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From Watching Back: Writing on Films that Light Us Up

Saturday 3/4/23

Been working on this book today. Something from it:

The film's first flashback then closes around us. Noir films are enamored of flashbacks. But you know what? So am I, so are you, because this is how we’re oriented as humans.

We’re always flashing back, thinking about the past and what we’ve done, where we’ve been, people we’ve known. Sometimes we think about that past more than the future and where we can get to. Not being able to gain distance from that which has come before—and whom has come before—may compromise the choices we make, impact who we have or don’t have in our lives.

This is human nature, and it’s also the central tenet of film noir—how to extricate one’s self from the past, and make room for meaning and substance in worlds that we’ve paradoxically yet to enter.

If you know Out of the Past, you know that its plot can be a touch on the wooly side. It’s not nearly as flummoxing as Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946), which eventually gave up the specter of trying to make sense in favor of working in more choice lines from Lauren Bacall, but it has a reputation for confusion.

Out of the Past isn’t actually all that difficult to follow, once you work out a tricky plot point, which we’ll come to in a moment. We learn that Jeff Bailey was once Jeff Markham, that he tracked down Whit Sterling’s missing moll in Mexico, fell for her, ran off with her, hid out with her in a small house out in the sticks, where his former detective partner caught up with the two of them. The ex-partner tries to blackmail Bailey, the two then duke it out, before Greer’s Kathie Moffatt puts a slug in the guy and runs off, leaving Markham/Bailey bordering on doomed.

All of this is told to Ann, as she drives Bailey to Sterling’s place. It’s prior to us meeting Kathie Moffatt in real time, within the picture. I find it hard not to view her as the most deceptive character in all of cinema. Bailey later says she’s the worst, and I challenge someone to mount any pushback. People tell stories about their nefarious ex’s like they tell the-fish-that-got-away stories, with hyperbole that often results from heartbreak. The heart tends to over-inflate reality, super-sizing it, in matters both good and bad. That might have been Jeff Bailey when he was Jeff Markham, but it isn't who this man is now.

Tourneur’s advice to Greer as they were shooting these scenes ran as follows: “No ‘big eyes.’ No expressive. In the beginning, you act like a nice girl. But then, after you kill the man you meet in the little house, you become a bad girl. Yes? First half good girl. Second half, bad girl.”

Yes; she got it. Meanwhile, Mitchum has that larger-than-the-screen-can-contain physical heft and insouciant swagger aiding his performance, but it’s his voice that motorized his acting genius.

One of my many memorable experiences with Out of the Past came at the Brattle Theatre, a Cambridge movie house that has been around since the early 1950s. The Brattle has long touted itself as Boston area’s unofficial film school, and in that spirit I took up my normal seat in the last row of the balcony, and “watched” Out of the Past with my eyes closed, treating it like an album, a story woven into a sonic wall-hanging.

A lot of responsibility rests with Mitchum’s voice, because that voice has to carry us through the flashbacks. It has lilt and power, musical finesse, a quality of poetry-come-alive that you experience when listening to Dylan Thomas’s 1952 recording of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” but with the soaked-in-vinegar knowledge that the noir man comes to accept: that things are not auguring well and likely won’t end favorably.

He also realizes that while a good man is hard to find, a man who does the right thing despite all of this writing on the wall is harder to locate still. He has a choice, however unpalatable. Choices are powerful.

That rare type of man inarguably exists in Mitchum’s portrayal of Jeff Bailey, and I’m unconvinced that there’s a better performance in an American film because of it.

At Sterling’s Tahoe residence, we learn that Kathie is back in the fold. The look on Mitchum’s face when he sees her could be freeze-framed and used as a model for Picasso to fracture into a dozen blocks of human feeling, a Cubist/noir portrait that pulls the geometry of the soul out from inside a person and etches it upon their countenance.

Whit sends Bailey on a fool’s errand that’s intended to both spring Whit from his troubles with the IRS, and double-cross the man he believes double-crossed him. We travel to San Francisco, there’s a frame-up, and having seen this film so many times now, I’m certain that the confusion as to the plot arises when Bailey hides in a room and catches a woman making a phone call regarding ending his life.

We expect it to be the Theresa Harris, who’s just entered the movie as Eunice Leonard, a character central to the subplot about stealing Sterling’s indicting tax papers, but it is in actuality Jane Greer’s Kathie Moffatt, with some similarity of appearance throwing you off.

That’s not shocking. As Greer said, it was as if the set was lit with matches by ace cameraman Nicholas Musuraca, so that no one could even determine the size of the crew. (Makes sense: there is no film in which people smoke to the degree and with the consistency they do in Out of the Past. Cigarette smoke itself could have received a mention in the credits.) It’s easy to think for several minutes that Eunice is Kathie, never to fully re-orientate until the next screening.

Geoffrey Homes—who was actually Daniel Mainwaring (there were a lot of double names/identities at work in and out of Out of the Past)—wrote the book on which the movie is based, and he also had significant say in the screenplay. We often like noirs because of their quotability, and you will find no higher great quote quotient than with Out of the Past, which is perfect for Mitchum, who does so much with his voice.

He is the Keats of this tenebrous netherworld that has itself risen to surface of his regular life with its desire for stability, and even manages to be funny with how he alters words cadentially, lending special ironic meaning to a given syllable.

After I sat through the picture with my eyes closed, I stayed for the next showing, opening them wide. I can experience this film another 100 times, and I know my pulse will hit 150 beats per minute when Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey, who we recognize isn’t going to escape his hellish frame-up, comes to learn, on the verge of a new life, the final act of evil put in motion against him by Greer’s Moffatt.

She believes Bailey to now be shorn of will and choice. In a voice framed by icicles, she tells him that she’s is running the show now and he has no one left with whom to make deals, because she’s all that remains.

But you should also know that there’s never one other person completely in control of everything when there’s also you and your free will. If film noir has a primary shape, it’s the triangle: male fall guy (with varying degrees of culpability in his downfall), femme fatale, and the elusive free will of the former. Redemption comes via choice and courage, even though they’re unlikely to stave off that man’s physical demise, which by then isn’t as consequential on account of raised existential stakes.

That’s why I’m never sad at the end of Out of the Past, and it’s also why I want to lower my shoulder and knock down the closest wall on my way out of theatre and back onto the street and into my life. This man who is about to die is replete with life himself. He is a force of life.

Bailey/Mitchum pauses for a beat, and then says, “Well, build my gallows high, baby.” Meaning, it takes a lot hang a big man, so start rounding up the wood. Bailey is going to be who he has become, despite Kathie Moffatt—until the last. So bring it.

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