This kicks off my participation in the Film Preservation Blogathon: For the Love of Film (Noir). This is a fundraiser, folks, so send a few bucks to this link. Proceeds benefit the Film Noir Foundation and will help fund the restoration of The Sound of Fury (1950).
So when I was gearing up to write about some of my favorite films noir this week, I was shocked to discover that I've never written about Out of the Past (1948, directed by Jacques Tourneur). I couldn't name a favorite film noir, but Out of the Past is nevertheless one of those movies that I would never, ever part with if consigned to the proverbial desert island. When I think of the archetypal film noir, chances are THIS is the film I'm thinking about. So I decided that Out of the Past would be the subject of my first post for the blogathon. Then I got sidetracked.
A couple of years ago, my partner bought us one of those DVD burning combo players, and for the first several months I had it, I spent a lot of time transferring my laserdiscs and old VHS recordings from cable, etc., to DVD. Shortly after we got the combo player, we got a new puppy, a very sweet labrador retriever named Daisy. Daisy, like most puppies, was destructive, and she ended up destroying the remote for the DVD burner, which sat for a year before I got around to replacing the remote. I finally got the new remote last week. There was also a stack of tapes next to the burner that had been waiting to be copied, and on the top of that stack of tapes was Robert Wise's Western, Blood on the Moon (1947). Blood on the Moon is sometimes classified as a Western noir, and as I was copying it to disc, I was shocked to realize that, in a LOT of ways, Blood on the Moon seems like a companion piece to Out of the Past; a dry run for Out of the Past, if you will. It certainly LOOKS like film noir, and the comparison of the two suggests the essential foolhardiness of defining what is and isn't film noir on the basis of visual idiom alone, because in spite of the similarities between the two movies, I can't decide if I think Blood on the Moon actually IS film noir, even though it play the notes. The moral quagmire is absent. The essential optimism of the Western holds sway in the end, in spite of the downright nihilistic elements that the movie brings to bear (Walter Brennan's character, for instance, is the bitterest role the actor ever played). There's no downward spiral here. Mitchum's character is too morally strong for that. There's only the visual poetry of noir.
Blood on the Moon shares two obvious things with Out of the Past: Robert Mitchum and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. Additionally, both films are directed by Val Lewton alums. In terms of their plots, there's a similarity, too. In both films, Robert Mitchum is summoned by a shady friend from his past to join him in a criminal enterprise for which he ultimately has no stomach.
Visually, they're more or less the same film. Both speak a cinematic language couched in shadows. In Blood on the Moon Musuraca makes a point of contrasting the epic landscape of the American west (pace John Ford) with darkened interiors and nocturnal action. This is one of the first scenes in the movie:
But it's not long before you have this scene, in which Robert Mitchum is a form defined by shadows:
The shadows mean something, too. In this shot, Jim Garry's (Mitchum's) friend, the evil Tate Riling (Robert Preston), has just made his pitch, a scheme designed to swindle a rancher out of his herd with the participation of a crooked Indian reservation agent. In the second shot, Garry is thinking about it, but hasn't decided to join up. In the third, he's agreed. He starts in the light. He ends in the shadow. The visual matches his character arc:
As I say, this is TOTALLY the cinematic language of film noir. And here's how it matches up with Out of the Past:
As with Blood on the Moon, we first see Mitchum's character set against the landscape of the West:
As with Blood on the Moon, Out of the Past often builds Robert Mitchum out of shadows:
As with Blood on the Moon, Out of the Past occasionally codes its characters based on how they're lit. Here is our first look at Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), in which she walks out of the Mexican sun. The background is bright. She's in shadows:
That all said, I think Out of the Past is a LOT more elaborate with the way it uses this language. Apart from the idyll at the beginning of the movie, in which Mitchum's Jeff Bailey and Virginia Huston's Ann Miller are lovers in the full light of the sun, Mitchum's relationships with women are all twilight affairs. Jeff and Ann first part company at twilight:
Jeff and Kathie become lovers on a twilight beach.
Jeff and Ann part for the last time in the woods.
This last shot bears some additional comment, given the ensnaring nature of the shadows. Jeff is trapped at this point, and the shadows are indicative of this.
Twilight gives way to night at the end, in which Jeff and Kathie are totally engulfed by darkness. The film charts a downward spiral, and when they get into the car together at the end of the movie, they're sucked into the downdraft.
Of course, the symbolism in Out of the Past isn't confined to its visual style. There's a strong hint that good and evil, the Dionysian and Apollonian, are rural and urban. Peace and tranquility, everything good in Jeff's life, is in small town America. Everything squalid and nasty is in the city, or in foreign lands. There's an element of corn in this, but it's something that's common enough. It's an interesting contrast to the fallacy of the Southern Gothic, in which city slickers head into the sticks and get out of their depth. So there are two diametrically opposed sets of cultural symbols out there.
As I said before, I haven't written about Out of the Past before. I DID write about Kathie Moffat once. This is what I had to say about her:
"Kathie Moffat in Out of the Past remains the gold standard for fatal femmes. You can have your Barbara Stanwycks and your Jeanne Moreaus, Jane Greer is a dame to kill for, and she devours Robert Mitchum AND Kirk Douglas. From the moment she appears, backlit by the Mexican sunlight, she's every promise ever made by duplicitous women. Men? They're pawns to her, and she plays them mercilessly. Here's the touchstone, though. One of my problems with Barbara Stanwyck's Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity is that I have a hard time believing that sad sack Fred MacMurray would kill for her. With Kathie Moffat, though, you believe it from the instant you see her. Kill, sell your soul, anything she asks."
That's pretty much all you need to know about the story, but Out of the Past is a movie about visual poetry as much as it is about its plot. This is one of the most beautiful films of the 1940s. For me, it's a film at the dark heart of film noir