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FLST 3160 02 F2 2015 Topics in Film Studies Film Noir
Colin Taylor
Out of the Past

Out of the Past is a 1947 film noir directed by French director Jacques Tourneur from the source novel, “Build My Gallows High” by Daniel Mainwaring and using a script by the author but with hefty additions from the author of The Maltese Falcon, James M Cain as well Frank Fenton, a B-movie writer who rumour has it was responsible for many of the films great one liners. As the AMC film site has it,
“The downbeat screenplay was based on Geoffrey Homes' (a pseudonym - his real name was Daniel Mainwaring) 1946 novel Build My Gallows High, a book that consciously imitated Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon (1941). (An uncredited James M. Cain wrote some of the script.)”
Tourneur was an established director whose oeuvre was predominantly what we should call B Movies but all of which had a striking visual style. His three most famous movies before Out of the Past, Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man are all about transformation, the night, perversion, the corrosive effects of evil, and the powerful link between violence and sex. Both he and Mainwaring were unapologetic left wingers (Mainwaring had to operate under a pseudonym during the McCarthy witch hunts) who saw evil in greed. Mainwaring’s most famous film script was the “reds under the bed” masterpiece The Invasion of the Body snatchers, another film about changes in people.
Out of the Past is such a rich visual and verbal feast that one has a number of problems in analysing it. This is caused by a number of issues, firstly Tourneur is from a generation of directors for whom every scene and shot clearly counted, and each moment has to be looked at for plot and motivational signposts. Secondly the film itself is open to many interpretations from the superficial (It’s a great romp) to interpretations based on racial, social, environmental, sexual and religious metaphor. This is then aided by the visual and verbal clues in the film and it is thus It is truly a dazzling achievement.
The opening credits and scene with its almost comical pastoral theme which bookends the denouement, is a deliberate counterpoint to the dark dealings that are about to unfold. From the arrival of the black hat, Stefanos in a striking establishing shot in POV where he is actually cutting through the peace of Bridgeport. When we meet Jeff Markham/Bailey (Robert Mitchum) he wants nothing more than the rural idyll. Charles Scruggs (“Out of the Black Past: The Image of the Fugitive Slave in Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past”) points out
“he tells Ann Miller (Virginia Houston), the village beauty}' he wishes to marry, he wants to build a house by a lake under the magnificent Sierras, and "never go anywhere." But
Kathie is a symbol of an African American past that unsettles this bucolic "line of demarcation," She is the "shadow" figure who exists on the margins of the film's perceived trajectory and rewrites the film's most conspicuous feature, pastoral space.”
My view is that the pastoral idyll is what Jeff thinks he can aspire to but in the end his past will come back to haunt him. As Jeff says to Stefanos in one of many punch filled exchanges in the film,
“It’s a small world or a big sign”
And like so much in this film (Something I do agree with Scruggs about) this line can be viewed on a number of levels, as a smart ass response, as a sense of foreboding or a commentary by Jeff about the inevitability of his fate.
Suggs also picks up on the fishing motif in the film which is established very early with the scene between Bailet and Miller by the stream,
“The ubiquitous references to fishing throughout the film help create an atmosphere of entrapment. Jeff's partner. Fisher, is an ironic "fisher of men," just as Whit hires Jeff to go "fishing" for Kathie. The fishing metaphor serves as a critique of the pastoral. This is established in the film's opening scenes, as Jeff complains to
Ann in the idyllic setting of the Sierras that the fish "just aren't biting." Later, the
Kid will literally hook Stefanos with his fishing rod, causing him to tumble to his death in the river. Stefanos's body, clothed in black and lying face down in the river, looks as out of place in this setting as does Jeff himself, now no longer dressed for fishing but smoking a cigarette and wearing a trench coat.” I would argue that another way to look at the themes herein are a religious motif, fishing being fairly clear, but also Kathie’s angelic entrance (A fallen angel?) the battle of good and evil, the deaf and dumb boy who observes and can only tell the truth, and the changes in Kathie’s clothes to the point where by the end she is almost dressed as a nun.
Certainly the opening encapsulates the sense of foreboding that runs throughout the narrative, Jeff can change his name (Markham, marked man?) but in the end his past will come in and suck him back.
No Noir film is complete without LOTS of cigarette smoke and Tourneur’s adherence to the convention is almost comically slavish. Within two minutes someone lights up, and cigarettes form important plot signposts (At one point Jeff even has a cigarette while he is robbing a man, and he lights a cigarette after a murder) culminating with the famous exchange between Markham and Kirk Douglas’s smarmily evil Whit Sterling, the incarnation of manipulation (A name itself redolent of symbolism)
““cigarette?” “Smoking”
Another theme I have noted which is established early is the sense of Bailey/Markham as an outsider, which begins with his standing outside Millers house and her disapproving parents to this shot as he enters Sterling’s ranch in Lake Tahoe but pauses.

