Sunday, June 10, 2012

Stubs - Out of the Past

OUT OF THE PAST (1947) Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Richard Webb. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Produced by Warren Duff. Screenplay: Daniel Mainwaring. Based on the novel, Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes (aka Daniel Mainwaring). Music by Roy Webb. Run Time: 97. Black and White. USA. Film Noir, Drama, Romance

1947 is a watershed year for film noir. Dark Passage and our next film in our Summer of Darkness survey, Out of the Past, were both released that year. Like a good film noir, the plot is somewhat convoluted. This is the good kind of convoluted, as opposed to The Big Sleep, which is the bad kind, but that’s a review for another time. But due note the writer clearly liked alliteration as many of the male leads have names starting with J: Jeff, Joe, Jim, Jack.

My first brush with this story was actually the inferior remake, Against All Odds (1984). It doesn’t speak well of the film that it’s best remembered for a schmaltzy theme song by Phil Collins. Gene Siskel, the late film critic of the Chicago Tribune, once said that Hollywood should stop remaking good movies and concentrate on remaking the ones that didn’t work. This is the case here. The 80’s version is no improvement and in fact pales in comparison.

Out of the Past starts in small town USA, in this case Bridgeport, California, which is a real town in Northern California near Bodie. It is here that Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) has fled to and here where he thinks he’s found peace, operating a gas station, fishing and dating Ann Miller (Virginia Huston), a local girl. Jim (Richard Webb), the local police officer is also in love with Ann and is suspicious of Jeff.

And it’s to Bridgeport that Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine) comes looking for Jeff, whom he knows as Jeff Markham. Joe is a messenger for a gangster named Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). Whit wants to see Jeff, who reluctantly agrees to the meeting.

That night, Jeff asks Ann to give him a lift to Tahoe and on the way, tells her his story. In true film noir form, much of the story is told in flashback. Jeff is a private investigator with a partner, Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie); they are hired by Whit to find Kathie, who according to Whit has shot him and absconded with $40,000 of his money. Whit claims that he wants her back.

Jeff heads to Acapulco, where Kathie has run off to. There the love affair blossoms. When Jeff finally tells her who he is and why he’s in Acapulco, Kathie tells him that she shot Whit, but didn’t take $40,000 from him. Jeff and Kathie decide to run away together, but on the day they plan to leave, Whit and Joe show up at Jeff’s hotel to check on his progress. Jeff lies and tells him that Kathie had slipped through his fingers and is heading south on a steamer. After Whit leaves Jeff to chase her, Jeff and Kathie head north to San Francisco.

There they take up new lives. And as time passes, they feel relaxed. And when they feel relaxed they go to the races. There, they are spotted by Jack, Jeff’s old partner. Jeff and Kathie split up and Jeff tries to give Jack the slip. When Jeff goes to a cabin to meet up with Kathie, Jack is already there. He wants money to keep quiet. But Jack wants too much and he and Jeff get into a fist fight. Kathie puts an end to the fighting by putting a bullet into Jack. Then she flees leaving Jeff to clean up the mess. After she’s gone, Jeff finds Kathie’s bankbook and sees a deposit for $40,000.

When Jeff and Ann arrive at Whit’s mansion, Jeff sends Ann home, telling her that he’s tired of running. Whit is surprisingly happy to see Jeff, but the surprises don’t stop there. Kathie is back with Whit as well. Whit wants Jeff to do one more job to square things between them. Jeff is reluctant, but seeing Kathie changes his mind. Kathie tells him that she couldn’t help coming back to Whit or telling him about her affair with Jeff. While she tells Jeff she missed him, he wants no part of her.

Whit wants Jeff to retrieve some papers for him. A San Francisco tax attorney named Leonard Eels (Ken Niles) has been helping Whit evade paying taxes for years. Now he’s been blackmailing Whit with the documents he has. Whit wants Jeff to get the documents back and won’t take no for an answer. Jeff suspects he is being set up to take a fall.

In San Francisco, Jeff meets up with Whit’s accomplice Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming), who is also Eels’ secretary. She has set up a meeting for Jeff to meet Eels at Eels’ apartment. There, Jeff tries to warn Eels that he’s in trouble, but Eels doesn’t seem to pick up on it. After tailing Meta to Eels’ office, Jeff returns to Eels’ apartment only to find he’s been killed. When he returns to Meta’s apartment he finds Kathie there, pretending to be Meta and calling Eels’ building manager to discover the dead body. Whit has had Eels killed and framed Jeff for the murder.

Kathie tells him that Whit forced her into signing an affidavit stating that Jeff killed Jack Fisher and that the affidavit is in Eels’ office and that the tax documents have been moved from Eels’ office to a nightclub, which Jeff breaks into. After hiding the papers, Jeff is confronted by Joe and Kathie. Jeff wants to exchange the tax papers for the affidavit, but the police beat them to Eels’ office.

