But I want to get back to the point we’ve made about Out of the Past being different from other noir films. I’m sure some readers would note (correctly) that noir protagonists often fail, indeed the genre gets much of its gritty reputation from the propensity of the protagonists to meet their doom. But I feel like most noir films with doomed protagonists have that feeling from the beginning — they are fated to fall, the film then is about tracking how that fall comes to be. Out of the Past grapples with these questions of fate, but I never felt like Jeff’s ending was obvious until the closing moments. There are many aspects to this unpredictability that we could discuss, but one I’d point to is the look of the film, which I think offers much more light and hope than many noirs. Most of these kinds of films take place at night or in grim cities or confined, claustrophobic environments. But Out of the Past is not like that. Yes, it has its deep shadows and grim doings (some of deepest and grimmest of any noir), but it also has scenes set in beautiful countryside or on Mexican beaches. And these broader spaces allow for the camera to roam more freely, and Torneur very frequently has his camera in motion throughout the film. It’s generally a much more open world than the rainy LA of The Big Sleep or the train cars and offices of Double Indemnity, which I think presents glimmers of real hope in a hopeless situation. And I really dug the balance of tones and settings on offer.
How do you know it’s a noir film? Shadows! Out of the Past has some of the darkest and best-used shadows of any noir picture. In this sequence, the crosshatching shadows highlight the turmoil that the two lovers are experiencing as fate works its damnedest to tear them apart.
Out of the Past
S. – The outdoor vistas are beautiful and add to the naturalistic feel that inhabits the film. The tawdry private eye business Jeff is entangled within takes place in the real world. It is not all dark alleys and glitzy hotels. While the classic noir elements of violent chain-smoking men and gorgeous trouble-seeking dames are still there, they are inhabiting a larger world. A world with opportunities and consequences beyond besting the resident tough guy. Certainly this provides some hope as you suggest, J., yet it also emphasises the difficulty such characters have fitting back into regular society. The ambiguous ending invites you to consider whether Jeff had succeeded in bridging the divide. I loved Out of the Past. The cinematography is first-rate, the characters have depth as well as sass and the story twists you all about without ever feeling as though it is just playing games with you for the hell of it. Finally a chance to give a little shake to my Top 10 list.
We’ve had a few list films of late that have latched onto the visual dynamics of . But for all the canted angles and exaggerated shadows, the entries on the have been rather light on actual noir movies. Thankfully that changes with our latest viewing experience: Out of the Past (1947), a tale of devilish dames, compromised detectives, and the inescapable pull of fate. And also badass dialogue, with the film dropping a host of noir patter that should leave green with envy. Out of the Past marks the sole entry on the list by director Jacques Torneur, a filmmaker otherwise best known for helming some early classics like The Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943). This horror background serves him well in the noir genre, bringing a deeper darkness to the cinematography than most other such movies, but also finding the crowd-pleasing humor in the sudden violence and double dealing. Out of the Past also marks the first list appearance by actor Robert Mitchum, who brings a laconic cool to the role that seems like much less of an affectation than with most other noir anti-heroes. Throw in a spectacular femme fatale in Jane Greer and a wonderfully smarmy early performance by Kirk Douglas, and you get a crackerjack piece of entertainment that is as existential as it is exuberant. (97 min.)