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Monday, May 5, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Out of the Past (1947)

Director: Jacques Tourneur
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas

Bogart is probably the actor most closely associated with Noir as a genre, but no actor has ever seemed to belong here as much as Robert Mitchum. He just seems so weary, as if he’s seen it all and nothing surprises him anymore. Here he plays Jeff Markham, aka Jeff Bailey, a private detective who, in a twist on convention, not only isn’t successful in completing the case he was hired to solve, but ends up as hunted rather than hunter.

The film begins with Jeff going by the name Bailey, living in a small town and working at a gas station. Someone from his past as Jeff Markham sees him and he’s summoned to a meeting with Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), a man he once double crossed. On the way to the meeting, he reveals his past to his girlfriend and the film flashes back. Sterling hired Jeff Markham to find his former mistress, Kathie (Jane Greer) and the money she took from him. Jeff goes to Acapulco and finds her but falls in love in the process. He agrees to run off with her, she double crosses him, and he attempts to disappear into the life of Jeff Bailey. Jeff senses that the present day meeting with Whit is a trap and arrives to find… Kathie. She seems set on getting her hooks into him again. He seems set on letting her… or is he? The film plays out like a chess game with the three major players – Jeff, Kathie and Whit – making their moves in anticipation of the other two. We’re never really sure who, exactly, is coming out on top until the very end.

The relationship between Jeff and Kathie is fascinating. From the first, Jeff senses that he’s on the verge of falling for her, that it would be best to keep some distance from her, but he goes ahead anyway. Is it that her pull is just that strong, or is he looking to use her as an excuse to get out of a life that has obviously left him unfulfilled? The combination of Kathie and the money she stole from Whit certainly looks appealing from Jeff’s point of view. Who Kathie is as a person doesn’t much matter to him. In one of their best exchanges Kathie attempts to convince Jeff that she’s innocent. “Baby, I don’t care,” is his reply, said in a way that only Mitchum could say it. They run off together, but Whit’s henchmen catch up to them. Kathie shoots one, perhaps unnecessarily. The look that Mitchum gives her when she does this manages to sum up everything that you need to know about this movie. He knows that she isn’t the innocent she’s playing at, he knows that she’s going to do whatever it takes to take care of herself, and he doesn’t care anymore because he’s so far gone. It is an absolutely perfect look, one that lasts a handful of seconds but leaves a lasting impression. When they meet again years later, they do a dance of contempt and attraction, neither wanting to end up the loser for the sake of the other, but each attracted to the other as strongly as before. Mitchum and Greer have great chemistry and completely sell their love-hate-love relationship.

Kirk Douglas, in only his second film role, is effective as the villain, quickly establishing himself as the menacing presence which will guide the story to its inevitable conclusion. He brings an almost eerie calm to this character, a man who can wait patiently for revenge because he values the fact of it more than the speed of it. His lines are all laced with a bitter, warning edge. In any given film, a Robert Mitchum character isn’t likely to be intimidated, but Douglas comes about as close as anyone possibly could.

Out of the Past has a lot going for it just based on the cast alone, but it also boasts an excellent screenplay. Most of the best lines go to Mitchum (as well they should – he just has a way with these kinds of lines), but there’s more than enough to go around in this endlessly quotable film. “I don’t want to die,” Kathie tells Jeff. “Neither do I,” he replies, “but if I have to, I’ll die last.” With a character like Jeff – played by an actor like Mitchum - you’d expect nothing less.

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