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OUT OF THE PAST

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Paul Valentine, Virginia Huston
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Black & white, full-screen
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: James Ursini commentary
Length: 97 minutes
Release Date: July 6, 2004

"You're no good for anyone but me.  You're no good and neither am I.  That's why we deserve each other."

Film ****

Moody private detectives, henchmen in trench coats, dark rainy nights coated with the haze of swirling cigarette smoke, curvaceous yet dangerous women - these are but a few of the ingredients of that most distinctive of Hollywood movie genres, the film noir.  Born out of the wartime disillusionment, championed by filmmakers raised upon German expressionism and brutal American crime capers from the 1930's, film noir enjoyed a brief but glorious golden age during the post-war era.  During this span, immortal classics such as Double Indemnity, Laura, and The Lady from Shanghai emerged from Hollywood.  However, the one film which most epitomized film noir aesthetics was Out of the Past (1947), Jacques Tourneur's dark classic of love and intrigue most deadly.

Out of the Past's flawed central protagonist is Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), the archetypal film noir antihero.  Tenacious yet honest, Jeff is haunted by a bitter past, one that has compelled him to abandon his former career as a private investigator to start life anew in a small, anonymous rural town.  With a fresh identity, Jeff believes he has found the security, contentment, and love which had hitherto eluded him.  He is doted upon by a good and faithful girl, Ann (Virginia Huston).  Working as an auto shop attendant, Jeff finds isolation from life's extreme stresses or worries.

However, as is so often the case, no one can ever truly escape his past, and so Jeff must ultimately confront some unpleasant and unfinished business when a mysterious stranger wanders into town one day asking around for him.  This intruder is no stranger to Jeff Bailey.  His name is Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine), and he is the right-hand man of Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), a powerful mobster once acquainted with Jeff Bailey, or rather, Jeff Markham incognito.  Whit may project an appearance of joviality, yet his friendly outwardly demeanor conceals an abusive and potentially violent mind.

Thus, once more Jeff is drawn back into a dark and murky underworld of deceit, double-crosses, and constant danger.  As Jeff leaves town for a potential fateful encounter with Whit, he reveals the true scope of his past to his sweetheart Ann.  She may be the sweet and wholesome girl who loves our hero Jeff, but she cannot match the exciting savagery of the inevitable femme fatale.  In Out of the Past, that femme fatale is Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), against whose feminine exoticism Ann has no comparable charms.  So, like a moth to the flame and unable to resist, Jeff will be drawn towards the certain downfall that must surely await him.  Jeff is a marked man, and his fate is to be consumed, caught in a web of lies and manipulation far beyond his control.

At the heart of Jeff's troubles is Kathie, Whit's girl.  In an extended flashback, we learn how in a fit of rage she shoots the mobster Whit and vanishes with forty thousand dollars of his money.  Whit survives and fingers Jeff as the gumshoe to retrieve the girl and the greenbacks.  All Jeff has to do is to dutifully follow the series of bread crumbs and clues leading to Kathie until she is cornered.  But instead of dragging Kathie back to Whit when the opportunity finally arises, Jeff instead falls under her spell, allowing her to eventually slip away, incurring Whit's wrath.

As Kathie Moffat, Jane Greer is the epitome of the femme fatale - a coolly detached beauty with killer looks.  Kathie is so seductively alluring that men would risk anything and everything for her.  In one pivotal scene as two guys slug it out for her, we can even see in Kathie's observant eyes a sexual appetite for the primal clash she has inspired.  Kathie is more than willing to seize upon the amorous vulnerabilities of the men in her life for her own materialistic or devious purposes, and in Out of the Past, the men who cross paths with Kathie frequently end up in a bad way.

In truth, Jeff and Kathie are destined for each other.  Fate conspires to unite them in spite of all obstacles.  When Jeff is directed by a clue towards Florida in his initial search for Kathie, he instinctively heads elsewhere instead and finds her.  When he sits at some anonymous dusty Mexican cafe, Kathie miraculously appears.  When he attempts to wire Witt to inform him about Kathie's whereabouts, the local Western Union office is (perhaps not coincidentally) temporarily closed.  And when he attempts to escape from his past and its skeletons, he is re-discovered and dragged back into their world despite his efforts to remain hidden.  Even the apparent love between Jeff and Ann cannot save him from a seemingly preordained fate.  His first round with Kathie left Jeff a changed man, and round two will bring Jeff once more into the presence of Kathie and Whit, for better or worse and probably with an even less favorable outcome than before.

Out of the Past was directed by Val Lewton protégé Jacques Tourneur.  Having honed his craft previously on such Lewton horror classics as Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, Tourneur was able to apply his expressionistic style to superb effect in Out of the Past.  The film's screenplay is a marvel as well; it virtually drips with the razor sharp dialogue, sincere half-truths, nostalgic voice-overs, and witty verbal foreplay so common to the film noir genre.  One might argue that the film noir elements of script, visual flair, and flawed heroes and heroines have never coalesced more successfully in any film than in Out of the Past.

The film noir genre still exists today, albeit usually in a twisted (Angel Heart) or exaggerated (Sin City) fashion designed for today's more-jaded audiences.  However, if you're interested in the genre in its classic mode, there is certainly no better film from Hollywood's past with which to start than Out of the Past.

Video **

Out of the Past is presented in its original black & white, full-screen format.  The print shows copious evidence of dust marks and emulsion scuffs, the hallmarks of wear and tear over the years.  One scene involving a flickering fireplace does not fare well in the digital mastering, with the wavering shadows appearing more like compression flaws than shadows cast by the flames themselves.  That is a pity, as a supreme film noir classic such as Out of the Past certainly merits a better restorative effort.  The transfer is otherwise fair with decent details and contrast levels, although the film does show its age.

Audio ** ˝

Out of the Past is presented with its original English monaural soundtrack.  The audio is dialogue-drive with a slightly thin and reedy tonal quality.  The dynamic range is quite limited but nothing unexpected for a film over a half-century old.  Overall, this audio track is quite serviceable but nothing spectacular.

Features **

"Build my gallows high, baby."

Learn more about the careers of Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum in the commentary track by film noir specialist James Ursini.  He also dissects the psychology behind their characters' actions and is all too happy to point out many famous quotations from the film.  Ursini's expert knowledge is put to further good use as he describes the establishing elements of the film noir genre as exemplified by Out of the Past.

Summary:

Long considered one of the best Hollywood film noirs ever, Out of the Past is an enduring classic that is as bitingly sharp and coolly focused now as it was in its original release.  If you enjoy old-school Hollywood thrillers, Out of the Past is highly recommended.

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