Sunday, March 9, 2014

Out of the Past

Probable Spoilers

There's a lyric in a They Might Be Giants song that goes "...Everyone dies frustrated and sad and that is beautiful." I thought of it when I reached the end of 1947's seminal OUT OF THE PAST. Some of the characters do indeed die frustrated and sad, and it is a perfect, tragic close to a twisty story laced with all of the traditional noir elements: double crosses, murder, betrayal, femme fatales. All bathed in glorious black and white and based on the James M. Cain novel with the wonderful title Build My Gallows High.

The ending is not the sort that appeals to viewers' sense of justice, just desserts, or even bloodlust (see SHALLOW GRAVE for all three). At least one of the doomed characters is a decent enough sort. It is typical for a noirish film to feature a poor sap who finds himself in a world of shit he was helpless to avoid. Usually because of a woman he couldn't resist. Maybe a touch of greed. The woman in question follows a model of less than model behavior. And so on..

It must be said that Jane Greer's character, Kathie Moffett, is a bit different than other bitches on wheels of the big screen. She is written with a bit of quiet complexity in Daniel Mainwaring's adaptation. Greer underplays the part, too. Viewers spend OUT OF THE PAST's 97 minutes guessing her next move, and her motives. Is she really just that vicious, pitch black to her soul, or is there some light and empathy within? Many other femme fatales wear their alluring evil on their sleeves. Greer almost makes us feel we've been unfair in our judgment.

Are we? See for yourself. Also, witness Robert Mitchum as the protagonist, Jeff Bailey. A gas station attendant who indeed has quite a past. When a tough arrives looking for Bailey, we learn the complicated events leading up to his current life and false name. How he was formerly called Jeff Markham, a N.Y.C. private detective who was hired by the wiley Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas, splendidly menacing) to find his missing girlfriend, Ms. Moffett. Bailey relays in flashback the terrible details to his current love interest, Ann (Virginia Miller), a sweet, local girl who is in turn adored by a cop named Jim (Richard Webb), who casts a suspicious eye toward Bailey/Markham.

OUT OF THE PAST travels a familiar noir calculus, but is notable for how low key it is. Director Jacques Tourneur creates a perfect, somber mood. He also allows considerable cigarette smoke to bellow through his movie, enough for the Truth people to possibly be inspired to create another "look how clever we are" cautionary ad.  The movie thankfully does not sport many hysterical musical cues or wake up the neighbors outbursts, so standard in many such dramas. Mitchum's character is an essentially decent soul, a possible patsy, blessed/cursed with a keen awareness of self and his dilemma. Perhaps too observant for his own good. At the same time, indifferent and detached. An archetype and yet original.

Ms. Greer would play the mother of Rachel Ward's character in the 1984 remake, AGAINST ALL ODDS. It did not erase memories of her striking turn in the original. Or the entire picture. Especially not its beautiful ending, with frustrated and sad folks meeting their Maker.

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