Monday, August 11, 2008
Out of the Past (1947)
(This is a review for http://www.moviezeal.com/ and its month-long look at classic film noir...)
With Out of the Past, Jacques Tourneur crafted the most somberly poetic, unforgettably spellbinding of all American film noirs. Never has the ineluctably rendered force of doom been more palpably, hauntingly captured. Noir at its essence is about people making bad choices, and having to live with the consequences of their actions. Many noirs take place in flashback, meticulously detailing the protagonist's descent into the muck and mire of the grim, harsh world in which he has woefully found himself. Others are linear in presentation, mysteriously and dramatically emphasizing the twists, blind alleys and unforgiving bumps in the road. The metaphysical imperative of Out of the Past's dreamlike narrative—which has an approximately thirty-minute flashback in which the principal lets another character know some dirty secrets before returning to the perpendicular story—is foretold in its title. The protagonist has tried to outrun his past and hide from it, and for a while he succeeds. Yet he cannot escape it. No one ever can.
Robert Mitchum plays Jeff Bailey, henceforth Jeff Markham, a role offered to Dick Powell and John Garfield among others. Despite the superficial similarities to other performances by those and other actors, it is impossible to now see anyone as the character but Mitchum. With his performance, he would create his on-screen persona—a dour, laconic, sleepy-eyed inscrutability. That aura could be molded to fit the qualities of probity (as it already had been in his Oscar-nominated performance in the 1945 William A. Wellman war picture, Story of GI Joe) or villainy. Tourneur, the gifted humanist, approaching a genre some insist represents the withering of humanism while others contend it is just a filmically dark mirror held up to humanism, whose astonishing cinematic fluency and melange of emotional and cerebral flourishes enabled him to gracefully delve into the humanity of the inhuman specters of his excellent horror films for RKO (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man), opted for the richest course. Markham is merely a man whose meaninglessly factitious and unpleasant life as half of a lowly two-man detective agency (“We called ourselves detectives,” he says with mocking ruefulness) has led him nowhere fast. When he spots a deliriously sensual exit ramp he decides to turn off, all the while knowing that tragedy inevitably awaits him on this new course. Tourneur communicates the intoxicating, ill-fated pull of temptation with immeasurable sensitivity and skill. For Mitchum, the conscious acceptance of his own doom seems to be an innate piece of his entire being, remarkably heightened by the equally scintillating and profound skein of a screenplay written by Daniel Mainwairing (as Geoffrey Homes), based on his novel, “Build My Gallows High” (the title of the film in Great Britain). Markham is not a simplistically pathetic dope who dreams of a bright future that will never be. Out of the Past's extirpation of any hope for Markham is exhaustively mounted but entirely serene, leaving the conditions so that the final effect is like watching a fish resignedly swimming upstream, doomed to be overtaken.
While immediately portraying the emerging threat to Markham's solitude, Out of the Past begins by illustrating the basic, jejune pleasures Markham could forever partake in. He is fishing at a lake with his girlfriend, the gentle, simple Ann (Virginia Huston). He's a man at ease, his knowing guard finally whittled down just a little as he has taken to his new life. He now owns a gasoline station in the small town of Bridgeport, California, near Mono Lake, far away from the gritty, seedy New York City streets of his past. He contentedly flirts with Ann. This opening scene is the happiest and lightest of the picture (both temperamentally and visually). Yet an ominousness is faintly cast upon it. Ann notices that clouds are gathering in the sky above. She continually questions him, and the way he answers her, by slyly dodging the pointedness behind her subtly probing inquiries demonstrates the underlying tension between he and her based on matters unknown to her that relate to his shadowy past. Markham demonstrably does not fit in as he is truly of another, darker world, at least still partly bound to his past. The tragic inevitability of Markham's past revisiting him and pulling him back from this time and place is perhaps the quintessence of film noir. This scene is the moment through which the rest of the story pierces, shattering the idyllic congruence by overturning its basis. That Markham's new life is built on a lie—or, at best, a concealment of the entire truth, primarily from Ann—could have been a cornerstone of many a film's ethical treatise. Yet Tourneur is vastly more mature than that; Out of the Past delicately mourns the unraveling of Markham's well-intentioned impulse to seek refuge, physical, emotional and spiritual, just as surely as it possesses a distinctively, limpidly sober assessment of every character and their tragic turns.
