Friday, March 6, 2009

Out of the Past (1947)

There are spoilers.

Director: Jacques Tourneur
Screenplay: Geoffrey Homes
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas

Images from the 2004 WHV release.

17 Out of the Past

"You're no good and neither am I. That's why we deserve each other."
-Kathy Moffat

Out of the Past is quintessential film noir, containing all the important elements that are typical of the style and utilizing them to create a film that not only engrosses the viewer, but examines the nature of temptation, regret, retribution, and redemption. It tells the story of Jeff Bailey, a former detective who wishes to escape the mistakes of his past and live a quiet, normal life. However, he is soon drawn back into the folds of murder, lies, deceit, high stakes, and one hell of a vicious femme fatale.

The opening scenes with Jeff Bailey and Ann Miller fishing at the lake are decisively placid and in complete isolation from the world. Jeff is a man with a hidden past, and it is here that he finds a sanctuary from it. Ann is idyllic and romanticizes about the world as one big, beautiful place. She is drawn to this mysterious man who seems to have been everywhere, whereas he would like nothing more than to forget where he's been and think only of being with her. When I see Out of the Past, I am always struck by the contrast in the film. It's hard to believe the darkness and coercion later in the film begins so peacefully. It is through this contrast of ideal simplistic living and the convoluted world of film noir that Out of the Past attempts to explore the depths of the human soul and how far it can be corrupted before being beyond salvation.

1 Out of the Past

The title for Out of the Past is perfectly suited for its subject matter. Jeff is a man who channels his regrets inward. Robert Mitchum's deadpan demeanor is particularly well suited for the noir hero, who expresses his ambivalence through lack of overt emotion. Jeff attempts to stamp out his past failures, only the more he hides, the more apparent it becomes that facing these demons is inevitable. The fatalistic manner in which this encounter is approached reminds us of film noir's focus on death. Death is the common denominator and belaying the inevitable is as impossible as perpetual happiness. The bliss of sitting by that pond is so short lived that it is all but forgotten about when we are plunged into the convolutions of Jeff's past.

2 Out of the Past

I have stated that plot isn't something that interests me a great deal. Film noirs often have such convoluted plots that even after viewing them 4-5 times, I'm still not clear what's going on. Fleshing out all these details isn't important, however, I wouldn't dismiss plot as lacking in meaning. What I do glean from the story of Out of the Past, in particular, is that amidst the chaos, it is Jeff that attempts to gain some sort of redemption for his actions. He is plagued by regret and it is this that drives him to seek out justice outside the law, which is distant and powerless in the film.

I am particularly aware of the idea of fate in Out of the Past. It's as if Jeff is acting on a will that is his own, but paradoxically one that he cannot change or shy away from. As Joe Stephanos tells him to go to Whit Sterling's house on Lake Tahoe:

"You won't miss it... you can't."

As Jeff recounts his past to Ann, the film already becomes enveloped in the darkness of film noir's world.

3 Out of the Past

Perhaps I have watched too many pessimistic films, but Ann Miller seems to have an unusual amount of trust borderlining naivete to the point of ignorance. It's odd, and I am always surprised by how calm and understanding she is hearing of Jeff's flaws and his affair with Kathy Moffat. Give credit to Virginia Huston for imbuing Ann with a gaze that expresses a willingness to accept a man regardless of what he's done. She even earnestly encourages him to decide whether he still loves Kathy, a woman she has heard nothing but rotten things about. Somehow, I doubt Ann would have been so understanding if she had grown up in the city. Out of the Past attributes this trustfulness with small town virtues and contrasts it with Jeff's world weary disillusionment.

To counterpoint Ann, Kathy Moffat is the archetypal femme fatale. I've rarely had such a polarizing view of a character and it becomes difficult to decide just how much I should like, or be repulsed by, Kathy. There are moments that seem genuinely romantic and sincere and I can't help but like her. The music helps convey her subjectively through Jeff's eyes, as it succumbs to her beauty with romantic melodies.

