Directed by Jacques Tourneur
I was made aware of this film after reading Paul Auster’s ‘Ghosts’ from his spellbinding book The New York Trilogy. I was sold to the point that I imagined myself as a Private Detective, wearing one of those long beige coloured pervy Mackintosh jackets that local park flashers usually wear and a matching fedora, tailing an equally suspicious rogue along the cold wet streets of Norwich. Not content to dwell in my mid-afternoon daydreams at work, later that evening I jumped onto YouTube and watched ‘Out of the Past’.
From the opening shot of the film, where the camera is positioned in the back seat of an open top car which pulls up outside Jeff Bailey’s garage, we instantly know that we are watching a classy noir. The dialogue is sharp and punchy, and the film throughout looks marvellous.
Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is introduced to us as a small-town garage worker who pumps gas, and works alongside a young deaf fellow. The townsfolk aren’t exactly enamoured with him, due to the air of mystery that surrounds him, something ain’t right, but they can’t quite put their fingers on it. Bailey is secretly romancing Ann, and when a face from the past returns, he tells her all about his old life. The film flashes back to Jeff’s days as a Private Detective, when he was hired by the wealthy Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to find the movies’ femme fatale Kathie, who took forty grand from Whit.
Bailey ends up tracking down Kathie and soon finds himself as yet another man that has gotten trapped in her wicked web. Jane Greer’s performance as Kathie has a strange darkness, she is willing to kill, but does so with a distressing innocence. Almost as if she has been temporary possessed by a malevolent demon, and then becomes alarmed by the sudden reappearance of her conscience. At the same time Kathie’s actions are completely selfish, and it is quite remarkable for a female character in the forties to be so powerful, controlling and manipulative.
I suppose what the film also tells us is that even an intelligent rational man can get his mind scrambled by love. Bailey makes some terribly naïve decisions, which inevitably lead to his downfall. Mitchum’s boyish facial expressions make this work, and he is a good contrast to Kirk Douglas’ sinister portrayal of Whit Sterling.
Jacques Tourneur is a wizard of wonderful shadow play, and some of the scenes are visually stunning, which seems odd in a black and white film. There’s a scene where Jeff and Kathie arrive home only to find they are tracked by Jeff’s former colleague Fisher. A fight starts between the two men with Kathie seemingly standing startled by the window, with a look of fear in her eyes as the shadow of the two brawling men is cast behind her on the curtains. She then ends the contest in gunfire.
Certain films become timeless classics and ‘Out of the Past’ doesn’t need to be remade or rebooted. I was talking to someone about another classic I’d recently watched, the seventies thriller ‘Three Days of the Condor’ starring Robert Redford. A friend of mine said that it needed to be remade, and I argued vociferously that it should never be touched. You don’t really want to mess with a work that borders on perfection. ‘Out of the Past’ is simply magnificent.