Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Essential Collection - Out of the Past

Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947) [10]

Tournerur is one of the great forgotten noir directors and I'm hard pressed to find another film noir that is as great as this one. Quite simply, it's one of my favorite films ever made. Robert Mitchum is perfect as Jeff Markham or Jeff Bailey, depending on the situation, a "detective" that gets ensnared with a femme fatale played by Jane Greer and shadowy rich man, done with the right amount of smug charm by Kirk Douglas. The true meat and potatoes of the story are like many other noirs, full of twists, set-ups, and double crosses. Markham was initially hired by Sterling (Douglas) to track down the femme fatale who had shot him and stole his money. Markham tracks her down in Mexico only to become enamored by her and help her allude Sterling. Their entanglements eventually lead to a murder and situation in which Markham retreats to a small town and becomes Bailey. Sterling's men happen to track Bailey down and he owing them a big favor, has no choice but to accept. Of course it's a set-up and once again, Bailey's weakness shows as the woman entraps him. There's no outcome but an untimely death.

What is unique about this film is how it tells its story. The entire background story is told in a flashback, Mitchum doing the first-person narration. The entire narrative ellipses takes up most of the first half of the film, in which we learn everything about who Bailey was and how he ended up where he was. It's odd to see a studio film of the era use elliptical narrative structure so prominently and more so, so successfully. The story told in the flashback flows so seamlessly that it never feels clunky or a waste. It's most important because that sequence is crucial to developing the characters for the second half of the film. Mitchum excels as the typical noir protagonist, an (now) ordinary man thrown into extraordinary circumstances. He plays Jeff with the right amount of casual indifference and grim understanding of what exactly he got himself into with Kathie. He recognizes his weakness at resisting women and Greer plays her role with the steely understanding that Jeff will do almost anything she asks. They're performances of what you expect out of any film noir with their mannerisms and language but somehow they make it seem go beyond genre. Tourneur's direction is flawless in that he doesn't let film noir stereotypes take over. He lets the actors act and the story do its work. Out of the Past also goes beyond genre; sometimes, film noir is held to different standards than other films but this is a great film, film noir or not.

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