Out of the Past
Robert Mitchum - Jeff Markham
Jane Greer - Kathie Moffat
Kirk Douglas - Whit Sterling
Rhonda Fleming - Meda Carson
Paul Valentine - Joe Stephanos
Virginia Huston - Ann
Jacques Tourneur - Director
Warren Duff - Producer
Geoffrey Homes - Screenwriter
Nicholas Musuraca - Cinematographer
Albert D'Agostino - Art Director
Roy Webb - Film Score
Out of the Past was the most spellbinding film yet to emerge from Dark City. It reconfigured genre cliches by investing them with depth and style. David Mainwaring (writing as Geoffrey Homes) constructed an involuted tale that owned up to what most films in the genre only hinted at: these stories are about the protagonist's quest for solutions to his own problems, not his client's. Mainwaring's serpentine story is all about mood and movement. It plays like a long, unhurried jazz riff, dreamily winding its way around various locations, shifting rhythms, seducing the audience toward the black hole at its heart. It nailed the bullseye, and its reverberations linger after repeated viewings: guilt, duplicity, self-deception, and the lonely seeker's need to push it to the bitter end, tempting fate once too often.
To slip the long reach of glib gangster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), private detective Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum) moves to a sleepy California mountain town, calls himself Bailey, and opens a service station. He's eventually uncovered by Whit's henchman, Joe Stafanos (Paul Valentine), who summons him to a meeting with the gangster. Jeff reveals the whole sordid saga to his mousey surrogate love, Ann (Virginia Huston), on the drive to Whit's palatial retreat in Tahoe. He vows to face the music, break from his past, and start fresh with her. But as soon as Jeff crosses the threshold, the double-crosses start piling up fast.
For its top two behind-the-camera creators, director Jacques Tourneur and director of photography Nicholas Musuraca, Out of the Past would be a career high point. Tourneur was so ideally suited to this material it's a crime he made only one other bona fide noir, Nightfall (Columbia, 1957). Born in Paris but raised in the states, by the early Forties he was given the directorial helm by innovative RKO producer Val Lewton. The duo produced a remarkable series of visually-inspired, low-budget horror films: Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Leopard Man (1943). The jungle was a short drive from Dark City, and Tourneur could have excelled at crime dramas. Instead, he was assigned an amazing number of forgettable costume pictures, such as Stars in My Crown, Anne of the Indies, and Way of the Gaucho.
In Out of the Past, Tourneur's fluency with mise en scene was extraordinary. No film better realized the swirl of shifting locations that made pulp fiction so intoxicating. New York to Mexico to Frisco to Tahoe. Ritzy penthouse to smoky cantina to moonlit beach to opulent apartment to roadside filling station to swank nightclub to lakefront lodge. With each new scene we share the rush of excitement drawing Mitchum deeper into limbo.
Nick Musuraca, who had photographed what many consider the first pre-Maltese Falcon noir, Stranger on the Third Floor (RKO, 1940), paints light and shadow on these settings with the touch of a master. Rather than cast stark swatches of light and dark--a noir convention--he used a subtle fill light to reveal the detail of the sets, and then played dramatically with the key lights. Each scene is visually engrossing--and distinct from those that come before and follow. The full monochromatic palette is used by Musuraca to achieve the richest chiaroscuro cinematography of any noir.
The actors also showed up to play. Kirk Douglas was never better than when his brash hamminess was channeled into nasty noir villains, and the character of Whit Sterling filled the bill. He clectrifies whenever he appears, a squirmy portrayal of a man too rich, too young, too ruthless. Jane Greer's flashing, cunning eyes betray a depthless venality not apparent in her slightly plump, puckish face. She vamps her way into the ranks of cinematic Circes, second to none. Then there's Mitchum, the slow, rolling piano theme beneath Kirk's insistent bass and Jane's sexy saxophone. We'll revisit Mitchum, and give him his full due. For now, consider this exchange from Out of the Past: "Don't,you see," Jane Greer tells Mitch after dispatching Kirk Douglas, "You'll only have me to make deals with now."
"Then build my gallows high, baby." Only Mitchum could toss off such a delirious and stilted line and make it as fluid as hard bop.
--EDDIE MULLER, from Dark City
The Lost World of Film Noir
Few Hollywood composers could, or would, summon the necessarily harsh mode to complement film noir so successfully, as consummately as Roy Webb. Only Miklós Rózsa, it seems, could match the determined, pulsating style. Musically, not only can Webb and Rózsa lay claim to creating the form and substance of the genre, they can also reap the kudos for being its greatest exponents. Miklós Rózsa has The Asphalt Jungle, The Killers, and Double Indemnity--but Webb had Notorious, Out of the Past, Crossfire, and all the unnerving Val Lewton films.
The stark fortissimo of Roy Webb's opening stanza instantly etches indelible drama in Out of the Past. A darkly-sweet love theme is borne on an undercurrent of unease before relief is found in a busy "town motif," a theme for Bridgeport--bustling middle America personified. Poignant high divided strings underline the essentially piteous nature of the tale, with all the major protagonists coming to grief--but a heartening conclusion confirms that life in Bridgeport will eventually return to normality.
--DAVID WISHART, from the liner notes,
The Film Music of Roy Webb
A selection of Out of the Past related films.
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A selection of Out of the Past in books.
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