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It was the bottom of the barrel, and I was scraping it.


Out of the Past


One of the preeminent film noirs, but I have to admit, I was a little cool on Out of the Past. Perhaps it’s the resolutely unflustered Robert Mitchum, stoned out of his gourd, or perhaps it’s down to horror maestro Jacques Tourneur, creating very pretty pictures with DP Nicholas Musuraca but not really a whole lot of tension. Certainly, a labyrinthine plot is no barrier to these movies emerging with honours – The Big Sleep wears its resistance to attempts at interrogation as a badge of pride – and this one’s, while it demands the attention, isn’t too obscure in that regard. Maybe it’s simply that, with these kinds of cynical yarns, you have to care that you don’t care, but since Bob proves so indifferent, to an extent so do I.

Bailey: Let’s go down to the bar. You can cool off while we try to impress each other.

Whereas, Bogie always did. He was initially interested in making this, it seems, off the back of The Big Sleep, but then RKO snapped it up. Would they have killed Bogie off at the end, as per Mitchum here? Perhaps he would have been granted a reprieve of more marked moral fibre, since Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey is presumably considered fair game for his willingness to carry on with uber-duplicitous femme fatale Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) and pass on requesting any police action in response to her trail of bodies (including Jeff’s former partner). If Mitchum is stolid throughout, Greer takes the cake as far as conniving noir ladies go. The picture has something of a sliding scale in that regard; Rhonda Fleming’s Meta Carson – is Meta a name? – is simply up to no good, but Ann Miller (Virginia Huston) is a regular angel and pronounced far too good for the likes of Bailey. 

Ann: She’s can’t be all bad. No one is.
Bailey: Well, she comes he closest.

The supporting cast are generally more than solid; an early Kirk Douglas, later one of Hollywood’s foremost rapists, is still earning his stripes in supporting turns here and illustrates that he’s most at home with unrepentant villainy (worth recognising too that both he and Mitchum were barely 30 at this point). Whit’s lack of subtlety proves to be his undoing, since suggestions like “I should have kicked your teeth in” acts as a cue for Kathie to shoot him. Paul Valentine is his very shootable lieutenant Joe Stefanos (ultimately, he’s less shot than fishing rod’d, hooked by mute kid Dickie Moore and hauled off a cliff. Nice casting technique there). 

Anything Bailey comes up with ends up being undone by Kathie, always a ploy ahead; he isn’t a stumbling sap like William Hurt in later neo-noir Body Heat, but he just isn’t in her same calculating league. In the end, he shops her, but the only difference in their fates is who is riddled with fewer bullet holes. 

Bailey: Keep the martinis dry. I’ll be back.

Daniel Mainwaring adapted his own novel Build My Gallows High (published the previous year), and the flashback structure that kicks off the picture is a little on the awkward side. Once Out of the Past is moving forward, it never feels like the pressure is truly on Bailey, probably because he’s high as a kite (Mitchum would be arrested for possession the following year). As Mitchum noirs go, my preference is for The Big Steal (1949), also with Greer (Greer would show up in the Out of the Past remake too, the less-than-amazing Against All Odds, more remembered for Phil Collins’ title song than anything in the movie itself).

Passing curiosities here include Jeff, on the trail of Kathie, being told by Eunice (Theresa Harris) that her friend “got sick being vaccinated” (Jeff deduces “You don’t get vaccinated for Florida, but you do for Mexico” and heads to Acapulco. Where he doesn’t go loco. More degrees of Phil Collins). And they say jab side effects are a modern thing! Perhaps marginally less profoundly deadly back then. 

Bailey: How big a chump can you get to be? I was finding out.

On the Bogie front, it’s amusing that Two Men and a Drum Machine should have used his face in the video for their 1988 hit Tired of Getting Pushed Around, since it samples Out of the Past twice: the main lyric “I’m tired of getting pushed around” and (in the film) in quick succession “Now, do you wanna talk business, or do you wanna play house?” The two men were, of course, members of ’80s pop combo Fine Young Cannibals, a name that might seem no more than a relatively innocuous literary quote, rather than an intimation of adrenochrome addiction. However, according to Donald Marshall, they could be seen at the cloning centres and ate human flesh for a dare (presumably along the lines of “Call yourselves cannibals?”) Also on the pop front “Baby I don’t care”, a famous Mitchum line here, would be the title of a Transvision Vamp song around the same time as Two Men’s.

Meta: You look like an underweight ghost.

Pauline Kael suggested Out of the Past was “empty trash, but you keep watching it” which is probably closer to the truth than the adulation heaped on it these days. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Don Macpherson and his gush that it it’s a “hallucinatory voyage” and “one of the most bewildering and beautiful films ever made”. Further still, the “mood of obsession was never more powerfully suggestive” (what, from sleepy Bob?) “Superbly-crafted pulp” is flagrant overstatement, but a good few critics clearly feel that way (it was 72nd in Time Out’s Centenary Top 100).

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