“Nothing in the world is any good unless you can share it.”
So says Jeff to Kathie during their first encounter in Mexico. She is hiding from the notorious Whit – he is there to find her and bring her back to a dangerous, duplicitous world. Here I am to share a bit of their journey.
By no means an expert in film noir, I haven’t seen many of the films most fans of the genre would consider greats. But if asked, Out of the Past is the one I’d recommend. A definitive film in the noir genre, it’s the one that always comes to mind. This film tells a compelling story, has outstanding dialogue, has a great cast and it is nothing short of stunning.
Directed by Paris-born, Jacques Tourneur, Out of the Past was originally released in the U.K. as Build My Gallows High, the title of the novel by Geoffrey Homes after which the film was based.
The film stars Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas in a terrific thriller/adventure/melodrama (never know quite where to place these films) replete with crooked characters, double-crosses and murder. Of yes, there is some romance in there as well – a requisite.
All players are great in this film. Mitchum as Jeff Bailey who’d started a new life in a small town trying to get himself out of the past. Jane Greer plays Kathie Moffat (troubled name if I’d ever heard one) the woman from the past, the femme fatale whom Bailey goes after and falls for. Jeff Bailey is hired by tough guy, Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas in a supporting role) to bring Kathie back to him. He owns her. She owes him. A dangerous, complicated, engaging plot unfolds.
Director, Jacques Tourneu is best known for working under RKO Horror Unit head, Val Lewton. Tourneur directed mostly low-budget films in a highly stylized, artistic way that rendered many of them unforgettable. Aside from Out of the Past, his 1942 film, Cat People is another of my favorites. It’s certainly no coincidence that these two (visually) unforgettable films featured the work of cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca – a master whose moods in shadow and light become characters in these films. His shadows are menacing, framing works of art as present in each scene as is the larger-than-life Robert Mitchum. (Interesting to note Mitchum was the fourth choice to play Jeff Bailey after Humphrey Bogart, John Garfield and Dick Powell.)
And close-ups, oh my! An endless array of gorgeous half-faces in shadows – no one’s all good or all bad. Here, we are reminded of that beautifully, constantly. It’s all perspective.
Out of the Past won acceptance into the National Film Registry in 1991. Unbelievably, it won no other nominations or honors. Not even for its outstanding cinematography – but don’t get me started on that again. The film was remade in 1984 as Against All Odds starring Jeff Bridges, Rachel Ward and James Woods. Although the remake doesn’t stand up to the original in most ways that count, I have to admit I enjoy watching it now and again. That’s mostly due to Jeff Bridges but the entire cast and story stand well above most remakes, in my opinion. Still, if you want to know this story, watch the 1947 version.
In fact, if you haven’t seen a film noir or want to know the dark appeal of the genre, don’t go out of the past, but immerse yourself in it and in Jacques Tourneur’s classic. Out of the Past is “awfully cold around the heart” but it’s also foolproof and beautiful.
Build my gallows high, baby.