Sunday, June 20, 2010

Film #31: Out of the Past (1947)

Director: Jacque Tourneur

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: 2 (last about 4 years ago)

20-Words-or-Fewer Teaser (no spoilers):

Quiet, clever tough guy has to reconcile shady past with a deadly beauty and a soulless, greedy gangster.

Uncut Summary (a full synopsis, spoilers included. Fair warning):

In the small town of Bridgeport, California, Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) seems a brawny, quiet gas station attendant. He goes about his business and is courting the lovely Ann Miller, though he's not very forthcoming about his past. That is, until his past shows up unexpectedly.

An acquaintance from Jeff's past rolls through town and informs Jeff that another old acquaintance, Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglass) is looking for him. Jeff reluctantly goes, but not before telling Ann about his connection to Sterling.

Several years prior, Jeff, whose real name is Jeff Markham, was a private eye in New York. It was there that he and his then-partner Jack Fisher took on a job from Sterling to track down the woman Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who had shot Sterling 4 times, stolen $40,000 and run off. Jeff takes the job and tracks Kathie to Acapulco.
In Acapulco, Jeff begins to fall under Kathie Moffat's spell...

Upon first finding her, Jeff plans to hand her over to Sterling; however, he soon falls in love with her, and she him. Jeff reveals himself to her, and she forgives him while also claiming that she never stole any money from Sterling. Just as the two are preparing to leave Acapulco together, Sterling and one of his thugs, Stephanos, show up. Jeff does some quick tale-telling to shake them, then quietly hops a boat back to the U.S. with Kathie.

They remain low-key in San Fransisco for some time before fate strikes a crushing blow: Jeff runs into his old partner, Jack. Jack then tracks Jeff and Kathie to a secluded cabin in the woods and demands blackmail - for the $40,000, he won't tell Sterling that Jeff and Kathie ran off. Jeff and Jack eventually get into a fist fight, which abruptly ends when Kathie guns down Jack and flees, leaving Jeff to discover that she also had the $40,000 all along.

At this point, we return to the "present," in which Jeff has now told Ann the whole story. The goodly Ann takes it in stride and hopes the best for Jeff in cleaning up whatever mess still remains. Jeff goes to Sterling's mansion in Reno, Nevada, where a few surprises are in store. First and greatest is that Kathie is once again living with Sterling. Even more is that she has told Sterling the entire tale of her and Jeff. Sterling claims that he holds no grudge, though he does feel that Jeff owes him one. One which he means to collect.

He tells Jeff to go to San Fransisco and assist in stealing certain tax documents from a lawyer who's blackmailing Sterling. In actuality, it all turns out to be an elaborate frame job, as the lawyer unexpectedly turns up dead on the same night that Jeff is to break into his office and steal the tax documents. In truth, Kathie has signed an affidavit naming Jeff as his former partner, Jack's, murderer. This is to serve as Jeff's motive for the killing. Jeff figures it out,plays along to a point, and starts making moves.

Neither the first nor last punch Jeff will receive or dish out.

He gets the tax documents and tries to trade them for the affidavit, but it doesn't work. Sterling sends one of his goons to find Jeff, but the goon ends up dead thanks to Jeff's handy assistant from the gas station, who "fishing reels" him into a local river. Jeff returns to Sterling's Reno estate, only to find Sterling shot dead by Kathie, who insists that he must flee with her if they are to have any chance of surviving. Jeff, resigned, agrees.

What Kathie doesn't know is that, while she has been packing her bags to go, Jeff has called the police. As they drive down the road, they see a police barricade in the distance. Kathie realizes that Jeff has turned them in. In a rage, she pulls a pistol and shoots Jeff. The car crashes and finishes the job, leaving both Kathie and Jeff dead.

Back in Bridgeport, Ann hears of the news and asks Jeff's assistant from the gas station if Jeff was truly going to run away with Ann. Rather than tell her the truth that he wasn't, the kid tells her yes. And so, believing herself betrayed by the man that she loved, Ann begins to move on and leaves with the town sheriff, a man who has loved her for his entire life.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after this most recent viewing, before any further research):

I love this stuff.

While Detour was the poor man's version of a decent noir tale, Out of the Past is solid gold on par with Double Indemnity. When I try to figure out why I like these films so much, the answer isn't obvious: the characters are not the most believable, the plot almost always gets laughably convoluted at some point, and the visuals always flirt with crossing the line of style over substance. Still, as I mentioned in my review of Double Indemnity, I think it comes down to one thing - that the fusion of the elements of noir can only exist in film. And this makes it great.

