See This Or Die: ‘Out Of The Past’

Our weekly feature in which a writer answers the question: if you could force your friends at gunpoint to watch one movie or TV show what would it be?

Why do I love film noir?

Why does anyone? After all, it's a genre that seems to confirm that people are horrible, that the world is painful, and that we will let each other down given any opportunity. Film noir has a world-weary worldview, but I would stop short of calling it cynical. I am many things as I reach the halfway point of my fourth decade on Earth, but I am not cynical. I love film noir because while it may reflect a cynical world view, the reason it hurts is because there is still some small light, some tiny hope, some sense of optimism. If you're truly cynical, there's nothing the world can do to disappoint you. Me, I get my heart broken all the time.

“Out Of The Past” is the film noir I've seen the most times, and it is the one I return to over and over, always blown away by it all over again. It helps that Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas are almost absurdly manly in the film, while Jane Greer appears to have been created in a laboratory devoted to finding ways to turn me into the Tex Avery wolf. Ah-ooga, indeed. It's not sexist of me to point that out, either. Women in this film, directed magnificently by Jacques Tourneur, are well aware of their own currency, and Greer in particular wields her sexuality like a weapon.

If you've never seen the film, it's one of the best scripts ever produced, shot in gorgeous black and white by Nicholas Musuraca, and Warner Archives recently issued the film on Blu-ray. That was an incredibly easy purchase for me to make. I've owned this title on every format where it's been available, and it will remain on my short list of titles to consistently upgrade. Daniel Mainwaring adapted his novel “Build My Gallows High,” and it's a terrific piece of writing. The dialogue positively crackles, and it's so sharp, so bitter in places, that I often find myself rewinding it to hear something a second or third time. I can watch it once a year and never get tired of it. There aren't many films I can say that about, but “Out Of The Past” is special.

The film opens with a nearly irresistible hook. A dapper hoodlum named Joe (Paul Valentine) stops in a small California town. He's looking for Jeff Bailey (Mitchum), the owner of a local garage and gas station. Bailey's out fishing with Ann (Virginia Huston), the local girl he's been seeing. As soon as Jeff sees Joe, he realizes that his quiet idyllic life is over. After all, Joe knows who he really is, and more than that, Joe is still working for Whit (Kirk Douglas), the guy who has been looking for Jeff ever since Jeff tried to double-cross him and run away with his girl Kathie (Jane Greer) and $40,000.

We learn that story in a prolonged flashback, and it”s my favorite stretch of the film. Mitchum tracks Greer down in a small coastal Mexican town, and they fall into a torrid affair. She says she didn”t take the money and she didn”t mean to kill Whit. She just wanted to escape from him, and she doesn”t want to go back. Jeff wants to believe her, but he also just plain wants her, and the two of them have chemistry that is off-the-charts amazing.

The flashback that shows us how Jeff and Kathie ended up entangled would be good enough to serve as a whole film, but the structure here is much more clever than that. Whit wants something from Jeff, and when he finally gets him face-to-face, Jeff is surprised to see that Kathie is back by Whit's side. Whit wants Jeff to do another job for him, and Jeff is fairly sure the new job is a trap. But he's in no position to refuse, and it sets him on a collision course with Kathie and with Whit that is gloriously, terrifyingly bleak.

There's a moment late in the film where Whit slaps Kathie, and it looks and sounds like a real slap. Even better, the sudden angry tears in Greer's eyes and the way she struggles to maintain her composure and stay in the scene make it clear that this is a film where people get hurt. There is so much breathtaking emotional violence in the film, all of it punctuated by this seething, beautiful, furious dialogue, little gunfights of words between these people as they dance around each other, stealing and wounding and fucking and betraying, all of it as natural as breathing.

Here are some of the volleys of dialogue back and forth, each little flurry a perfect polished gem in its own right:

“You've talked enough.”
“It seems like everything people ought to know, they don't want to hear.”

“Funny racket to find you in, Jeff.”
“Oh, yeah, me and the kid laugh all the time.”

“She can't be all bad. No one is.”
“Well, she comes the closest.”

“Oh, Jeff, I don't want to die.”
“Neither do I, baby, but I have to, I'm gonna die last.”

“Did you miss me?”
“No more than I would my eyes.”

“You're no good and neither am I. That's why we deserve each other.”

That last line is Kathie again, talking to Jeff, and it is perhaps the most truthful moment she has in the film. She is a hungry thing, and she seems to feed on being desired. She and Jeff share some moral hollow, and the original title of the book is sort of perfect. Jeff knows that he”s going to burn, but he sticks his hand in the fire over and over again and he does it with his eyes wide open. That”s what makes this one hurt more than almost any other noir. There”s a whiff of genuine madness and obsession to it, and it has the stink of crazy, of the real heat that comes when you are drawn irresistibly to someone who is just plain bad for you. If you”ve never felt it, then “Out Of The Past” might not punch that same hole in you, but there is truth to this one, and it serves as an example of just how far you can push things without being explicit.

“Out Of The Past” is available on Blu-ray via Warner Archive.