Movie Review: Out of the Past (1947)

Post war (ww2), intricately plotted film noir __ 8/10

Jeff Bailey: I sell gasoline, I make a small profit. With that I buy groceries. The grocer makes a profit. We call it earning a living. You may have heard of it somewhere.

Through the 1940s, before the Hollywood studio system folded itself into the social conformity of the 1950s, several well-written and superbly plotted stories made it to the silver screen. In the category of film noir, Out of the Past, starring Robert Mitchum—one of the more individualistic, risk-taking actors (even into the 1950s)—is one such gem.

Novel by Daniel Mainwaring
Screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring
Directed by Jacques Tourneur

Robert Mitchum … Jeff Bailey
Jane Greer … Kathie Moffat
Kirk Douglas … Whit Sterling
Rhonda Fleming … Meta Carson
Richard Webb … Jim
Steve Brodie … Jack Fisher
Virginia Huston … Ann Miller

The above statement from Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) occurs early in the movie as we find him in a small California town trying to lead a normal life. We even see him out fishing (!), with his local honey Ann (Virginia Huston), and looking every bit like the guy who wants to settle down, buy a house, raise a passel of kids in the country. Not! Bailey’s contemplation of the idyllic life is interrupted when another big man—menacing, obviously from a past Bailey wants to leave that way—finds Bailey, and gives him an appointment he cannot refuse.

Bailey knows he has to attend, that he has to deal with the situation. He makes a point of driving to his girlfriend’s home—her parents have always regarded the new boyfriend as a little shaky—and then laying it out for her. We get the background as a flashback from his talk with Ann. And it’s a complicated, though, oddly enough, a crystal clear tale where you need to pay attention (can’t wander off to the kitchen for more than a few seconds).

The bad guy is one Mr. Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), a really smooth and nasty little kingpin in the illegal-business regime. Not too long ago Bailey was a semi-dirty detective, LA I think, who did some occasional side work for Sterling. But the big job Bailey did for Sterling, the one that moves the story along, was that Bailey was commissioned to find a moll who shot and wounded Sterling, supposedly stole $40 grand from him, then fled to places unknown. I have to talk a little more about this woman Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) and her role in the plot because when we first see her, in Acapulco, alone, she’s absolutely a vision.

The movie is in black and white, and Bailey is at the bar in this open-air restaurant. Picture Rick’s Café Americain in Casablanca, during the day. It’s sunny outside, but the buildings around the square create shadows. She’s dressed in a lightweight suit, white, you can see the suggestion of her perfect thighs through the fabric of the skirt. She walks into the cafe with calm assertion, as if carried by the faint breeze in a gossamer carriage. With royal posture, she takes a seat at the table and looks around. Her eyes smile tauntingly, but not her lips, which are sensuous and not to be denied.

She has Bailey at hello.

So, okay, Bailey and Kathie become close, and the nuts are off the buggy. It all ends a few years back, not in the manner Bailey had hoped. Now, today, Whit Sterling wants him for something else, which does bear on the past; will Bailey be sucked in, even with all his street smarts? Stay tuned. I will say the complications of the plot ratchet up a notch in the current world, and perhaps some of the motivations challenge belief.

But it’s a good yarn, and not your run-of-the-mill romantic fiction.

Out of the Past gives a fairly authentic portrayal of a good cop in a bad system. This is in the 40s, too, where victimless crime laws—particularly drug laws—are still relatively immature. So in the context, Bailey is a good man. He’s even better for quitting the force and trying to make a go of it by the mundane process of “earning a living.” Mitchum does a fabulous job playing the less-than-perfect romantic lead; Kirk Douglas is pure silky meanness as Sterling; and I’ve already spoken of Jane Greer.

She does have more to do in the movie than to enter the cafe like the second coming. She’s all right in the give and take, as an actress creating a believable character, but it’s hard to top the introduction.

Is Out of the Past a great movie, say, like The Maltese Falcon? Well, yes, to me it’s at least as good as that one. People make a big deal out of MF (1941), but I look back and see plenty of goofy behavior that doesn’t add up. In Out of the Past, I must say, such purely unbelievable behavior—most of the unbelievable stuff is from the women characters—is at a minimum.

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