Saturday, June 5, 2010

Movie Review: Out of the Past

Out of the Past Mitchum"Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in."

The fact that we can never escape our past is a theme in countless crime dramas.

Out of the Past, a 1946 crime noir starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas, is an early example of just how powerful that theme can be. A lean, cool movie with all the backstabbing, moral ambiguity, and hopeless fatalism that you could hope for.

Mitchum plays the nihilistic, unflappable Jeff Markham, who has changed his name to Jeff Bailey and opened a petrol station in a small town in California. Markham was previously a private investigator in New York before accepting a case that forced him to take it on the lam and change his identity. A former associate passes through town looking for Markham, and quickly finds him. Markham registers little emotion as he sees Joe Stephanos waiting for him at his petrol station.

In fact, no character in this film so much as flinches when some bit of nastiness comes down the pipes; only perhaps the odd flash of rage when things really heat up. The more likely reaction to any horrific piece of news is not real fear, excitement or worry. No, lighting a cigarette is always the most logical thing to do!

Stephanos wants Markham to go to meet Whit Sterling, played by Kirk Douglas. Markham agrees, and a few days later he sets off to Lake Tahoe with his girlfriend Ann. On the ride up to meet the heavy from out of the past, Markham regales Ann (and isn't it always the case that the second-choicer in any Hollywood flick is very attractive in her own right, but is always missing that certain something that the lead actress has?) with the tale of what led him to this point. And so begins the classic extended flashback scene that is so often a part of crime noir flicks.

The Extended Flashback

Seems that a number of year ago Sterling sent Markham after his woman, Kathie Moffet, who had taken off after pilfering 40 thousand dollars of Sterling's money. She also put a slug in his guts before skipping town. Markham took the gig to find her and wound up in Mexico, that teeming city of millions of people. Within that sprawling mass of humanity, Markham quickly found Moffet.

And she instantly knows why he is there but plays along. She casually drops the fact that she knows his real intentions after they kiss on the beach one night. He similarly doesn't flinch when she tells him this. Instantly enamored with each other, they start trading cryptic, double entendres, and acting nihilistic and doomed.

When they meet on the beach for the second time, they engage in some of the memorable dialogue that is part of the film.

"I didn't know you were so little."

"I'm taller than Napolean."

"You're prettier too."

Markham's character demonstrates one of the many truisms that is part of the slow suicide shadow world that exists in great crime noirs. You might as well just try to take a woman like she's yours for the taking. Perhaps you'll get humiliated by rejection, but it's better than acting like a castrated loser who will get humiliated anyway.

Still in the extended flashback scene, Markham and Moffet leave Mexico after Sterling gets hip to what they are up to—Sterling and Stephanos show up at the door of Markham's bungalow in Acapulco wearing their New York suits. Markham and his new dame head to California and try to start over in San Francisco. Markham's former partner—Fisher— sees him at a racetrack one day, and then locates him and Moffet at a cabin in the woods a few days later.

Of course, in Out of the Past nothing is ever what it seems. But still, it's not all that surprising to Markham or the audience when we find out Kathie has been stringing Markham along. The sly look on Moffet's face as she shoots Fisher during a standoff in the cabin tells you that there is more to her than we have seen so far. She drives off and leaves Markham with Fisher's corpse and a bankbook that she dropped, which reveals evidence of the 40 thousand dollars she had been insisting she never stole.

Out of the Past

Back now to the present, as Markham concludes the retelling of his past to Ann, and they pull up in front of Sterling's mansion in Lake Tahoe. Ann drives off back to Bridgeport and leaves Markham alone to casually walk back into whatever Sterling has waiting for him. And what a non-shocker when Markham reacquaints himself with Sterling, and Moffet waltzes into the room and rears her sultry viper head.

A great twisting plot plays out over the rest of Out of the Past. Sterling and Moffet try to reel Markham back in so that they can use him to take the fall for the murder of someone who was trying to lean on them. Turns out they will also try to pin Fisher's unsolved murder on him—Moffet has conveniently fingered Markham in a written confession that they have tucked away in a safe.

The audience knows, and Markham knows, that Moffet is a nasty piece of work who will do whatever it takes to come out on top. Like most crime noirs, despite the ostensible lack of morals of most of the characters, this is in fact a morality play. Markham susses out that he is in some kind of frame-up, but goes along because he feels there is no other choice. Maybe he will right some wrongs, and see the scum who tried to ruin his life suffer in the process.

Great Lines

Some great lines throughout the movie in the crime noir/gangster/movie talk tradition:

"A dame with a rod [gun] is like a guy with a knitting needle."

Markham to Sterling and his thug when they find Markham in Mexico and sense that he may not be telling the truth: "Let's go down to the bar. You can cool off while we try to impress each other."

A cabbie to Markham: "You look like you're in trouble."


"Because you don't act like it."

"I think I'm in a frame."

Moffet and Markham in one of their many great exchanges: "I don't want to die."

"Neither do I. But if I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die last."

And Sterling to Moffet as everything starts to unravel near the end of the film: "I took you back when you came whimpering and crawling. I should have kicked your teeth in."

Along with the twisting, murky plot, the classic lines and the great performances, the cinematography adds a dark, shadowy (chiaroscuro), evocative feeling to Out of the Past.

One of the classic early crime noir movies that still packs heat and delivers the goods.

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