Sunday, February 13, 2011

Half in Shadow

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


Anonymous said...

Beautiful write-up, as always. I was actually just reading the chapter on "Out of the Past" the other day in James Harvey's "Movie Love in the Fifties," and it reminded me that I really, really need to see it again!


The Siren said...

Oh, this is gorgeous. Just gorgeous. I mean, Mitchum doesn't hurt, but what a beautiful set of screen shots to illustrate your point. Thanks so much, this is a great start for our blogathon!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Thanks! I aim to please. I'm jazzed for the blogathon. I just finished watching No Man of Her Own, which has two of my favorite things in the entire world in it: Cornell Woolrich and Barbara Stanwyck. You haven't heard the last of me.

Anonymous said...

Hello ,
Our favorite gal, Anne Francis, of Altair 4 passed away in jan 2011.
See he website for a note from her family.
She was a mail friend of mine and a wonderful person too be in touch with.
Take care Miss.
Vince aka Robby The Robot.

P.S. You like Cornell Woolrich.. wow, I am impressed. Phantom Lady was just on TCM.
I am lucke nough to have the 1939 first print. Besides a few other Hard covers novels and especially his short stories.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Vince.

I saw Anne Francis's obit when she passed away. I probably should have written something about it given the source of my blog's imagery. I had the chance to meet her (mumble, mumble) years ago and I found her to be completely wonderful.

The Phantom Lady is a delightful movie. I love how Siodmak captures the city at night in that movie. And the drums! I'm told that I look a bit like Ella Raines, so she's dear to my heart.

surly hack said...

I saw Blood on the Moon on late night tv many, many moons ago; The long fight in the shadowy saloon (right?)impressed me. I recall it as one of the most violent scenes from the era, but I'm not sure how much brutality I actually saw, and how much I only imagined in the darkness.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Hilary. Welcome! (I have some of your comics work, by the way. Good stuff!)

Shadows were good for disguising violence. Film noir was really good at that. There's a scene in Hollow Triumph (aka The Scar) that really stands out in my mind, in which you don't actually see anything more than a cigarette in an ashtray, but I could swear that there's something really nasty going on.

surly hack said...

Thanks, doc! Silhouetting a ghastly act in shadow on a wall is a classic censor-passing device used in comics as well as film. But using shadow to obscure violent fights serves a further purpose in film : disguising the use of stunt doubles.

Ed Howard said...

Gorgeous stuff here. I've never seen Blood on the Moon (though now I really want to) but of course I love Out of the Past, and those glossy, shadowy images you post here are a big reason why. I also love the film's city/country divide, which as you point out might be simplistic and archetypal but has real power as presented here. It's elemental: Jeff wants so badly to be good, to settle down, to have a "normal" suburban life, but he's trapped by his past, by the dark allure of that femme fatale, by the shadows and the night.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Ed. Thanks for stopping by. You're right, of course. This is a version of "how are you going to keep them down on the farm after they've seen Paris." It's effective, too. I mean, who wouldn't want to live in Whit's house? Or play house with Jane Greer? I mean, she's not bad. Just a little cold around the heart.

Blood on the Moon is really good. It's well worth seeking out, and not just for Robert Mitchum (though he doesn't hurt). It might contain my favorite Walter Brennan performance.

Joe Thompson said...

Now I have to see Blood on the Moon. Thanks for the wonderful comparison with Out of the Past, and the great description of Jane Greer's character: "With Kathie Moffat, though, you believe it from the instant you see her. Kill, sell your soul, anything she asks." You're right. Many femmes fatale in movies aren't believable. No man would throw away a happy marriage and family for them. For Kathie, he'd give it serious thought.

Scarecrow88 said...

I just watched this last night! I had no idea you were gonna start with this movie. I decided to start with this as my first film noir(I kind of had a hard time considering This Gun for Hire as a film noir film, it's a crime drama, for sure, but I'm still a bit on the fence because it occurs mostly during the day) and it was a superb revisit. Everything you mentioned is spot-on, including how shadow is used as a tool to communicate to the viewer the state of our hero and other characters from scene to scene. I recieved Otto Preminger's Fallen Angel with Dana Andrews today from netflix. I've never seen it, and I read that it wasn't as good as others of it's ilk. The plot kind of reminded me of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

cinemarchaeologist said...

Expressionism in the U.S. begins (as it did in Germany) in horror films. Though it eventually came to be strongly associated with film noir, it spread everywhere. BLOOD ON THE MOON isn't a noir picture. Neither is THE BLACK BOOK, nor CLASH BY NIGHT, nor NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, to name but three others commonly--and wrongly--associated with the genre. The horrors from the Val Lewton shop at RKO are all expressionistic, but, with the exception of THE SEVENTH VICTIM, aren't noir.

This is a pointlessly long-winded way of saying not all expressionist flicks are noir (and not all noir flicks are expressionistic). Those who would define noir "on the basis of visual idiom alone" just don't know much about noir.

I don't do top lists, but OUT OF THE PAST is definitely one of my all-time favorite movies, not just one of my favorite noir pictures.

Though not even close to the Tourneur flick, BLOOD ON THE MOON is a really good movie, too. Robert Wise sandwiched it between BORN TO KILL and THE SET-UP, and I suppose those couldn't help but rub off a little on MOON (THE SET-UP is also one of the great films noir).

Mykal said...

Dr. Morbius: I have always found it interesting that Robert Mitchum stars in (for my money) the two most beautiful films ever made: Out Of The Past and The Night Of The Hunter. And two of the best written. When Jeff tells Kathie something like “Could you leave? I have to sleep in here,” it still hits like a blow to the kidneys. You know, I’ve saved that line for years, but never had the heart to use it even in the worst of times. It’s the Hiroshima of put downs, too brutal to use.

Go Mitch!

You've made me believe a third film might be a contender for the beauty title, so I raced over to Amazon to pick up Blood. No Soap. Region 2. Shit.

Great Post! fine writing. -- Mykal