And so begins a new feature of mine: classic film reviews. What better a way to revisit the films that broke new ground, defined new genres of their own, and paved the way for the great works of film and TV in our own time?
Plus I get to put my fancy film schooling to use!
Now let’s kick this off with the 1947 film noir classic, Out of the Past. Won’t you join me?First off, let me give just a little bit of insight into what defines film noir (for those of you who saw that phrase in the previous sentence and had no idea what it was). Film noir (meaning “black film”) is a specific kind of crime drama that was very popular in Hollywood during the forties and fifties, and by this point today the tropes of film noir are all very (very) well known and well-traveled. The hard-boiled detective. The dame who’s in trouble but is more dangerous than she appears. The enormous array of trenchcoats, shadowy alleys, and concealed weapons. The plot with more twists than there are creases in the hero’s hardened face. This stuff all paints a pretty specific picture when you add it all together.
Out of the Past is no different- it takes full advantage of every tried-and-true film noir stereotype there is, but the caliber of filmmaking is so high here that Out of the Past feels like the quintessential noir film rather than a cliche.
The story itself is convoluted enough to fill nearly a dozen paragraphs, so I’ll offer up a condensed version: Robert Mitchum plays Jeff Bailey, a small-town gas station owner who’s pulled back into the life of crime he once knew after an old acquaintance comes calling for him. As Jeff tells the story of how he left his criminal ways behind, he also dives headfirst back into that old life to tie up any and all loose ends. Complications ensue.
What a film like this thrives on is distrust- if any character at any time could make a sudden betrayal, you go through the film analyzing and guessing and second-guessing each character’s motivation just like the hero does. Both Jane Greer’s femme fatale love interest and Kirk Douglas’s slimy gangster villain both do some very unpleasant things, but you’re never really sure who’s side their on and both characters seem trustworthy at various points throughout the film. It creates a much stronger bond with the protagonist (and also ups the intrigue level quite a bit) when both he and the audience have to try and figure out who’s playing who here.
Lighting also plays a key role in the air of distrust found throughout Out of the Past. Now, shadowy, expressive lighting is a staple of film noir (you can’t have a gritty detective story without shadows), but but there are specific elements on display here that solidify what both the character and the audience are going through.
Are we not sure whether Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) is really in love with Jeff or is just toying with him?
Have half her face bathed in light and half completely obscured by shadow.
Are the events of the film finally starting to get to Jeff, who’s unsure of who to trust and what to do?
Have the silhouettes of tree branches criss-cross all over his body in a tangled mess.
It’s visual cues like these that really take Out of the Past to a whole new level and communicate, subconsciously, what we’re supposed to be thinking even as those same thoughts come naturally through the character’s actions.
And speaking of the subconscious, the film’s opening scene does a stellar job of introducing one of the film’s major themes without us realizing it. As the film opens, Joe Stephanos, a thug working for Kirk Douglas’s character, rolls into the quaint little town where our hero’s been living a new life. The first big contrasting image in the film is a slick gangster in an equally slick car cruising through a very traditional-looking little slice of Americana- from the very beginning of Out of the Past, the push-pull between a gangster’s life and a settled down life gets imprinted onto our very brains.
This theme gets even more apparent as the scene goes on. In his search for Jeff Bailey, Stephanos asks The Kid, a deaf mute teenager working in Bailey’s gas station, for his whereabouts. The first real conflict in the film is between the two characters who are unquestionably good (The Kid, who’s only there to help Bailey and the rest of his townsfolk) and Stephanos (a brutish killer). What really separates the great films from those that are merely good is this level of detail in every aspect of moviemaking.
And the one last thing that truly shines in Out of the Past is Robert Mitchum himself. Whether he’s spending hours and days on end waiting alone for an opportunity to meet a beautiful woman, cracking wise, or snapping with violent anger, Mitchum knows how to give each moment just the right feel and is the perfect leading man for this film.
And at this point I think it’s time to bid you all a fond farewell. If you’re looking for a complex detective story with some wonderfully drawn heroes and villains, look no further than at Out of the Past.