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Past Perfect

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A woman and a man sit on a moonlit beach. She's a mobster's girlfriend, who shot him and absconded with $40,000. He's the private eye sent to bring her back. He's found her here, in Acapulco, and fallen for her. They kiss, and she pleads with him not to take her back: "I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know anything except how much I hated him. But I didn't take anything." She moves closer: "Don't you believe me?" "Baby," he responds, plummeting into another kiss, "I don't care."


Is there a moment in film noir that better captures a hero's fall from grace? The woman who is no good, the man who can't help himself, the existential choice that seals both their fates--it's all there on the luminous sand. The film is Jacques Tourneur's masterpiece Out of the Past, made in 1947 and at last released on DVD by Warner along with four other classic noirs. (See the Home Movies List, below.) The film that made Robert Mitchum a star, Out of the Past is often described as the quintessential noir. It's true that the film contains a near-encyclopedic array of the genre's devices--the private eye, the femme fatale, the labyrinthine plot, the tough, smart dialogue, the story told in flashback and voiceover, the cinematic interplay of shadow and light. But Out of the Past is more than just an exemplary noir. It exceeds its genre even as it typifies it.


After the private eye (Mitchum) finds the girlfriend (Jane Greer at her most poutily seductive) in Mexico, the two of them run away to San Francisco together. But the mobster who originally hired Mitchum (an impossibly sleek and handsome young Kirk Douglas) sends Mitchum's old partner to find them. When he does, Greer shocks Mitchum by killing the partner and vanishing into the night. But all of this--the mobster, the girl, the killing--is told in flashback: This is the past out of which Mitchum's destiny will come calling for him.


The movie actually opens a few years later in Bridgeport, California, a small town tucked away in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where Mitchum now owns a gas station. He is once again in love, this time with a good woman (Virginia Huston) who knows nothing of his past--until Douglas tracks him down and sends for him. On the long drive to Douglas's Lake Tahoe mansion, Mitchum relates his story to Huston and, by extension, to us. From here the film develops in the present tense, with Douglas offering Mitchum an assignment he can't refuse. The task sounds simple enough: He's to go to San Francisco and steal some tax documents. But there, in the dark city night, Mitchum will find murder, frame-ups, and in the middle of it all, Greer.


If this latter portion of the film follows the noir formula to the letter--the night, the city, the convoluted plot full of double and triple crosses--it only underscores the ways in which Out of the Past has already left the formula behind. Rather than allow the urban nightscape to suggest the ubiquitous decay and inescapable corruption of the modern world, Tourneur has by now shown us other places, alternative realities. The most obvious is Bridgeport, where the film opens and closes, a bucolic paradise of sunshine, mountain vistas, and tender, uncomplicated love. (Imagine Jim Thompson in Walden Pond.) But there is also Acapulco, where the early encounters between Mitchum and Greer capture nighttime at its most seductive: the tropical rain shower that catches the new lovers outside; the bungalow set among jungle foliage and lit by "one little light"; the glowing beach, where the two ensnare one another against a backdrop of fishing nets. Both visions--the mountains at daytime, the ocean at night--may turn out to be nothing more than dreams for Mitchum, but their very existence as dreams lends Out of the Past a wistful air, a sense of loss absent from most hard-boiled noir.


Mitchum's voiceover is used to similar effect. It begins as a common enough noir device: By having the protagonist recount events that have already taken place, Tourneur conveys a sense of inevitability, of fate waiting to be fulfilled. But the narration ends midway through the film, as soon as Mitchum finishes recounting his past to Huston. The result is that the film is suddenly open to new possibilities--will Mitchum die? will he find happiness with Huston, or passion with Greer?--even as the cold feeling of predestination lingers. This, too, heightens the emotional stakes of the film and enables it to transcend the ironic detachment that generally characterizes the genre.


But it is not Tourneur's intelligence or his humanism that makes Out of the Past a classic, any more than it is the gorgeous black and white cinematography or the terrific work by Greer and Douglas. Out of the Past is Mitchum's movie, and he delivers one of the great performances in noir history. In his indispensable work The New Biographical Encyclopedia of Film, David Thomson describes "the intriguing ambiguity in Mitchum's work, the idea of a man thinking and feeling beneath a calm exterior that there is no need to put 'acting' on the surface." This detached quality, Mitchum's serene comfort within his own skin, is evident in nearly every frame of Out of the Past, so much so that even the script takes note. "You just sit and stay inside yourself," Douglas notes upon first meeting Mitchum. "You wait for me to talk. I like that." This ability to observe quietly is perhaps the essential characteristic of the noir protagonist (exceptions such as Fred MacMurray's nervous patter in Double Indemnity notwithstanding), and another reason for the prevalence of voiceover in the genre: Just because the hero frequently declines to speak doesn't mean that he is without clever things to say.


Mitchum has no shortage of good lines in the film, but it is the languid nonchalance with which he delivers them that is most memorable. Whereas more energetic actors thrust into laconic noir roles (Bogart in The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, or Dick Powell in Murder My Sweet) often seem to consciously restrain themselves from talking too much, Mitchum seems barely able to rouse himself to speech at all. Later in his career, this gift for quiet would slip into an almost self-parodying torpor. But in Out of the Past, Mitchum is an actor in the fullness of his powers, an unforgettable and supremely American combination of subtlety and commonness, an icon of cool.


The Home Movies List:Warner's Fistful of Noir



Out of the Past. In case I wasn't clear: See it now, thank me later.Murder, My Sweet (1944). Adapted from the novel Farewell, My Lovely, this was the first Chandler tale to hit the big screen. (The Big Sleep and The Lady in the Lake would follow soon after.) Though director Edward Dmytryk captures the gloom of Chandler's Los Angeles better than his successors, his Marlowe, played by ex-crooner Dick Powell, never quite grabs the imagination.Gun Crazy (1949). A Bonnie and Clyde precursor that offers a surprisingly modern take on the link between sex and violence (or, as Pauline Kael put it, "has a fascinating crumminess"). The shooting-contest scene is among the best depictions of foreplay ever filmed. And is it just me, or does John Dall (of Rope fame) have the finest grin in all of cinema?The Set Up (1949). A classic boxing movie about an over-the-hill fighter (Robert Ryan) who doesn't know he's supposed to take a dive. The story, told in real-time, is more than a little earnest but is elevated by Ryan's bruised dignity and the well-shot (if questionably staged) fight scenes.The Asphalt Jungle (1950). The stem cell of heist flicks and one of the first crime films told from the point of view of the crooks rather than the cops. The plot is tight and smart, and the cast exceptional--especially a young Sterling Hayden oozing physical charisma.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.
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