Jeff goes back to Bridgeport, but the police are looking for him and he goes into hiding. Kathie sends Joe to find Jeff, telling him to follow the deaf mute, The Kid (Dickie Moore) that works for Jeff at the filling station. Joe does find Jeff, but just as he’s getting ready to shoot him, The Kid catches Joe in his fishing line and pulls him to his death.

Back at Tahoe, Jeff confronts Whit, who knows nothing about Joe being sent to kill him. Jeff wants Whit to see that Joe is blamed for Eels’ murder and to turn Kathie over to the police for Jack’s. He also wants money and a plane to Mexico. Whit is angry at Kathie for her part in Joe’s death and agrees to Jeff’s terms. But he’ll need some time to get together the money. That gives Jeff enough time to set up a secret rendezvous with Ann. He denies killing anyone and to being in love with Kathie. Jeff tells Ann that a good girl like her shouldn’t get involved in his no-good life. Jim, who has followed Ann to the rendezvous arrives and confirms that Jeff doesn’t deserve Ann.

When Jeff returns to Tahoe, he finds Whit has been killed. Kathie tells Jeff that she’ll testify that Jeff killed Whit, Joe and Jack unless he runs away with her to Mexico. While she gets her bags, Jeff makes a call. The police are waiting for Kathie and Jeff, having thrown up a roadblock. Kathie shoots and kills Jeff for betraying her and is killed when she is shot by police and the car she is driving crashes.

Back in Bridgeport, after a hearing Ann asks The Kid if Jeff was going to run away with Kathie. The Kid nods his head “yes”. Jim then drives her home. The Kid gets the last shot when he looks up at the filling station sign with Jeff’s name on it, smiles and nods.

Jeff is the sort of part that Robert Mitchum was born to play; a bad man with a heart of gold. He’s not proud of his past, but it is what it is and he knows he can’t change it. He lets Ann go because she should be with someone like Jim. Mitchum has swagger and street cred, the things you look for in a tough guy. Mitchum, who had only been in films for four years by this time, was only now coming into his own as an actor. Much of that success had to do with film noir. By the time he made Out of the Past, Mitchum had already appeared in When Strangers Marry (1944), Undercurrent (1946), The Locket (1946) and Crossfire (1947). He would return to film noir again in The Big Steal (1949) and again opposite Jane Greer.

Even an arrest for marijuana possession in 1948 couldn’t slow down his career, which lasted until the mid-1990s. He would go on to appear in a Marilyn Monroe film River of No Return (1954); in Night of the Hunter (1955) opposite Shelly Winters; and Thunder Road (1958) a film he directed about moonshine runners. The list of films Mitchum appeared in is as long as your arm. Mitchum would also find success on TV, starring in the mini-series The Winds of War (1983) and its sequel War and Remembrance (1988).

Jane Greer is also a stand out in the film, playing a pitch perfect femme fatale. She has all the men in her life wrapped around her little finger and she manipulates them all to do her bidding. Even someone as sinister as Whit is not immune to her charms. A discovery of Howard Hughes’, Greer was signed to RKO Studios in the mid 40’s. Married for a year to Rudy Vallee, a very popular singer in the late 20’s to mid-30’s, who was 22 years her senior. Greer had suffered from a facial palsy as a teenager which paralyzed the left side of her face. While she recovered, the condition was speculated to have resulted in her look, which led RKO to advertise her as the woman with the Mona Lisa smile.

While she appeared in a relatively small number of films, she did appear in They Won’t Believe Me (1947) opposite Robert Young and Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) opposite James Cagney. She also appeared in the remake of Out of the Past, as the mother of the character she played in the original.

One more actor to point out from this film is Kirk Douglas. While Douglas has been known to occasionally chew the scenery, his portrayal of Whit Sterling is excellent. He may be the villain in all this, next to Kathie, but Whit is portrayed as so charming that you have to remind yourself he’s supposed to be the bad guy. He’s the perfect example of shaking your hand while stabbing you in the back. Douglas’ performance is really something to behold in what is basically a supporting role.

Douglas would go onto many bigger roles and direct and produce so many films that there is literally too many to mention here. Out of the Past was only his second film, after another film noir, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), which starred Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin and Lisabeth Scott. As Whit, Douglas has real screen presence and it’s not hard to see why he would go on to such a long and lauded career.

One more person to mention is the films’ French born director Jacques Tourneur. Best known for his work with producer Val Lewton, directing low budget horror films classics: Cat People (1942), I Walked with Zombies (1942) and The Leopard Man (1943). After success with B-Pictures, RKO promoted him to A-pictures and to projects like this one.

Great acting and great directing are combined to make Out of the Past one of the best film noirs. At the time of its release Variety hailed the film for being “strong on characterization” and Tourneur for his “close attention to mood development.” As I started out this review, Out of the Past’s storyline is a little convoluted, but it is more than worth hanging with. And if you get a little lost by the end, it was still worth the ride.

Out of the Past is available in collections at the WB Shop:

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