Out of the Past
by Robert Weston
Perhaps the best film noir ever made.
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“Near the plaza was a café called La Mar Azul, next to a movie house. I sat there in the afternoons and drank beer. I used to sit there half asleep with the beer and the darkness, only that music from the movie next door kept jarring me awake. And then I saw her, coming out of the sun, and I knew why Whit didn’t care about that forty grand.”
As a young boy in 1913, Jacques Tourneur came to America from Paris with his father, silent film director Maurice Tourneur. While still a young man, Tourneur went to work for his father as a script clerk and editor; eventually graduating to directing shorts and features. His first real hit was the atmospheric Cat People in 1942. It is the film most famous for an “it’s-even-scarier-if-you-don’t-see-it” brand of horror. Cat People was followed by a short string of horror films for Val Lewton, then head of horror at RKO. From Tourneur’s moody, stylish horror films it was a short leap to the smoke and shadows of film noir.
Out of the Past, a film Tourneur directed in 1947, may not be the best-known example of the classic noirs, but looking at it again with more than half a century between the film and the viewer, it emerges as an archetypical model for the genre. If we pare down the nuances, the occasional flares and deviations, the various sub-genres, there is a common narrative arc that all film noir customarily follows…
The (invariably male) hero is on a quest, but possesses an only tenuous grasp of what he is searching for. He meets a woman who leads him down a dangerous, winding path. She may be evil, hoping to lead the hero to ruin, or helpful, trying to reveal some truth that can only be seen in the dark. Sometimes, a single woman fulfills both roles. Whichever the case, the grasping hero never knows if he is dealing with the benign guide or the malicious siren until the last possible moment. As the hero leaves his initial sphere and tumbles into the underworld, he is alienated from above and below. Those below him, the dredges of society, are fearful or indifferent, lest they too are dragged into darkness. Above him are those powerful enough to keep the swirl of deceit at arms length. Only the woman remains close. Sometimes escape is possible and the hero emerges injured but enlightened. More often, he is drowned and forgotten in the underworld.
Such a “hero” is Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum), the protagonist of Out of the Past. Jeff was once a private detective working in New York City with his crooked partner, Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie). There, he was hired by Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), a suave professional gambler. Jeff was hired to locate Sterling’s jilted lover, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who disappeared after shooting Sterling in the belly and stealing forty thousand dollars in ill-gotten gains. Jeff tracks Kathie to Mexico, where they fall in love, vowing never to return to Sterling.
All of this is “out of the past.” After returning from Mexico, Kathie disappeared and Jeff changed his name to Bailey and peacefully runs a countryside gas station. He is now romancing Ann Miller (Virginia Huston), a wide-eyed local girl—much to the chagrin of her former beau, Jimmy. Everything is running smoothly in Jeff’s new life until Sterling’s right-hand man discovers Jeff pumping gas. In an instant, Jeff’s lofty designs on “happily-ever-after” begin to crumble.
With respect to the basic, underlying narrative of film noir, Out of the Past is a dead ringer. At every juncture, the film moves Jeff in a prototypical film noir pattern. Surprisingly, however, the most remarkable aspect of the film is not it’s perfectly noir story, but its juxtaposition of opposing forces: light and dark, city and country, blond and brunette. Because the film jumbles its chronology and throws a multitude of characters and settings at the viewer, it is at first difficult to see how perfectly these aspects of the film line up in an almost mathematically perfect arrangement. Nevertheless, the film sets up dualisms all the way through as if to make the noir underworld all the more dire by comparison to Jeff’s idyllic life in the present.
In fact, beyond fitting perfectly into the film noir mold, Out of the Past also fits flawlessly into the anthropological model known as “structuralism,” a mode of thought founded by French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Structuralism is based on the notion that human beings are meaning-seeking animals who use arbitrary symbols and languages to give significance to all aspects of life. The way in which we do this is by classifying all objects and phenomenon into groups, most commonly binary oppositions such as black/white or good/evil.
If Saussure and Levi-Strauss are correct, then Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past is a structuralist’s wet dream.
First, there is light and dark: During Jeff’s romance with Kathie, she will only allow them to meet at night, so that Jeff spends the bright Mexican days milling about the local bars. What Kathie is doing by day in Mexico is never revealed; she is immediately established as a creature of darkness. There is also the opposition of city and country (or as Levi-Strauss puts it, culture/nature). In his past, Jeff was a cynical private dick working the two-fisted mean streets of New York City. In his present, he is a rural handyman, living in an anonymous small town along the California highway. This opposition also operates as “east versus west,” playing on the traditional stereotypes of regionalism.
Although they do not share screen-time, there is an obvious opposition between Sterling and Jimmy, Ann’s ex-boyfriend. Sterling is wealthy and threatening and while Jimmy is considerate and down-to-earth. Respectively, Sterling and Jimmy are pursuing the conniving brunette, Kathie and the angelic blond, Ann. Finally, there are the conflicting forces that overarch everything in the film: past and present.
Jeff, the hero of Out of the Past, is torn between these worlds. He wants to live a simple, legitimate life with Ann, but he is inexorably drawn toward his shadowy past. Yet Jeff does not rightly belong in either world. His questionable past makes his small town neighbors suspicious. At the same time, he is not dishonest enough to exist in Sterling’s sphere of urban crime. He loves Ann for her purity of spirit, but he harbours a dark fascination for Kathie. He is neither a criminal nor a saint. He defies categorization.
With respect to structuralism—a cultural theory based on the interpretation of how we use signs and symbols—it is interesting to note that Jeff’s assistant at the gas station is a deaf mute who communicates in a sign language only Jeff understands. It is also interesting to note that Jeff changes his name to escape his past. In doing so, he signifies himself by two separate symbols: “Markham” and “Bailey,” and that’s exactly his problem: He represents two meanings in a single body. Sadly, his resistance to be pigeonholed inevitably leads to his doom.
In his competing worlds, Jeff is man who straddles an ambiguous middle ground between light and dark, good and evil. Despite wanting to lead a quiet life, a small part of his character craves darkness. He wants and needs both worlds. So when the time comes for him to choose one over the other, he desperately fights to maintain the façade of a dual identity—an effort that is impossible in a world structured into hard-line oppositions.
With its persistent use of binary oppositions, Out of the Past holds a mirror to human affairs, showing us the folly of our predilection for categories. For Jeff Markham, it is less important to for a thing to be good rather than evil (or vice versa), just so long everything fits neatly into a category. In the film, as is too often the case in our everyday lives, people and things that defy classification are ignored or destroyed.
Notes: Out of the Past was remade in 1984 as the mediocre Against All Odds, notable for casting an older Jane Greer as the mother of the character she played in the original film. Many VHS copies of Out of the Past have fallen prey to Ted Turner’s distracting colourization juggernaut—look for it on DVD.
Robert Weston is a freelance writer living in Toronto.
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