Anyone familiar with Jacques Tourneur doesn’t need to read a review for evidence to the claim that Out of the Past is one of the best film noirs ever made. But that doesn’t mean establishing and specifying what is so undeniably great about it isn’t a worthwhile pleasure all the same. Cutting his teeth on Val Lewton’s near poverty-row horror unit for RKO, a team that single-handedly saved American horror in the 1940s by injecting a dose of the European, and a team which counted Tourneur as its most valuable member, Tourneur is one of the unheralded masters of the medium of cinema and one of the most poetic genre directors ever to grace the silver screen. Pairing him to noir like a fine wine to a slab of deliberately indelicate beef is too obvious to be a stroke of genius, but the results are no less marvelous for the “why didn’t they think of this earlier” nature of the film.
Pairing Robert Mitchum – ever the heavy – to a noir, however, was a stroke of genius, precisely because he made indelicate slabs out to be fine wine, making him the perfect bridge for the flavors milling around in Tourneur’s stew. Mitchum was a known face by 1947, but not even close to a star, and seeing his ambiguity flourish in Out of the Past is a tormented, deceptive beauty so perfectly matched to the material it almost approaches non-performance. Mitchum went on to fame as the cinema’s ultimate heel, concocting deliberately vague piles of blunt force that slithered and skulked across the land and directly into the dark hearts of humankind. The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear find him too close and comfortable with pure evil for words. Nothing about him felt like acting, like trying; he conveyed an evil that simply existed, an unexplainable devil that could only be approached by running away. The problem with running away from Mitchum… he constructed figures so impenetrable and unknowable they couldn’t but chill the blood into stagnancy.
It is easy to see this future presence in his hard-won, steely-eyed glances and unmoving, determined features. He seems to have always existed in each frame, drawing the eye but always ceding ground with comfort to everything around him; he becomes part of the landscape. He is such a natural screen presence that he doesn’t have to fixate the eyes; he’s always there waiting and watching, thinking, knowing he can grab the eyes when he wants to. So he lays back, remains quiet, builds up a laconic presence in the main role, lulling us into a certain safe unease and then applying the slightest amount of pressure only when he needs to, so that the hurt rubs us that much rawer in the end.
He plays Jeff Markham, or Jeff Baily; we can’t entirely be sure, and the dense, thick, smoky narrative structure does its best to keep us at arm’s length from assurance. What we do know is that he is on his way to meet suspicious character Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), and he is bringing his girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston). On the way, we are treated to Jeff’s version of how he met Whit, all of which begins with Whit hiring Jeff, then a private detective, to track down the whereabouts of Whit’s girlfriend Kathie (Jane Greer). Things complicate from there, but as with any good noir, revealing too much spoils the fun.
Credit the density to Daniel Mainwaring, a novelist and screenwriter who adapted his own book for film here, although his plans were foiled somewhat by uncredited re-writes that only make the movie more complicated and unknowable in the end. Noir, thankfully, is one of the few genres where a plot beating you down with confusion is useful and even beneficial; it throws us into the mindset of the characters and keeps us from ever accruing the safety of understanding. It keeps us messed up, in other words, but as important for messing us up is Tourneur’s husky chiaroscuro and dense visual framing that owes a great deal to the darkened romance of French cinema. Most stunning is how he bleeds transitional frames together in eventful, counter-intuitive ways, blending together events occurring at different times to disentangle the audience from the normal flow of time. Not only does it manifest a more disarming and disconcerting milieu, but it evokes past and present as porous and dialogical, a frightening sense in which past always lingers into and lurks in the corners of a present that dreams of escaping from that past. It adds to the insurmountable density and confusion of the piece, to the way everything seems to conspire to keep us outside of the film’s deep, dark secrets, to make us work, ever as it is effortlessly taunting us and enticing us with the snap of its fingers.
What made Tourneur’s mood so overpowering was the way it entranced and danced with his characters, and this was never more apparent than when Mitchum’s weathered face and tired demeanor found an entrance out of the shadows only to darken up the light spaces of the world. The light and shadow seem to play for Mitchum, an externalization of his internal fight to start anew, to move beyond his old hurt and life in darkness. Like all noirs, and Out of the Past is unlike all noirs only in that it is better than many of them, it is a story about a man who thinks he doesn’t care coming to realize that he does care too late, trying to emote only to walk up against the brick walls of his own tiredness and a world that can only see him as a tired old soul. Noirs function as an externalization of internal trauma, a barely-contained nightmare that festers so much inside it can’t but permeate into the air around people. Much of Out of the Past is, as with any noir, non-naturalist, but that is what one gets when the dark spaces of cognitive dissonance and the inner self warp the outside regions of the world and turn them away from realism. They transform the literal space of the frame, of the geometry around the characters, into a harsh palette of belittling coldness and anti-romantic hopelessness. With Tourneur, we fixate on exactly this blend of the internal and the external, and discover that he captures the soul of a genre as well as any one ever did.
Out of the Past contains a line that may sum up the prowling, nocturnal animal magnetism of noir with enough clarity to cause visible discomfort. Jack, sitting in the back of a car with another man, confronts the line “You look like you’re in trouble”. Jack responds “why”, to which the man tersely hushes “because you don’t act like it”. What else was a noir protagonist but a person embroiled in so much turmoil they had to hide it from themselves, to sublimate themselves to nothingness and withdraw from actually dealing with it to the point where their lonely, thoughtless face of vacant distance could only hint at the brewing, bubbling torment underneath? Noir never found a face that could brew in dogged silence like Mitchum, who could sit there growing sadder and more haunted with every image. His molasses-thick baritone voice fills the spaces of the frame with booming self-doubt, and his eyes reek of heart-broken malaise. They are nothing less than the perfect canvas upon which all of noir can understand itself, and a great gift to anyone who calls themselves a cinephile.