It is also a wonderful cinema shot which one can see in these later films

The Searchers
Interestingly all three characters are hired hands who are never part of any world they live in and are finally rejected.
As with much great Noir the film is told in flashback and features a voiceover. This merely reinforces the sense of inevitability that runs through any of these tragedies. It should also be noted how banal the love dialogue compared to the sharpness of normal dialogue. The script seems to be saying that love is dull whereas intrigue is interesting, all redolent of the pointlessness of Baileys retreat, whereas he really relishes the World of double plot and intrigue which he knows will kill him. As he says at one point,
Kathie Moffat: I don't want to die.
Jeff Bailey:” Neither do I, Baby, but if I have to, I'm going to die last.”
Amazingly, given his charisma and self-assured performance this was Mitchums first starring role. He seems to have been playing the part of the doomed smart ass for years. No one walks like Robert Mitchum, and he is simply the quintessence of the noir antihero. He clearly lived the part of the cigarette smoking gumshoe since he died of lung cancer but in mitigation it should be noted that he was married to the same woman for 57 years. He reprised the role of noir hero memorably in The Big Steal, and then in the 70’s with the Phillip Marlowe homages The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely. He even reprised the persona in the underrated The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Peter Yates wonderful evocation of the Boston underworld.
Jeff’s trip to Acapulco on Sterling’s duplicitous mission is redolent of the symbolism of the film. As he waits for Kathie he stands outside Western Union (Doesn’t get the message) and plays roulette (A game of chance). Like most noir he is occupied by the scene itself, and rather as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity he comments on the furniture to set up his own scene.
Kathie’s entrance has been much analysed and plays to many of the interpretations of this film. In a text by James Nazemore (“More than Night: Film Noir and Its Contexts”) he observes the key moment when Kathie enters the Acapulco bar,
"Her light clothing makes her almost invisible on the brilliant plaza, but when she steps into the room she seems to materialize out of the brightness, becoming first a silhouette and then a visible figure against a shaded wall"
As Scruggs in his Black v white dialectic postulates,
“It is Kathie's first appearance in the film, as the repressed past is brought to the surface by the extraordinary subtlety of Nicholas Musuraca's cinematography…Moreover,
Kathie's physical fluidity—"first a silhouette and then a visible figure"—suggests that the source of Kathie's character is Eunice (The maid). Both possess an embodied confidence that suggests that they are sisters under the skin”
He is prefiguring Kathie’s white tinged arrival with the meeting with Eunice in the Harlem night club. He is much occupied by this meeting and comments,
“That Kathie is directly related to the hidden presence of race in the film is revealed in a scene set in a Harlem nightclub in which Jeff interviews Kathie's
African American maid, Eunice Leonard (Theresa Harris), in the hopes of tracking down the elusive Kathie. Paula Rabinowitz notes that Eunice becomes "Kathie's aura—another type of literal femme noire”, yet she compromises this perceptive insight by making a misleading distinction between Kathie and Eunice. Kathie can
"flee to Acapulco," but Eunice cannot, because as a white woman who "double crosses white men. ... she can get away with it"
Tourneur was proud of this scene and noted in an interview (Fujiwara, Chris. Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, 1998),
“Watch in Out of the Past the scene in the nightclub where there are only black people, look at the way they're dressed and filmed, the elegance of the young woman in responding to
Mitchum. Several times I've been accused of being a "nigger lover" and for long months I was out of the studios for that reason. It was a sort of gray list”
We are immediately introduced to Greer’s magnificent reading of the Femme fatale. She opens by lighting up, “Smoke a cigarette joe”. She is Classic femme fatale, flat blank delivery, her face only blemished by an occasional false smile, cheating on everyone, careworn, almost mannish, her delivery can spin on a dime. Much has been written about how she wears white which to me is simply redolent of the irony that seeps through the film. As we get to know her in the second half her clothes palate changes as she wears black. Another way to view it is that the scenes in Acapulco are Jeff’s take, his fantasy and in reality a self-serving one for his own foolish actions and thus represent a romanticised version of Kathie whereas the second half is in reality and shows her as she is.
I was also struck by the border town motif, used later by Orson Welles in his noir masterpiece, Touch of Evil. Both deal with points of departure and the strange half reality, half fantasy that all border towns, in my experience, seem to have. This whole sequence reeks of fantasy since I can hardly imagine Kathie sitting on a 9-hour bus ride from Mexico City in her immaculate white dress. Since we are seeing Jeff’s recollection and we are being drawn in to his justification then everything is clearly fantasy. As Jeff notes at one point,
“I never saw her in the daytime. We seemed to live by night. What was left of the day went away like a pack of cigarettes you smoked. I didn't know where she lived. I never followed her. All I ever had to go on was a place and time to see her again. I don't know what we were waiting for. Maybe we thought the world would end”
Finally, they consummate their doomed relationship with the clichéd symbol of sex in a thunder storm and a banging window (Get it?)
Their reverie is interrupted by Sterling and Stefanos who indulge in a double entendre and glance filled exchange which ends with the punch line,
“Let's go down to the bar. We can cool off while we try to impress each other.”
After their equally doomed and farcical attempt to live in San Francisco they are tracked down by Jeff’s former partner, Fisher, and in another electric scene we see two more of the films masterful shadow filled images

