IMDB #250: Out Of The Past

The first entry, the 250th greatest cinematic achievement of all time as voted on by members, is a 1947 number by the name of Out Of The Past, a tale of intrigue, bourbon, cigarettes and double crosses.

The Key Players:

Out Of The Past was directed by Jacques Torneau, a French-American more famous for classic creature movies with names like Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie. He directed some 60 films before his death in 1977, and I believe this will be his only appearance on the list.

Robert Mitchum is the leading man, a former private eye turned gas station owner. He is, by many accounts one of the definitive film noir leading men, and he certainly has the snappy delivery, stone face, and trench coat for the job. He floats through the movie with a glazed, unfazeable look to his eye that made me think he was just stoned the entire time- then I read that he and starlet Lila Leeds were indeed arrested for the possession of marijuana two years after this film was shot.

Jane Greer gets second billing as the femme fatale who comes back to haunt him, one of the most classic double crossing dames that you just can’t stay mad at, or so it seems. She and Mitchum both starred in multiple other noirs and non-noirs, including teaming up once again for The Big Steal in 1949, but this film has aged the best for both of them.

Kirk Douglas rounded out the posters as the main villain, a smiling mobster who’s relatively intimidating in a very forties kind of harmless way, in his second film credit.

The Story:

The plot is as convoluted as you’d expect it to be, but the details are unimportant enough to make is easy to follow. Really, it doesn’t help that it’s been long enough, and this genre has become such a touchstone that while I don’t know specifically what’s going to happen, it’s easy to know what to expect.

Mitchum is a small town gas station owner, well liked enough by the locals, but with a mysterious past. In fact, he’s literally referred to as “the mysterious Jeff Bailey” by his sweet blond girlfriend, in case we forgot the movie was called “Out Of The Past,” perhaps.

Anyway, a slick gangster character passes through town and recognizes him, which means the jig is up: Mitchum has to tell the sweet blond girl that not only is Bailey not his Christian name, he’s a former PI on the run from shady mobsters. He spins her a tale rife with voice-over about being hired by a smiling crime boss (Douglas) to track down a thieving girlfriend (Greer)...

whom he then of course fell for and ran off with.

But alas, it’s never meant to be for a private investigator and his quarry: Greer double crossed him and left him a body to bury, and he fled to a small corner of the country and hasn’t heard from dame, gangster, or assorted thugs until this day.

So he goes off to Douglas to face the music, only to find that the jerk just wants to hire him for another job to make things even- Greer came back and apologized (of course), and they just need him to go to San Francisco for them and clear up a little tax evasion mess. Or possibly get framed for murder. It’d be tiresome to describe all the twists and turns from there, but it all builds steadily to an ending I didn’t expect. Death, taxicabs, shadows, smoke, gunshots and car chases- what more do you need?

The Artisticness:

A lot of things these days are referred to as “noir-ish” or “neo-noir,” but that really just means they echo the gumshoe plot in some way- this movie is dark. The whole thing takes place at night, and the use of chiaroscuro, light/dark cinematography is quite striking in some places, if you step back and look for it.

It’s as heavy handed thematically as any story about crime from the first half of the century- Mitchum kisses the good blond girl in a sunlit field of grass, and bad girl Greer in shadowy corners. I’m sure there’s a message about the inability to escape your past life, and the need to face personal demons, but honestly I’d buy more of that if Mitchum was capable of expression beyond smugness- he’s like the grandfather of the Josh Hartnett stare. (To be fair, Hartnett did prove his stare was too vapid for even noir with The Black Dahlia).

The dialogue, much of it likely cribbed from the novel the film was based on, is relatively witty and sly- when Mitchum looks glum at a roulette table, Greer asks “Don’t you like to gamble?” “Not against a wheel.”

But it’s also prone to the sort of there it is noir-spiel that only seems deep, but really means nothing at all My two favorites: “I knew where I was and what I was doing” and “Let’s just leave it where it all is.”


