September 2, 2014
Jeff Markham knew Kathie would not arrive, but he sat there and drank anyway. He was resigned to his premonitions, seemingly able to tell the future but powerless to stop it. “I think I’m in a frame…I don’t know. All I can see is the frame. I’m going in there now to look at the picture.” The picture remains obscure to Jeff throughout Out of the Past, though the film image itself is luminous in the new Blu-ray from the Warner Archive. Jeff, played by Robert Mitchum as a slow-motion somnambulist, can see the outline of his fate, but not the details. Director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca previously collaborated on Cat People, and continue their use of low-key lighting to produce dream-like suggestions of violence. All of the deaths in Out of the Past are hidden off-screen, the specifics elided. They simply accrue in the fog of Jeff’s rueful investigation, a case that turns into a series of delaying tactics to stay alive. But he can only pause to smoke so many times before the darkness finally deigns to meet him.
Out of the Past was based on a crime novel by Daniel Mainwaring (under the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes) entitled Build My Gallows High. In 1945 RKO outbid Warner Bros. for the rights to the then unpublished book for a reported $20,000. A George Gallup poll revealed the American public’s distaste for the fatalistic title Build My Gallows High, so it was changed to Out of the Past during the pre-production. The novel was Mainwaring’s last – he had already transitioned to the higher pay of motion picture writing. So he was tasked with writing a first draft of the script – which later went through the hands of crime novelist James M. Cain (Double Indemnity)and Frank Fenton, an old RKO hand who had recently worked on the George Raft noir Nocturne, as well as multiple entries in the “Falcon” mystery series. “Homes” received sole credit upon the film’s release, though in his Film Comment article “The Past Rewritten”, Jeff Schwager read through all of the script variations and credits most of the film’s famously allusive dialogue to Fenton. Tourneur undoubtedly took a pass at it himself. As quoted in Chris Fujiwara’s The Cinema of Nightfall, interviewer Jean-Claude Biette claimed that Tourneur had “refused several times to shoot this crime film, whose script he didn’t like, until all the changes he wanted had been accepted.”
The story circles around private detective Jeff Markham (Mitchum), who is hired by gang boss Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to track down the dame who shot him and made off with forty grand. He finds the culprit Kathie (Jane Greer), falls in love with her, and the couple drops out of sight. Their relationship disintegrates from a life on the lam, they split, and Markham goes straight, rebranding himself “Jeff Bailey” and opening a gas station. As the title indicates, Bailey is soon haunted by “Markham”, and pulled back into the poisonous web of Whit and Kathie.
The shape of the project kept shifting. RKO attempted to convince Warners to loan out Bogart, but they claimed he was booked for the next year. Then the director-actor team of Edward Dmytryk and Dick Powell was announced, as they had collaborated on Murder, My Sweet (1944) a few years before. They ultimately settled on their young leading man Robert Mitchum, whose last starring part for RKO was West of the Pecos (1945), and the reliable Tourneur, whom RKO had worked profitably with on the Val Lewton-produced horror movies like Cat People. Each casting decision would change the texture and tenor of the film. As artists both Tourneur and Mitchum were crepuscular creatures, attracted to the dreaming hours (though there are key sun-drenched sequences in Out of the Past). Mitchum, with his hooded eyes and one-beat-too-late delivery, gave off an air of laziness, though he was remarkably present as an actor. Tourneur valued this, saying that Mitchum (and Dana Andrews) “knows how to listen in a scene. There are a large number of players who don’t know how to listen. Mitchum can be silent and listen to a five minute speech. You’ll never lose sight of him and you’ll understand that he takes in what is said to him, even if he doesn’t do anything. That’s how one judges good actors.”
Watching Out of the Past for the first time in years, I started to focus on entrances and exits, and the transitional way Tourneur and Musuruca light them. The most famous example is when Kathie is first introduced, walking into a Mexican cantina. There is a blazing white light outside the door, rendering her almost invisible. Her white dress and sun hat blend into this brightness, so when she walks into the shade of the alcove her silhouette seems to emerge out of nothingness. She is a phantom, or a figment of Jeff’s heat-addled mind. She is a transformative figure throughout the film, given more shadings of character than the usual Madonna-Whore of film noir. She is as secretive and withholding as Jeff, but both find an excuse to playact a love affair in Acapulco. Once back in the states, they can no longer hide their true natures. Kathie has a finely tuned survival instinct that trumps any of her repressed emotions. While Jeff’s seemingly embraces his own doom. Right after he says “I’m in a frame”, he walks right into the setup, hoping to outsmart the trap. But a man with a set of survival skills like Kathie’s would leave the scene, and change into yet another name. Jeff almost seems to savor his entrapment, or has long since been resigned to it. Mitchum responds to each revelation with equanimity, as if he expected it for years. Bodies drop all around him and he is left unperturbed. He is waiting for his own, and he will embrace it when the opportunity arises, fulfilling his anti-hero’s journey.