Kathie’s utterly amoral attitude is shown by the way she flees the scene the moment Jeff’s former partner bites the dust. Scruggs believes that the very black and white nature of the film both in its colour palate, and its themes is itself a subtle commentary on suppression and the struggle of African Americans. “Living by her wits makes Kathie mysterious because we never quite fathom her motives, especially when we try to read them in terms of traditional, iconic lighting. When Jeff catches her in the act of plotting to frame him for the murder of Leonard Eels (Ken Niles), the chiaroscuro lighting at one point splits her face in two: white and black. The brilliance of this scene is that it's the white light that complements her fur coat, her bright diamond earrings and her gleaming earrings—this is the "white" Kathie who requires high maintenance. It's the "black" Kathie whom we admire, the one who escapes from the Tar Baby through her quick wit and verbal skills. But thinking on her feet only takes her so far. Throughout the film, she is essentially homeless"
So dense is this film that it actually manages to have two Femme Fatales, the second being Meta Carson, the kept woman of Eels, his “secretary”. Everyone gets good scenes in this movie, if they are bad and all the good people speak blandly and are utterly uninteresting. Carson has one fantastic scene with Jeff which is rich in banal metaphor and then is broken by Jeff, “Meta Carson? Yes. My name is Bailey. Come in. I was expecting you. Well, I wasn't expecting you. Should I take that as a compliment? Whit told me you'd be charming. Really? Would you like a gin and tonic? That'd be nice. You may have whiskey, if you like. That'd be even nicer. Miserable weather we're having, isn't it? Are you acquainted with San Francisco? We were quite intimate. Indeed? We lived together. It's a nice apartment you have here. Yes, these old houses can be amusing when they're remodelled, can't they? I used to live in one in New York that was old. It wasn't very amusing I've never been to New York. You take a trip there sometime You'll see one reason why I'm in San Francisco. Whit said you'd tell me the other. You know, you're rather charming yourself, but I'm afraid I don't quite understand you. If you'll drop this Junior League patter...”
The film ends tragically as was obvious from the start as Jeff realises Kathie and he are doomed, and in a scene very similar to the final one between Stanwyck and McMurray in Double Indemnity they agree on their fate,
" You're no good for anyone but me”
“You're no good, and neither am I. That's why we deserve each other."
Even as the film winds down we are treated to one more marvellous scene between Miller and the hapless police officer, Jimmy as he pleads with her with a river cutting through their dialogue. Finally, the deaf and dumb boy gives Miller the answer she wants. As Scruggs sums it up,
“But if "home" is supposedly synonymous with the small town of Bridgeport, the Kid's upward gesture at the end of the film to Bailey's sign above the car garage suggests that "home" exists only in the clouds That final ironic gesture also points to the brilliant ambiguity of the film's last scene. Kathie's absent presence resurfaces in the "lie" that the Kid tells Ann. Ann asks if Jeff were going away with Kathie when they were killed, and the Kid nods yes.
One reading of this ending is that the Kid uses to Ann because he knows that Jeff would want her to have a life, however, in one sense, the lie is not a lie:
Jeff and Kathie were both fugitives, and they did go away together. In another sense, the Kid exposes the greater lie at the heart of the republic—that in order to have
Norman Rockwell's America one must bury the truth about the past. The lie does not ensure Ann's happiness but rather exposes the falsity of the American pastoral because Whit and his cohorts own it, as they do the view at Lake Tahoe”
The dialogue in this film simply crackles,
“Joe couldn't find a prayer in the Bible
My feelings? About ten years ago, I hid them somewhere and haven't been able to find them It was the bottom of the barrel, and I was scraping it
I never found out much listening to myself
Kathie "I hate him. I'm sorry he didn't die." Jeff: "Give him time."
The plot is byzantine, the acting wonderful, and of course the film was never nominated for any major awards whilst being lauded in Europe. In recent years the obligatory re appraisal has occurred, and it is considered worthy of nomination to the AFI’s all-time list.
It was remade in 1984, a fact which I only note for completeness. It is a truly terrible film and features a Phil Collins song. Enough said.
Watch the original.

Scruggs, Charles. "Out Of The Black Past: The Image Of The Fugitive Slave In Jacques Tourneur's "Out Of The Past.." African American Review 44.1/2 (2011): 97-113. Academic Search Complete. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.
Naremore, James. More than Night: Film Noir and Its Contexts. Berkeley: U of California P, 1998
Fujiwara, Chris. Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1998…...

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