, in an effective small role – “Do you always leave fingerprints on a girl’s shoulder?“) sets up both Eels and Jeff: Eels gets a lead sandwich, but Jeff manages to swipe the papers, contaminate the crime scene, and move the body, throwing all (including the viewer) into some confusion. Kathie is up to no good as usual but slips up, as Jeff discovers she has tried to frame him both for the murder of Eels and the shooting of his former partner, Fisher.) “You ought to have killed me for what I did a moment ago.” “There’s time.” “I don’t want to die.” “Neither do I, baby, but if I have to, I’m going to die last.”
Escaping the clutches of various goons and police, Jeff returns home but Kathie sends Joe to kill him. However, Joe, having followed Jeff’s employee, the deaf mute lad (Dickie Moore) to the river, he is snagged by a neat cast from the kid’s fishing line just as he is about to fire and falls to his death. Jeff goes to confront Whit and Kathie. When Kathie plays the innocent, (“You think I sent Joe?“) he replies, dripping with sarcasm, “Oh, you’re wonderful, Kathie.” (It recalls the deep affection and trust between Sam Spade and Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon.) Jeff demands the affidavit Kathie has given Whit, alleging Jeff killed Fisher: “See I only buried him, but you don’t get the gas for just burying him.” The difficult conference continues:
Jeff: You take the frame off me. You pin the Eels murder on Joe.
Whit: Sure, sure.
Jeff: I get a modest settlement, say, oh, say $50,000. That should be enough for me to spend my waning years in Mazatlan. Not Acapulco, because I’d keep thinking about you, Kathie, up there in the women’s prison in Tehatchapie. It won’t be too bad. Hills all around you. Plenty of sun. (To Kathie) You make me nervous. You’d be happier if you let the cops have her, Whit. That’s what you’ll have to do. Somebody’s got to take the rap for Fisher’s murder. It’s not going to be me.
Whit: Wait a minute. I’m not framing any woman.
Jeff: When did you reform? I wouldn’t try it, Whit, you’re out of shape. Besides, it’s not a frame. She shot him.
Kathie: He was going to kill you.
Jeff: You see, Whit, self-defense. A cinch to beat. She might not even have to do time.
Kathie: I’ll say you killed him. They’ll believe me.
Jeff (to Whit): Do you believe her? Go on Kathie, tell him about Joe.
Jeff quits the room, Whit’s charm drops like a stone in a pond: he slaps Kathie, hard and tells her, teeth clenched: “You dirty little phony. Go on, lie some more. Tell me how you handled things for me in San Francisco. Tell me it was all Joe’s idea. Go on, Kathie, show me how you’re gonna squirm your way out this time. What a sucker you must think I am. I took you back when you came whimpering and crawling. I should have kicked your teeth in. No, I’m not going to. Not now, Kathie. We’re gonna let the law push you around…You’re gonna take the rap and play along. You’re gonna make every exact move I tell ya. If you don’t, I’ll kill ya. And I’ll promise you one thing. It won’t be quick. I’ll break you first. You won’t be able to answer a telephone or open a door without thinking: ‘This is it.’ And when it comes, it still won’t be quick. And it won’t be pretty. You can take your choice.”
Jeff visits Ann, and confronts local cop Jim (Richard Webb) who claims Ann is his girl: “I’ve loved her ever since I fixed her roller skates.” Jeff begs to differ and returns to Whit’s house to clinch the deal. But Whit’s been dealt his last hand: “You can’t make deals with a dead man, Jeff…You’re no good, and neither am I. That’s why we deserve each other.” The new deal is run away with Kathie to Mexico or take the rap for Fisher, Joe and Whit. The bloody denouement seems to have been inevitable all along, as well as a happy ending for the roller skaters, heading off to their future in the wake of a domestic white lie.
Out of the Past is so dense and rich that it requires several viewings – but several viewings pays off. It is undeniably one of the great film noirs.