The emerging threat to Markham's possible paradise is a henchman for a powerful, rich gangster named Whit Sterling. Sterling is played by Kirk Douglas in his second film role, his performance honed to perfection, its unctuousness and businesslike gravity conveying mercilessness beneath the collected exterior. Sterling's employee, Joe Stefanos, played by Paul Valentine, who gives a quietly sensitive portrayal in what is usually a shallow role, contacts Markham and instructs him that Sterling wishes to see him. This act, of the past catching up with Markham, propels everything that follows. Markham drives Ann on his way to Sterling's palatial estate overlooking Lake Tahoe, telling her everything about his past life as an unscrupulous gumshoe after warning her that much of it will hurt her. Ann accepts the burden of the truth. Firstly, his real name is Markham, not Bailey. Subsequently, Markham recounts a sordid tale of theft, selfishness, lust, murder and betrayal.
In the first scene of the flashback, we are introduced to Sterling and Markham's partner, Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie). Sterling has been shot by his very own woman, who has apparently stolen $40,000 from him. Yet Sterling cares more about possessing the woman than the lost money. Meanwhile, Fisher reckons that Sterling is still alive because, “A dame with a rod is like a guy with a sewing needle.” Words to remember. Sterling wants Markham to find his moll, Kathie Moffat, and “bring her back.” He will pay Markham $10,000, half now, half when she has been brought back to him. Markham thinks it over for a couple of seconds and says, “Okay.”
Eventually Markham, in his hunt for Moffat, finds himself in Acapulco. He's sitting in a little cafe staying cool, positioned so he can watch who enters and exits the establishment. In one of the great iconic shots of noir, Jane Greer's Kathie Moffat almost magically appears, walking in from the oppressive heat, dressed in an ostentatious white outfit and ladies hat. The effect is startling in a plethora of ways. Viewed from Markham's perspective, her pulchritudinous features instantly demand our attention; the contrast between her figure's movements against the cool darkness of the large room is breathtaking; the use of the ceiling light illuminating the table at which she sits brings her into clear focus just as she accentuates her shapeliness by sitting down; between the white dress and the large circular hat, she may look like an angel. She certainly looks like a heaven-sent dream to Markham, who is unable to belie his true reading of Moffat, even to Ann: “And then I saw her, coming out of the sun, and I knew why Whit didn't care about the forty grand.”
Moffat is one of the grandest creations in the lexicon of noir. Surpassing the tropes of the femme fatale while constituting an archetypal breakthrough all at once, she is more powerfully natural and seductively vulnerable than any other temptress the genre has to offer. She is the ne plus ultra of her type. Her crystalline, enigmatically dark and knowing eyes emit an incapacitating nimbus. Her words are often as sweet as nectar, their rhythm a steady, lustful tonic. She is fierce and sexy, girlish and womanly all at once. Her ability to playact is astounding, and the speed with which she is able to morph into something darkly malevolent, intensely unsettling. Not knowing her back-story, we are left to speculate where she comes from and what she genuinely is. Why did she allow herself to become a hoodlum's central fixation? Her maid tells Markham that she was pushed around and beaten by Sterling. Was it this kind of treatment that created the stone-hearted cruelty beneath her beguiling exterior? Or had she been long scheming for an opportune moment in which to brazenly attempt to murder Sterling and steal some of his “dough” for herself? The courting between Markham and Moffat is linearly realistic, yet the filmic technique of Tourneur's, marinating the long flashback in an achingly erotic phantasmagoria of alluring cinematic compositions bathes the entire affair in a heady sultriness. She tests him as women are apt to do, making herself only more irresistible, all the while “sizing him up,” perceptively sensing his identity as a tenacious, professional man Sterling would deploy to find her.
