Doomed from the get-go and traipsing far behind the eight ball, Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum) is the quintessential tragic hero, desperately grasping at the Elysian life that lies out of reach, inadvertently tightening the noose around his neck as he wrestles to free himself from bondage. Out of the Past acts as his elaborately-designed coffin, fabricating suspense from a gradual decline, smirking as his futile attempts to isolate the past only further contaminate his future. It’s a bleak portrait painted by a master; a marvel of light and dark that gracefully hurtles towards a brick wall, beguiling with its passages of rhythmic dialogue and clarity of composition.
The level of visual detail maintained by Jacques Tourneur and his cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca, is sublime, treating each image as a naturalistic painting, using illumination and darkness as shading to reflect nuances in personality and tone. Take the opening coffee shop conversation, which positions conflicting cultures on opposite sides of the frame, situating chatty townspeople at the bar beneath bright light, while an eavesdropping gangster, dressed in all black, casts a shadow over the glistening jukebox. The blocking of the shot conveys a secret message, as does each frame that follows, paralleling the themes of the narrative while enhancing the layers of mystery implemented by fits of pithy discourse and shrouded bits of sign language.
Not a scripted word is wasted on these formidable players, particularly Mitchum, who takes subtle pleasure in Markham’s quips, read with a certain nonchalance that foretells the character’s demise, conveyed by sad eyes and a knowing glance. His melancholy refugee lives under an assumed name in an unassuming California burg, operating a gas station and arousing the suspicion of local gossips, titillated by his roguish mystique and adulterous sex life. The facade of his rural homestead is ruptured by the arrival of the aforementioned nosey hoodlum, luring him back into the service of a menacing Nevada gambler and rekindling his obsession with the double-crossing dame that had led him astray.
Bound by a sense of honor unbecoming within his former social circle, Markham resigns himself to the card shark’s orders, trekking to a rendezvous in Lake Tahoe to collect his assignment. Traveling with his sweetheart in tow, Jeff unveils his former self in toto, divulging his Christian name, crooked profession and corrupt cohorts, pinning his hopes on Ann’s (Virginia Huston) clemency. Shots of the confession are restricted to the bucket seat of Jeff’s automobile, utilizing color contrast to define the space and assist the performances, shining dashboard light on Ann’s face to present her reactions, while cloaking Jeff’s visage in twilight to reflect apprehension.
The narrative backtracks as Markham recounts his downfall, his words lying atop a string of cityscapes, captured in a crafty montage that implies forward motion. The chronological kickoff finds our hero in the role of metropolitan private eye, aiding a bullet-riddled highroller swindled out of a small fortune by his main squeeze. Whit, the victim in question, played with a seamless fusion of menace and charm by Kirk Douglas, had lost money once before on a horse, but got even by putting the poor beast “out in a nice, green pasture.” Entrusted to collect the femme fatale and the misplaced dough, Jeff ventures to Acapulco on a hunch, secretly hoping to protect the fugitive from the threats of her creditor. Instead, he and the captivating Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) engage in a game of seduction, one-upping each other in sexual insinuation, ultimately succumbing to their basest desires.
Tourneur orchestrates his own stratagem of suggestion, weaving unique patterns of images that imply the obscene, employing a succession of shots that signify sex through an overturned lamp, swinging door and torrent of rain. Yet, an alternate reading of this sequence could interpret the three snippets as harbingers of misfortune and Tourneur’s taste for duality lends credence to both expositions. Out of the Past fashions high art out of the atmospheric auteur’s strange bedfellows, marrying the romance of noir fantasy to the powder keg of post-war cynicism.
Out of the Past (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1947)
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Written by Daniel Mainwaring (as Geoffrey Homes), James M. Cain (revisions) and Frank Fenton (revisions)
Photographed by Nicholas Musuraca