4 Out of the Past

One thing Out of the Past does particularly well is to question the nature of temptation. What is it that drives us to go against all rationality and embrace what we know is no good? Why is it that Jeff feels the desire to whisk Kathy away from Whit, when he is perfectly aware of Whit's reach? There aren't any definitive answers, other than to say that such things are inherent to the human psyche, and it is these flaws that define us.

As an allegory for these temptations, Out of the Past frequently presents the motif of gambling. Whether it be the race tracks, Whit playing poker, or Jeff and Kathy at the roulette table, games of chance come to define the aspirations of these characters: the desire to risk everything for a slim chance at happiness.

5 Out of the Past

The roulette table, I think, is a particularly strong image. Not only does it convey the ridiculous odds stacked against Jeff, but it also works to define Kathy. She is a woman forever associated with the revolver, both for "jumping from gutter to gutter," as well as for killing the most people in the film. Not only does she kill Jack Fisher, Whit Sterling (who she had shot on a previous occasion), and Jeff Bailey, but in a way, she is responsible for Joe Stephanos' death as well.

Kathy Moffat comes to define the femme fatale so completely, that even the most romantic scenes are undercut by an impending sense that nothing real or lasting can ever happen between them. He knows there's little future to be had, but he's so swept up in the moment that it becomes impossible for him to resist temptation. There is something incredibly alluring about a woman from whom no good can come. The idea of the femme fatale is not new, either. In The Odyssey, the Sirens were bird-like women who would lure men to their deaths, much as a mirage can lead one to chase an illusion. In fact, Kathy's entrance is very much like a woman coming out of a mirage, and she eventually ensnares Jeff.

6 Out of the Past

The beach scenes serve as a turning point in Jeff's character, especially considering the roulette scene came immediately prior. It is when he kisses Kathy on the beach that there is no turning back. He's a fish caught in that net. For him, it's as if once he's begun, there is no out. This notion is also expressed in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, reminding us of the fatalistic way in which film noir colors the world.

There are really some terrific bits of dialogue throughout Out of the Past that perfectly convey the disillusionment present in film noir:

Kathy: "I'm sorry he didn't die."
Jeff: "Give him time."


Kathy: "I didn't take [the $40,000]... you have to believe me."
Jeff: "Baby, I don't care."

Kathy is so deceptive, that it is easy for the viewer to fall under her spell. It's quite clear, however, that she relishes nothing more than to catalyze the primal urges in the males around her. Just as Pandora released chaos unto the world, so does the femme fatale, only in this case, her motives are not out of curiosity or ignorance, but out of a desire to be the object of men's desires. I think Jane Greer effectively captured what makes the femme fatale malicious and there is a wonderful smirk on her face and glint in her eye as Jeff and Jack Fisher fight before her:

8 Out of the Past

Maybe it's just me, but I seem to notice that film noir often references "the movies." In Out of the Past, there is a theater across from El Mar Azul, where Jeff first meets Kathy. Others such as Nicolas Ray's In a Lonely Place and Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. directly situate themselves amongst the Hollywood atmosphere. Perhaps it has to do with the very fleeting nature of a movie. As in The Purple Rose of Cairo, a movie used as a means of escape from reality can work wonders as a temporary reprieve. Just as escape through film provides momentary happiness, the bliss of Jeff's meetings with Kathy (and Ann, for that matter) have no permanence.

11 Out of Past

In keeping with the self reflexive spirit, I don't think it's much of a stretch to compare the femme fatale to the screen actor either. Consider how easily Kathy is capable of inspiring pity, or how perfectly she can imitate Mita Carson's voice. The femme fatale embodies many things, but it's impossible to pin her down to a single entity. She is a doppelganger that can inspire pity, woo the hearts of men, or suddenly turn on them if it's to her advantage. And after spinning these men around, she can repeat it again and again. 

7 Out of the Past

It'd probably be worthwhile to discuss Whit Sterling, who is a character I still haven't quite figured out yet. I almost want to say he and Jeff form the same dichotomy I discussed earlier between Sam Spade and Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon. Whit does seem more extroverted than Jeff, and while he seems to express his thoughts more openly, it's almost as if he's divorced himself from any real emotions. It's like he's operating completely on his wealth:

Whit: Ten years ago, I hid my feelings away somewhere and I haven't been able to find them."
Jeff: "Where'd you look?"
Whit: "In my pocketbook."