In watching the movie with my girlfriend and her roommate, we couldn't help but chuckle here and there. The constant tough-guy glares and fast-talk invite amusement, though not ridicule. We also had to actually pause the film for a few seconds while we made absolutely sure that we understood the plot clearly. This is something that I've heard is almost required for noir - a story that gets complex almost beyond comprehension. I'm OK with this since it makes the protagonist stronger; you may not know what the blazes is going on, exactly, but Jeff Markham sure as hell does, and he's damn sure going to find a way to straighten it out!

Here's one of the great scenes when Jeff knowingly walks into the frame with the lawyer, Eels (only in noir could that name exist!):

Speaking of Jeff Markham, I have to say that Robert Mitchum is an absolute treat to watch in this thing, perhaps topping Fred MacMurray's trailblazing role as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity. Mitchum is a case-study in how to be quietly tough. With his massive build and cool gaze coming from behind those droopy eyelids of his, he made me wonder where actors like that are these days. The only one who comes to mind is David Morse, though I don't know that he's tried his hand at anything like noir. Mitchum was a rarity.

As far as femme fatales go, Jane Greer was damn good, as well. I still give the overall nod to Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, but Greer was solid. She had a pixie-like beauty that belied the sick, vicious, tainted soul buried beneath that entrancing exterior. As Moffat, Greer was seductive, sympathetic, and detestable, all in turn.

Kirk Douglass. I think this was one of his first roles. If it was, I'm amazed that he didn't get typecast to play evil s.o.b.s for his entire career. He's so convincing as the cold, calculating snake with an oily smile, that it's a wonder that he soon broke out of it to play heroes.

But I think the reason that the actors can shine so much is the dialogue. While some might view the lines as being cheesy, and they no doubt will make you laugh, it's not because they're cheesy. It's quick, macho, tough guy stuff of the highest order. Here are a few of the best:

Kathie: "I don't want to die."
Jeff: "Neither do I baby, but if I have to, I'm going to die last."

Kathie: "Oh, Jeff, you ought to have killed me for what I did a moment ago!"
Jeff: "There's time."

It's the kind of stuff that can only exist in fiction, and only in film can you see someone like Robert Mitchum deliver the lines with such unmatched, resigned stoicism. It's like he's secretly amused at everyone around him, but knows that in the end, he's the one who's going to go down. Yet he's not going down without getting some jabs in along the way, either physical or verbal. And I assure you that each jab lands squarely where it's targeted.

I will gladly watch this movie again, and would recommend it to any lover of film. It's solid on all fronts and, while it certainly didn't create the noir genre, it's about as good an example of this unique form of cinema as you can possibly find.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after some further research):

Apparently, I'm far from the first to make note of the dialogue as the strong point in this movie. Film critic extraordinaire Mr. Ebert dedicates several paragraphs to it, and even picks out some of the gems himself in his review. I learned from this, as well, that the original screen writer's script was supposedly pretty dreadful, was re-written by James M. Cain, then re-re-written by a B-film writer named Frank Fenton. This last revision was, by most accounts, where the best lines come from. Goes to show that even a margianl writing talent may have one great script in them. Out of the Past was apparently Fenton's.

One of the many great shots throughout the film - Markham about to face his fate.

Another amusing thing that Ebert discovered in speaking with Mitchum and others involved in the film is the ever-present cigarettes. He, like myself and many others, take note that this movie may have more butts huffed than any in history. Surprising thing is that this wasn't really scripted at all - Mitchum said that was "just what we did." Different times, all right.

In reading up on Robert Mitchum, some light is shed on his singular place in the annals of acting. Reviewer after reviewer describes him as "world weary" and "indifferent" (this is no insult, I assure you) in his manner. Well, real-life Robert Mitchum led quite a young life. He was raised in Hell's Kitchen, New York, got into all sorts of mischief as a young man, ran away from home at 12, hopped railroad cars for a few years, and found odd jobs. He dug ditches, fought for prize money, and was generally a hard-ass by the time he was 17 years old. Then, he returned east and found gigs for a local theater, including everything from stagehand to song and script-writer to performer. So I suppose that he comes by his "indifference" quite honestly. When you've had to punch some guy in the face repeatedly for your supper, acting in films must be no great shakes.

Out of the Past had a lukewarm reception back in '47. This original TIME review is almost dismissively short. Though I like the film far better than this original critic, I understand what they mean by Mitchum's fatalistic composure not working as well during the tender love scenes.

Even if Mitchum isn't exactly the most romantic cat of all time, I still dig his work.

That's a wrap. 31 shows down, 74 to go.

Coming Soon: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949):

I'm almost totally in the dark on this one. Never seen it, but I've read that it's a British farce in which Alec Guinness plays a ton of humorous roles. Sound like something I might like, but I won't know for a few days.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.