OUT OF THE PAST, 1947
Jeff Bailey, small-town gas pumper, has his mysterious past catch up with him one day when he's ordered to meet with gambler Whit Sterling. En route to the meeting, he tells girlfriend Ann his story. Flashback: Once, Jeff was a private eye hired by Sterling to find his mistress Kathie who shot Whit and absconded with $40,000. He traces her to Acapulco...where the delectable Kathie makes Jeff forget all about Sterling... Back in the present, Whit's new job for Jeff is clearly a trap, but Jeff's precautions only leave him more tightly enmeshed...
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When asked to recommend a film from the noir genre, I always opt for Out of the Past (1947). It may not be a household name like other great noirs such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Double Indemnity (1944), but this Jacques Tourneur film utilizes all the elements of noir to make a perfect hardboiled drama. Out of the Past is more than a just plot driven film; it relies heavily on mood, style, and the phenomenal acting of its remarkable cast. Ultimately, this film is about one man’s attempt to break away from his jaded past.
The protagonist of the film, Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is introduced to us immediately as a small town gas station owner in rural Bridgeport, California. At first glimpse, Bailey seems authentic: he owns a legit business, has an honest woman he loves, and even likes spending time by the lake. But when an associate from his past spots him pumping gas and rides into town, we soon find out Bailey isn’t who he appears to be. Bailey is summoned by his associate to meet with his formal employer Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) who has some business he’d like to discuss in Tahoe. It’s at this moment that our film transforms form rural California into the darkness of noir.
One of the other main characters (not literally) in Out of the Past that needs to be discussed is the mood. The film does a tremendous job integrating the use of shadows, lighting, and set decoration, specifically as it transitions from rural American to noir America. Our first glance of this comes when Bailey and Ann enter his car to travel to Tahoe. Bailey has traded in his gas station outfit for a trench coat and fedora. But this transformation doesn’t stop there. The woods and mountains are swapped for shadows and smoke filled rooms. This change happens a few times during the film as we travel back and froth from Bridgeport to San Francisco and it really gives us a sense of two totally different worlds.
All three leads do a wonderful job, but Douglas steals the show as the sinister gangster Whit Sterling. Unlike today’s films where we have to see our antagonist murder someone in graphic scenes, a menacing smile is more than enough to know Douglas means business. He’s a determined individual who will stop at nothing to retrieve Kathie Moffat and put and end to Jeff Bailey. When asked by Bailey if his feelings were hurt, Sterling replies, “My feelings? About 10 years ago I hid them somewhere and haven’t been able to find them”
Out of the Past is a must-see for any fan of the noir genre, but more importantly any fan of the classic film period. There is never a slow moment in this film and with each viewing you fall in love with another aspect. The language used by Mitchum during his voice-over narration is some of the best you’ll ever hear. Do yourself a favor, the next time it rains, think noir and watch Out of the Past.