He's a strange fellow, to say the least, however I suspect his desire for control stems from compensation for impotence. After all, he did get shot by Kathy (and later murdered by her). He seems to gain a smug sense of superiority by having Kathy living under his thumb after she'd run off with Jeff. Of course, such feelings of superiority don't really give him any authority, merely the illusion thereof. 

14 Out of the Past

One of my favorite scenes in the film is where Jeff visits the home of Leonard Eels, a lawyer who is in the position to expose Whit's tax fraud. Unbeknownst to Jeff, he is being framed for Leonard's murder:

"I think I'm in a frame..."

As Leonard tells Jeff so fittingly:

"All women are wonders... because they reduce all men to the obvious."

There is something visual about the scene that I feel works quite well, and it's only recently that I think I've figured it out:

9 Out of the Past

I think it's the line of car lights moving slowly across the bridge that completes the scene. It reminds me of another one of my favorite films, Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. That film touched briefly on the idea that the world does not end with one man's death, regardless of who that man is. That is, a man is killed and the crickets will still chirp, oblivious to the loss of life. Likewise, it is strangely disquieting to see a line of cars perpetually moving in the distance, and that it will keep moving no matter how horribly this man is to be killed.

This part of the film is where I feel knowing the plot to some degree can give a greater appreciation to understanding Jeff's motives. Still, his motives are never completely clear and there is always some ambivalence. I wonder just what he's trying to do. Is he trying to save Eels to save his life? Or perhaps he's more interested in not getting framed. Personally, I feel he is searching for some sort of salvation by his own personal form of justice. 

For me, I think his guilt is best expressed upon his failure to prevent Leonard's death here:

10 Out of the Past

It's interesting to think about what Jeff believes is retribution/redemption for his sins. My belief is that he feels the only way he can gain any real forgiveness is by bringing Kathy to justice. And yet, the very fatalistic nature of this world prevents him from gaining anything other than an eye for an eye. That is, he will never gain an "upper hand" over his enemies. The best he can do is to break even. 

I do not believe that Jeff feels there is any other way for salvation. He does not accept the brand of forgiveness that Ann gives him. 

15 Out of the Past

16 Out of the Past

Ann Miller is as much a fabrication as Kathy Moffat. They can be seen as an idealization of a woman, both of which form two sides of the same coin. Whereas Kathy embodies the summation of all male desire and temptation, Ann represents a benevolent and understanding woman that above all else, is willing to accept a man's flaws, no matter how deep. In a way, they form the idea of the goddess-whore complex that Martin Scorsese frequently touches on in works such as Raging Bull.

I suppose it could be argued that ignorance is bliss. Ann definitely seems as though she lives in a bubble of idealism and undying hope for humanity. In some ways, I wonder whether she is too far removed from harsh reality. She's the one who says:

Ann: "She [Kathy] can't be all bad..."
Jeff: "She comes the closest."

This faith in humanity seems to have a naivete that is all but absent from the disillusioned noir hero. Ann lives on an island amidst a sea of all that is base and carnal.

12 Out of the Past

She is not, however, entirely selfless or pious. During the final scene, she asks:

"Was he going away with her? I have to know."

To which the deaf and mute kid replies with a nod. I feel like Jeff would've wanted it that way. It's as if it was his one last act to reach some sort of salvation. He realized that if she thought he had died for her, the rest of her life may  have been wasted in mourning. While this ending stings (and you can see her heart break, just a little), he has essentially saved Ann's life by severing his ties with her.

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I almost want to think of Ann and the deaf and mute kid as an allegory for the audience. Ann presents a forgiving nature that would be uncommon in reality. I feel as if a movie audience is more forgiving to a morally questionable celluloid persona as opposed to a real criminal. I wonder if the Hays production code in a way, helped to elicit morally fascinating characters through its restrictions. By creating rules like Criminals Must Get Their Comeuppances, interesting stories could be created by looking from the noir hero and femme fatale's perspectives.

18 Out of the Past

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