Out of the Past (1947)

Jacques Tourneur | 1hr 37min

It only makes sense that a classical Hollywood director with as thorough a grounding in cinematic horror as Jacques Tourneur can so easily slip into film noir and flex his expressionistic style in this adjacent yet still distinct genre. It almost doesn’t matter that Out of the Past’s narrative is eventually pushed to the point of inscrutability, especially given how much Tourneur turns this into a strength of the piece, stacking up lies upon lies from supposed allies and enemies trying to outsmart each other. The manner in which private detective Jeff Markham manipulates a fresh murder scene to confound the killer who herself is using it to manipulate others is almost amusing in its complexity. As with all great noirs though, such convoluted entanglements are deliberately undercut by the atmosphere of impending doom hanging over antiheroes and villains alike, threatening to send them all to early graves in spite of their intricate, egotistic endeavours.

Being a film as fascinated by the inescapability of old sins and crimes as it is, Out of the Past remains perhaps one of the purest noirs in its fatalistic pull. Jeff’s own destiny is etched out from the start in his decision to run away with Kathy, the mysterious woman he has been hired to track down, though Tourneur initially brings us into the narrative after all this has already taken place. As far as we know at this point, Jeff is a gas station attendant working in a small mountain town, dating a good-natured country girl named Ann, and it is only when summoned by a shady figure named Whit that he divulges through flashbacks and voiceover the shady past that he has been trying to outrun.

Robert Mitchum playing a sly, manipulative detective, caught in these magnificently claustrophobic frames.

Such introspective presentations of urban and rural regions may even seem directly parallel to Shakespeare’s own contemplative considerations of court versus country life, whereby the latter represents a place of healing from the politics of the former. This is indeed the motivation for Jeff at least, who is ready to make a fresh start in Bridgeport after getting tangled up in murder, theft, and fraud in the city. As Tourneur lays out in the very first shot of a crossroads sign displaying the directions of both though, there is a connection that joins one to the other, and it is along this route that the gloom and danger of Jeff’s old life invades his new.

The very first shot – a sign showing the route between the city and the country, the past and the present.

Robert Mitchum finds the ideal role for his screen persona in Jeff Markham, a man whose dialogue sizzles with sharp, succinct turns of phrase. “Tell me why you’re so hard to please,” Kathy teases him. “Take me where I can tell you,” he replies with understated cheek, and this wit very much defines his nonchalant, pointed style all through Out of the Past. His fedora and trench coat might make him appear like any number of other hardboiled black-and-white detectives, and yet the dark charisma he carries rivals Humphrey Bogart’s, much of it coming from that deep, resonant voice which is just as suited for narration as it is for short, quick-witted responses.

Tourneur’s magnificent horror lighting revealing itself in scenes like these – a lamp toppling off its table as the door blows open, throwing this room into darkness and changing its atmosphere in an instant.

And yet as much as he acts like it, Jeff is not some cool, untouchable figure removed the danger of the piece. Around him, Tourneur’s lighting flickers from bright to starkly expressionist as quickly as it takes a lamp to topple off a table, and within the dark enclosures of mansions, apartments, and isolated cabins the detective is visually trapped behind drapes and doorways. Indeed, there always seems to be constant attention on Tourneur’s behalf to the manner in which characters are made vulnerable against others, often shrunken against those who spy on them from behind. Even when it isn’t at the forefront of the narrative, Tourneur is quietly underscoring that lurking threat that comes from behind, fatalistically drawing Jeff back into those past transgressions he would much rather hide from than confront directly and have to carry the weight of in all their hideous, damning indictments.

Layering of actors across foreground and background, often making Jeff a vulnerable figure.

Out of the Past is currently not available to stream in Australia.

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