Moffat, while a comprehensively, empathetically drawn character, like every considerable personage in the film, is also the most poisonous and lethal of all femme fatales, her avarice unquenchable, her ruthlessness unsurpassed. Greer is a wonderment, and at her most devastating when using every last ounce of the femme half of femme fatale. Beyond her beauty, Moffat is an especially sinister and effective seductress because she holds a certain power over men, who continually underestimate her, and her emotional pleas and retorts are weaved with the adroitness of a spider spinning its web. Upon seeing her and only barely speaking with her, Mitchum's Markham finds his stoic cynicism melted away by sheer carnality. Their respective outlooks on the world are encapsulated when they go out on the town. She's playing roulette. Markham takes note of her unchecked exuberance, her willingness to put it all on the line and admonishes, “That's not the way to win.” She counters, “Is there a way to win?” “There's a way to lose more slowly,” he notes, explaining his fatalistically droll outlook on life. On a moonlit Mexican beach he becomes wholly lost to her. Much of the sequence is excellently composed against the backdrop of fishing nets, indicating Markham's capture. Moffat attempts to disarm him. “I didn't know what I was doing. I, I didn't know anything except how much I hated him,” she says, speaking of Sterling. With each new word she tilts her bewitching face closer and closer to Markham's. “But I didn't take anything. I didn't, Jeff. Don't you believe me?” He's already disarmed, and now a goner. “Baby, I don't care.” Their consummation is imminent.
Every character is drawn with enriching compassion. Moffat and Markham enjoy a dizzyingly blithe period similar to that of a “honeymoon”; Moffat's entire demeanor is one of unchecked happiness. Beyond the trappings of cynically using “the dupe,” Moffat seems truly infatuated with Markham, as he is with her. Only when their past catches up with them does she change (revert?) into something far darker and colder. What would have happened had such a situation not presented itself? The past found Markham and Moffat, however, just as it finally finds Markham in the film's first ten minutes. Sterling, though abusive and cruel, understandable in his fits of anger and jealousy when he confronts Markham and Moffat, both of whom have betrayed him. Valentine's Stefanos envies Markham's intelligence, and as such displays surprising depths. He is haunted by an act of violence he commits, shuddering as he recalls it to Moffat.
The chiaroscuro lighting by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (who photographed the 1940 Stranger on the Third Floor, often considered the quintessential pre-Maltese Falcon noir) is nothing short of being thoroughly mesmeric. Musuraca superlatively etches complex monochromatic moving paintings, brought to exacting detail exceptionally composed with a gentle fill light. In another case of the film being both a standard-bearer for film noir and a truly transcendent motion picture, Musuraca's fill light allowed Musuraca to play, usually quite subtly, with the key lights, while going against the much more familiar genre convention of casting stark pools of dark and light. The result befits the picture perfectly; the lighting captures the ambidexterity and tonal nuances of the story and all of the dramatic participants.
Evidently, according to Jeff Schwager, who read all versions of the screenplay for Film Comment, Mainwaring's as well as James M. Cain's drafts were largely “lousy” and that the bulk of the dazzling dialogue was written by Frank Fenton, a “B-movie” writer who in 1957 co-wrote John Ford's The Wings of Eagles. The screenplay contains an enormity of lacerating lines of dialogue for all of the main characters, directed at one another, but it is the self-inflicted wounds that cut most deeply. This, before Markham has made love to the black widow: “I went to Pablo's that night. I knew I'd go every night until she showed up. I knew she knew it. I sat there and drank bourbon and I shut my eyes, but I didn't think of a joint on 56th Street,” he recalls after being told by Moffat that Pablo's, adjacent to a cinema, will remind him of a place on 56th Street in New York City. “I knew where I was and what I was doing. What a sucker I was.”
Roy Webb's darkly romantic main theme helps distill the essence of the tale, its loveliness heavily tinged with tragic despondence. Webb's lush score, which he often distills into dissonant chords to underline certain moments of ominousness, helps enable one to more fully comprehend the theme of contrasts. Markham, at separate times, has found himself in two triangles. One, from his past, with a “bad” woman, and her “bad” man, and one in a small California town, with a “good” woman and a “good” man named Jim (Richard Webb), who, as he tells Markham, has known Ann since they were children, when he long ago “fixed her roller skates.” Markham's interventions with one pairing, too awful for him, and with another, too innocent for him, are both underscored by the enchantingly melodious languidness of Webb's evocative score and the contrast is made singularly accurate by the fidelity with which it is associated with Markham. Webb composed terrific horror movie scores for Tourneur's Val Lewton films as well as usually sparse and terse themes for noirs like Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, Robert Siodmak's The Spiral Staircase and Fritz Lang's Clash by Night along with many other films.
