Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Target #195: Out of the Past (1947, Jacques Tourneur)

TSPDT placing: #125
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: Daniel Mainwaring (novel and screenplay; as Geoffrey Homes), Frank Fenton (uncredited), James M. Cain (uncredited)
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Richard Webb, Steve Brodie, Virginia Huston, Paul Valentine, Dickie Moore, Ken Niles

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past (1947) has all the required ingredients for the archetypal film-noir: a bold and charismatic hero, wearied by a lifetime of violence and corruption, but reluctantly hauled back into his old world by a past he can't escape; a seductive femme fatale, a seemingly-innocent, pretty enchantress whose loyalty can never be counted upon; a sleazy and vengeful gambler, who's silently holding all the cards that will determine our hero's fate. Daniel Mainwaring's dark and tragic narrative {credited under the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes} combines a linear storyline with reminiscing flashbacks, the latter narrated in a tired, laconic tone of voice by Robert Mitchum {who, after frightening roles in The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Cape Fear (1962), finally convinces me that he can effectively play a hero}. Complete with bleak, shadowy cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca, and no shortage of double- and triple-crossings, Out of the Past – along with Billy Wilder's masterpiece Double Indemnity (1944) – remains one of the purest examples of the film noir style. If Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) thought he could escape his old enemies by purchasing an old gas station in a small American town, then he was sorely mistaken. A previous employer, Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), a seedy and sly gangster, has sent for him, and, more than likely, the meeting has something to do with Kathie (Jane Greer), the beautiful seductress with whom Bailey {back when he was called Jeff Markham} fell in love when he was supposed to be capturing her. Bailey is a smooth, shrewd operator, and recognises that plans have been drawn against him, but he responds to the situation as one whose judgement should never be doubted. The romance described early in the film, as Bailey recounts his doomed love story to local innocent girlfriend, Anne (Virginia Huston), is deceptively touching, and, despite the clear framing device around which the story is structured, I was completely fooled into sympathising with Kathie, only to be left feeling foolish and hollow as her initial betrayal is revealed.

In the United Kingdom, Tourneur's film was released under the title Build My Gallows High, also the name of the novel from which the screenplay was adapted. There are enough sharp, bitterly-ironic snippets of dialogue for me to spend all day listing them, but lines such as "Baby, I don't care," "…if I have to, I'll die last" and "you dirty double-crossing rat!" are pure noir, and serve as an excellent introduction to the style of American film-making that was most prominent from 1941-1958 {basically from John Huston's The Maltese Falcon to Orson Welles' Touch of Evil}. The story comes to a successfully downbeat conclusion, with each of the three main characters meeting a messy and tragic end in a suitably Shakespearian fashion. Though Jeff Bailey was ostensibly our story's hero, he had already committed enough sins by the film's beginning to avoid a happy ending, and his fate was effectively sealed from the moment he chose to revisit his past employer, despite obviously having little choice in the matter. Such is film noir.
Currently my #3 film of 1947:
1) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
2) Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin)
3) Out of the Past (Jacques Tourner)

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