We don’t have many indigenous art forms in America, save what we mix and match from our inheritances. Jazz is one. The Western picture is another. Film noir makes a disreputable, thrilling third, but when we think of the finest American movies ever made, our thoughts rarely venture to that knotty, and naughty, side of town despite the too-ample reservoir that awaits us. Indeed, today too much is mistakenly categorized as noir—a modern cop psychological police procedural like True Detective, say. But that’s simply a matter of our current culture taking the liberty to term things as they please, which amounts to the type of shystering that the hardscrabble characters of any great noir picture would throw down, sweating the consequences later.
That said, I have seen Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 noir Out of the Past a great many times, and it may well deserve to be in the company of Citizen Kane, Vertigo, The Searchers, and The General as one of this country’s best motion pictures. And that is in large part due to its star, Robert Mitchum, whose hundredth birthday we mark on August 6.
Mitchum is rarely discussed as a master thespian, an American acting talent to rival England’s Laurence Olivier, or even Marlon Brando or Jimmy Cagney, the man Orson Welles called the best we have produced. That may be because Mitchum came to a sort of prominence by acting in popular oaters like Hoppy Serves a Writ (1943), a William Boyd Hopalong Cassidy vehicle with Mitchum billed laconically as a “henchman.” Mitchum joked that he had two acting styles: with a horse and without. Yet right from his early Bs, he had presence, with his wide-squared shoulders, a walk that seemed never to be in a hurry to get anywhere, but which advanced rapidly all the same, and the prepossessing attitude of a man who knew that better ventures than hiding out in the cave over the bluff awaited.
One of those ventures took the form of a role in William Wellman’s 1945 picture, The Story of G.I. Joe, a masterwork of martial cinema from a mid-century genre that was long on glut, flag waving, and hooray for our side-isms, and short on tonal variety, invention, and that wellspring of deep personal feeling that the best movies have. Mitchum almost singlehandedly saved the movie.
Movie critic James Agee liked to argue that Mitchum couldn’t carry a film—that he was excellent if you caught him in a supporting role, but no film’s quality could rely on those square-rigged shoulders. I deeply respect Agee, but one of the joys of reading him after the fact is that he could be so wildly wrong but wrote so well that you scarcely cared at the time. Even our best critics tend to produce a lot of crazily erroneous critical statements that we look back on later with a sigh. Reading some of Charlie Parker’s notices way back when might persuade you, if you didn’t know better, that someone had stuck a saxophone in Pluto’s mouth and told him to solo while Mickey Mouse clapped along.
In Out of the Past, the only things that clap along with Mitchum are your feelings, specifically those of the stripe that make a movie viewer pull for a person who doesn’t actually exist—yet in a way exists more than most of us do up on a white screen, that great rectilinear ghost that projects stories upon us as we project our innermost sensations back upon it. When all is said and done, even the noir genre is still a form of theater, and as always theater carries with it its origin as a means to testify to the things we ultimately find mysterious about ourselves and thereby sacred in our creator.
Film noir buffs are aware of the tropes of the form. For instance, there will be a femme fatale, an evil woman who will cause a morally complex—but mostly good—man to make decisions he normally would not make, which will be his undoing, and possibly even the cause of his death. There will be an endless parade of shadows, of sharp lines, of wet streets, and a prevalence of night over day.
Most film noirs are urban concerns, but Out of the Past is oriented around the bucolic town of Bridgeport, California, which is where a henchman named Joe Stefanos, played wonderfully by Paul Valentine, is driving through when he stops at a gas station run by Jeff Bailey, played by our man Mitchum. His best friend is a deaf and dumb boy, known simply as the Kid (Dickie Moore), and he is romancing a gem of a girl in Virginia Huston’s Ann Miller.
Stefanos works for a Tahoe crime boss, specializing in gambling, named Whit Sterling, (played by Kirk Douglas in the actor’s first virtuosic turn). Bailey used to be a private investigator whom Whit had hired to find the woman who shot and ran out on him in Jane Greer’s Kathie Moffatt. He wants to see him now, as Stefanos makes threateningly clear.
We then venture into the film’s first flashback, for which noir films have special affection. But so do you and so do I, for that is the manner in which we are oriented as humans. We are always flashing back in retrospective introspection, hoping to learn something to stand us in better stead in the future. It’s human nature, and it’s also the central tenet of film noir—how to extricate one’s self from the past, and how to cleave out room for meaning in worlds we have yet to enter.
If you know Out of the Past, you know that its plot can be a touch nebulous. It’s not nearly as much so as Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946), which eventually gave up the ghost of actually making sense in favor of working in more choice lines from Lauren Bacall. Out of the Past isn’t actually all that difficult to follow, once you work out one tricky little plot point, which we’ll come to in a moment. We learn that Jeff Bailey was once Jeff Markham, that he tracked down Whit Sterling’s missing moll in Mexico, fell for her, ran off with her, and hid out with her in a small house out in the sticks, where his former detective partner caught up with the two of them. The ex-partner tries to blackmail Bailey, the two then duke it out before Greer’s Kathie Moffatt puts a slug in the guy and runs off, leaving Markham/Bailey utterly screwed.