The socio-political implications of Tourneur's tapestry are, like the film, subtle but charged with stunning potency. In the wake of the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century, in a time of rampant disillusionment and crushing disappointment, not unlike the common experience that greatly influenced the writings of men in the wake of the Great War in which they had found themselves—Hemingway, Faulkner, and Dos Passos—Tourneur creates a societal commentary. The jubilant licentiousness that Markham finds is in Mexico, outside the borders of America. At this time, without a genuine friend in the world he knows, he latches on to the brightly and burningly lascivious life he believes will be an answer to his life of endless questions and furtive dealings. Postwar discontentment in this way mutates into a vast, sorrowful breeding ground for greater efforts of self-evaluation and highly possible amorality. Tourneur, the son of Maurice Tourneur, seemed to cherish the outdoors and countryside, and as his other film noir, Nightfall (1957) demonstrated, his interpretation of the country, as represented by the harmonic beauty that belonged to it was a natural contrast to the suffocating sprawl, paranoia and unease of the gloomy urban setting. No noir has captured this paradigm as gracefully as this film, however.
Tourneur's command is glorious, his mise-en-scene continuously the art of a master at the absolute height of his powers. Consider one shot, early in the picture, when Markham has opened the car's passenger door for Ann to get in, before he drives her off so he can tell her the entire lurid affair. Tourneur fastidiously composes a powerful shot of Ann sitting in the passenger seat while Markham walks around the car, drops in and positions himself behind the driver's wheel. She is framed precisely so that the passenger side of the window creates a frame around her, and Markham remains outside of it even after he has entered the vehicle. It lasts for ten seconds, and it's Tourneur's incisive way of informing the viewer that this relationship will not conclude on a note of happiness only just seen at the lake five minutes earlier in the film's running time. This plays out partly as a provocatively visual reinforcement of Markham's statement to Ann seconds earlier, when speaking of their relationship, “It's not going to work, is it?”
When Markham exits his car in the morning and walks up to Sterling's estate overlooking Lake Tahoe, watching Ann move into the driver's seat and begin driving away, Tourneur composes a stately, important shot that illustrates Markham's virtual imprisonment. He is shot from behind against the estate driveway's steel gate, looking like a prisoner dwarfed by imposing bars.
The story shifts after Markham meets Sterling again. Sterling has another job for Markham and it involves tax evasion and blackmail. Markham soon discovers that Sterling has taken Moffat back into the fold. In the end she ran back to what she knew. A tense, outstandingly written scene over breakfast finds the three of them attempting to find some kind of civilized ground on which to discuss their current position as relates to one another. Douglas and Tourneur allow the gangster's cruelty to show more, as Sterling plays it into a cutting interlocutory, taking actual digs at Markham while formally complimenting him. Afterwards, Moffat whines that she couldn't help concluding her odyssey back in Sterling's treacherous orbit. “You can never help anything, can you?” Markham states with hurtful anger. “You're like a leaf that blows from one gutter to another.”
When Markham at least nominally goes along with Sterling's assignment (there is no need to rob anyone of the surprises that come with the details) he finds himself in a nightmarishly bizarre urban jungle called San Francisco during one long, labyrinthine night. Important characters and places begin to take particular meanings (the slippery and slimy “Leonard Eels”; the self-absorbed femme fatale doppelganger to Moffat and ephemerally loyal Meta Carson, played by Rhonda Fleming; even the establishment “Teeter's” points to the precariousness of certain fates to be decided). Tourneur and Musuraca display greater fidelity to noirish lighting staples here, but the backdrop is of significant import, as the entire experience is like one elaborate cat-and-mouse game as well as a particularly engrossing charade and slyly sinister simulacrum created by nefarious foes with whom Markham must contend.
Tourneur actually frames Markham during another sequence against a framed picture of Moffat just as the theme of a character being framed is narratively explored. Late in the picture, when it seems Markham and Moffat have, in their own ways, perhaps resigned themselves to a certain ignominious fate together Tourneur shoots Markham in a light foreground while Moffat, appearing completely at peace, reservedly sedate, wearing what oddly resembles a nun's habit, emerges from the depths of the dark shadows behind him. It's a scene of troubling tranquility, ambiguously, abstractedly eerie, fatalism given a pulsating heartbeat.
Out of the Past is the consummate film noir, yet it completely exceeds such designations. It's an elegant crime drama that plays out like a forlorn ballad, with each note leading into the next integral piece of the reverie. Peopled with definitively carved but wholly natural, extensively rounded individuals who encircle one another in an almost predetermined contest with earthly lives and eternal souls on the line, hopelessly doomed, and ostensibly given the worst of burdens: knowing that they are.