I originally wrote this post for Noir Journal as a guest writer. It’s a great site to check out Noir literature and film.
There is no way to dig into this film’s juicy noir center without giving away some of its surprises so if you’ve never seen it before: some spoilers follow.
If I had to pick one film as an example of a film noir – Out of the Past would be it. It doesn’t just graze each element; it hits all of them – dead center, point blank. When it comes to film noir, if it’s not the leader of the pack – it’s got to be in the top three.
Out of the Past is shot beautifully in black and white. The cinematography doesn’t call attention to itself but helps establish a doomed mood by playing with shadows and light in every scene. Not only will shadows cross and fall over characters appropriately but smoke is also used to create visual tension. Hardly a scene goes by without the characters lighting and smoking cigarettes.
Jeff (Robert Mitchum) and Whit (Kirk Douglas) are the heaviest smokers. Jeff especially, is often surrounded in a smokey fog which helps establish his precarious situation. The smoking isn’t always in the background either. When we first meet Joe Stephanos, he lights his cigarette and flicks the lit match at “the kid” at the gas station to get his attention. After one confrontation, Jeff tosses his smoldering cigarette onto the carpet as he leaves the room – to punctuate his exit with a badass exclamation point. At one point Whit offer’s Jeff a cigarette to which Jeff holds up his cigarette and replies, “smoking.” Which is also one of this film’s many great lines of sharp noir dialog.
As the opening credits roll away, we’re placed in the backseat of Joe Stephanos’ dark (presumably black) car. This film opens telling us, we’re about to be taken for a ride. We don’t know who Stephanos is yet but he’s clad in a black fedora and trench coat. He seems like trouble.
He pulls into Jeff Bailey’s gas station and soon, we know he’s trouble because this is when he flicks the lit match at the gas station attendant and asks, “Where’s Bailey?” The attendant is noticeably cautious and points to the outskirts of town. So Stephanos goes across the street to wait at the diner. While waiting, he gets the gossip about Jeff from Marny who runs the diner – who he calls “the ham-slinger” in a small but definitive noir touch.
Next we meet Jeff while he’s fishing with his girlfriend Ann, next to a tranquil, idyllic lake. We’re given the idea that Jeff Bailey leads a quiet peaceful life but we learn he’s traveled a lot – “one place too many.” He loves his girlfriend Ann, a blonde girl-next-door type who is so trusting and so nice that she’s almost unreal. Jeff and Ann are discussing their hopes to get married when the attendant shows up and Jeff returns to his gas station to meet Stephanos.
Stephanos is a henchman for Jeff’s former boss – Whit Sterling. Apparently, this boss just “wants to talk” but it’s clear Jeff feels he has to go back or he’ll never be free. He wants to tie up the loose ends of his past so he can move on (marry Ann, run his gas station and just be left alone). So, he meets Ann to explain the truth.. For starters, his name isn’t Jeff Bailey – it’s Jeff Markham.
Again, we go for a ride. This time we tag along with Jeff as he drives while explaining/confessing his past to Ann – on the way to see his old boss. Through flashbacks narrated by Jeff, we learn why Jeff changed his name and went into hiding. Voice-over narration is very common in noir films. (Double Indemnity, Laura and Murder My Sweet – are predecessors to Out of the Past that use this technique.)
A few years ago, as a detective in New York, Jeff and his partner were hired by Whit Sterling to bring back Whit’s girlfriend Kathie – who shot Whit, stole $40,000 and ran off. Jeff quickly locates her in Acapulco…but he falls in love with her and they run off together until Jeff’s partner catches up with them. All of a sudden, Kathie kills his partner and Jeff finds out that yes, she did steal the money. Kathie runs off leaving Jeff to bury her victim. He changed his name and tried to start over…until Stephanos stumbled upon him, pumping gas for a living in the small town of Bridgeport, CA
As Jeff finishes his story, we’re back in the present and Jeff pulls up to Whit Sterling’s mansion. His girlfriend Ann isn’t the least bit bothered by any of his story and watches pensively as Jeff walks up to the gate which, in another common noir image, looks just like prison bars.
Now we meet Whit again – for the first time outside of the flashbacks. Whit is a very rich gambler, trying to hide his money from the IRS. He doesn’t believe in paying taxes. He explains, it’s “against my nature.” He’s always smiling, even when he’s at his maddest but it actually makes him even more frightening. He seems like the type who always knows something he’s not telling anyone else.
Then, Kathie (Jane Greer) appears. She ran right back to Whit. Jeff at one point tells her she’s “like a leaf the wind blows from one gutter to another.” Kathie is beautiful but is a perfect Femme Fatale – she cares about herself and only herself and it is dangerous to get in her way. She uses her beauty and sexuality to control men and get what she wants. She lies to everyone in some way, at some point. Jeff now hates her.
As for Whit – he seems not to care about the past but Jeff knows better. All Whit says he wants is for Jeff to help him get some tax documents away from a lawyer. That’s it. So Jeff, feeling forced, agrees.
Now this is where the plot gets confusing which is also common in classic film noirs. Often, rather than being totally concerned with explaining the story, they’re concerned with showing us the dark side of people. New characters are introduced. We meet blackmailers, more henchmen, another femme fatale – and Jeff figures out Whit’s intention. Jeff’s being set-up. Whit is going to frame him for a murder. Jeff figures it out but his “timing was a bit off.”
Jeff, like most noir detectives, is very street smart and plays by his own rules. He may have been forced into Whit’s employ but he’s nobody’s fool. In the end, it’s Kathie who really screws things up for him. Her quick-fix answer to everything is always murder and there’s no one left to take the blame for anything. So in the end, Kathie traps Jeff again…but Jeff has other plans. Can he escape her or his past or is it too late?
I mentioned that Out of the Past hits every mark when it comes to being a film noir. But there is one area some critics and historians have called attention to as being atypical. They bring our attention to the multiple settings and say that most noirs take place in the gritty, dirty underbelly of a city. That is often true – but Out of the Past is bookmarked by two of the most common noir cities of all – New York and San Francisco. All of Jeff’s troubles begin when he meets Whit for the first time as a detective in New York. Later, Jeff’s old partner, Fischer, stumbles into Jeff and Kathie in San Francisco. This leads to the murder of the partner, Jeff’s escape into hiding and Kathie’s return to Whit. A few years later when Jeff is called back into Whit’s service – he spends one chaotic night in San Francisco – trying to stay one step ahead of the frame Whit’s constructing around him. Maybe it is odd to see idyllic settings like Acapulco or the sweet, small town of Bridgeport, CA in a noir – but they serve an important purpose that goes straight to the core of noir values. No matter where you are – bad things can happen and no one is to be trusted.
The dialog in this movie is exceptional for noir style. Rather than a few great lines, every scene has something cynical and gritty to take away from it. Someone could probably write a noir quote book just from this film. This exchange is not only a great example of Out of the Past’s noir script; it is also a good illustration of the perspective of so many noir “heros.”
Kathie: Oh, Jeff…I don’t want to die.
Jeff: Neither do I baby, but if I have to I’m going to die last.
This is a great film for anyone who loves Noir and/or classic film – it’s a wonderful example of both.