All of this is told to Ann, as she drives Bailey to Sterling’s place. Before we have met Kathie Moffatt in real time, within the picture, we think—and I defy you not to—that she is the most deceptive character in all of cinema. People tell stories about their nefarious exes like they tell the-fish-that-got-away stories, with hyperbole no doubt bolstered as a result of heartbreak. The heart tends to pump up reality, super-sizing it for both good and low matters. Tourneur’s advice to Greer as they were shooting these scenes: “No ‘big eyes.’ No expressive. In the beginning, you act like a nice girl. But then, after you kill the man you meet in the little house, you become a bad girl. Yes? First half good girl. Second half, bad girl.” Yes; she got it.
Meanwhile, Mitchum has that larger-than-the-screen-can-contain physical appearance working for him, but it’s his voice that really motorized his kind of acting genius. The last time I saw Out of the Past was earlier this summer on a big screen at the Brattle Theatre, a Cambridge, Massachusetts movie house that has been around since the early 1950s. The Brattle has for decades now touted itself as the area’s unofficial film school, and in that spirit I took up my normal seat in the last row of the balcony. This time I “watched” Out of the Past with my eyes closed, treating it like an album, a story woven into a sonic tapestry.
A lot of responsibility rests on Mitchum’s voice, because it is that voice that carries us through the flashbacks. It has lilt and power, it has musical finesse, it has that same quality of poetry come alive that you experience when you listen to Dylan Thomas’s 1952 recording of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” but with that soaked-in-vinegar quality of what the noir man always comes to know at some point: that things are not auguring well, likely won’t work out well, and, while a good man is hard to find, one who does the right thing when the writing is on the wall is harder still to locate.
But we find him in Mitchum. At Sterling’s Tahoe residence, we learn that Kathie is back in the fold. The look on Mitchum’s face when he sees her could be freeze-framed on the screen and used as a model for Picasso to fracture into a hundred little blocks of human feeling, a Cubist/noir portrait that pulls the geometry of the soul out of a person and etches it upon a countenance.
Witt sends Bailey on a fool’s errand that is intended both to spring the former from his troubles with the IRS and to double-cross the man who he believes double-crossed him. We end up in San Francisco, there’s a frame-up, and, having seen this film so many times now, I am certain that the confusion as to the plot arises when Bailey hides in a room and catches a woman making a phone call regarding a plot to end his life. We expect it to be Theresa Harris, who has just entered the movie as Eunice Leonard and is central to this subplot about stealing Sterling’s indicting tax papers; it is in fact Jane Greer’s Kathie Moffatt, with some similarity of appearance throwing you off for a bit. That’s not shocking: As Greer said, it was like the set was lit with not all that many matches, so that you often couldn’t even tell how big the crew shooting the picture was.
Geoffrey Homes—who was actually Daniel Mainwaring (everyone has two names in this film!)—wrote the book on which the movie is based, and he also had a lot to do with the screenplay. We often like noirs because of their quotability, and the great-quote quotient in Out of the Past is dizzyingly high, which is perfect for Mitchum’s acrobatic voice. He is the Keats of this shadowy netherworld that has come to roost on the surface of daily lives, and he even manages to be funny with the way he alters words cadentially, giving special ironic emphasis to a syllable you wouldn’t expect to have any.
After I sat through the picture with my eyes closed, I stayed for the next showing, and opened them wide. I could watch this film another hundred times, and I know my pulse will race yet again when Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey, who we know is not going to escape this particular jam, comes to learn, right on the verge of a new life, the last act of evil that has been put in motion against him by Greer’s Moffatt. She believes his free will has been taken from him, and that she will now be calling the shots. In a voice all but boxed in by icicles, she tells Bailey that she is running the show now, and he has no one left to make deals with because she is all that remains for him.
But there is never just one person for anything when there is also yourself. The smallest shape in noir relationships is a triangle, it turns out. That’s why I’m never sad at the end of Out of the Past, and it’s also why I want to lower my shoulder and knock down the closest wall on my way out of theatre and back onto the street of my quotidian life.
Bailey/Mitchum pauses for a beat, and then says, “Well, build my gallows high, baby.” Meaning, it takes a tall gallows to hang a big man, so start rounding up the wood, because you’re going to need a lot of it. And start rounding up the wood for Robert Mitchum and Out of the Past, because there has never been a better pairing in American movie history, an un-hangable tandem conspiring—in the good way—for a deathless work. The best noir men always get out alive, in their own way.