The end of this film is the best and most memorable part, but I wouldn’t want to ruin it without the warning, even it is has been sixty-one years. Eventually Mitchum convinces Douglas to turn Greer in for murder, and pay him off for some incriminating evidence he’s managed to get a hold of. When he shows up to collect, Greer has shot Douglas, and is the only one left who could exonerate our hero, alas. He convinces her he’ll run away with her and start again but actually calls the police on both of them. Then they both die when she tries to ram through a police barricade (and barrage of bullets). Mitchum’s hometown sweetie sadly bewails that he chose the bad girl after all, and only we know the truth.

How messed up is that, right? It still takes the film a long 97 minutes (that’s it? It seemed to drag little more than that) to get to the payoff, but it does set the film up a little higher. Normally the gumshoe tells the femme fatale all about how she set the whole shebang up, then has her arrested and walks off, either brokenhearted but wiser, or with the good girl. Not this time.

And that’s probably why this film has aged as well as it has. It’s one thing to deliver a lukewarm theme about the inescapability of the past- it’s another to show it like that, especially back in the studio age, when people probably liked downer endings even less than they do now.


Overall- Should It Be Higher? Lower?:

Clearly, this being the first film on the list, I can’t particularly say I take issue with its ranking in one way or another. I found myself ambivalent until the very end, mostly because I’m so familiar with mechanics of the genre these days that it all comes across as wheel spinning. It’s not the movie’s fault so much as 60 years of perspective and dissemination.

The Legacy:

Here’s a fun chain of events: this film has been remade once “in spirit” as Città Violenta starring Charles Bronson, and once for real in 1984. That remake starred Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward (including Jane Greer as Ward’s mother!), and was titled Against All Odds. The theme song of the film? Yep, the Genesis song itself.

So when I saw the title Out Of The Past I was just like “huh, never heard of it,” when in fact it was the movie that spawned the remake that inspired the song that I have a Postal Service cover of on my ipod! Small world, huh?

But seriously, this is high in the film noir pantheon, with the iconic performances of the two leads, a great ending, and some nice cinematography to set it apart. It was apparently enough of a cultural touchstone that when Robert Mitchum hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live forty years later they brought Jane Greer in for a sketch spoofing the film. Wha? It's also the number 17 Film Noir of all time on IMDB, which means we get to revisit the genre sixteen more times before this is over.

It’s also a direct forerunner of David Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence- they both start with tough guys with shady pasts, working in a small town with pretty blond girlfriends/wives, trying to move on until a no-goodnick in a suit shows up and ruins the party. They even both have a quaint little diner where everybody knows our hero’s fake name. They diverge from there however, as History takes the question of facing your past in a much more thriller-genre, bloody-remains-of-your-nose sort of direction that just wasn’t open to filmmakers in the forties.

It’s the career zenith of both the leading man and lady, and arguably the director unless you’re a big fan of Night Of The Demon. In any case, it’s great start, and I can’t wait for the next 249. We’re off!

The Best Clip YouTube had of it:

In lieu of a clip of the film, would you believe that there's a montage of shots set to "Against All Odds"? Because there is! I guess the relevance is that it's like the bad girl saying to our hero that it's against all odds that he'd come back to her, what with the murder and frame up business. Kind of odd, but maybe her character is more sympathetic in the remake.

Leftover thoughts:

  • My favorite random part, though:Mitchum’s deaf helper kid at the gas station, ably played by Dickie Moore, jumps at the chance to help his boss when he runs afoul of the law and the crime-lord.There’s one scene where the deaf kid’s fishing while waiting to meet Mitchum, sees a thug about to shoot, up on a cliff, and reels back, snags him with the fishing line and pulls the man off the cliff and to his death as he fires an errant shot!And then he doesn’t even tell Mitchum, who assumes the man just stumbled and fell, and this is never brought up again.Classic.
  • Kirk Douglas was also great as the smarmy villain, who says things like “I’m on my way to Mexico City, honest- I have to see a man about a horse.” Banter, forties style! I can't wait until I get to things like His Girl Friday in a few weeks.
(editorial note: due to the whim of the capricious internet, this has already fallen to number #251 and been replaced by Once. But since I've written plenty about that film in another time and place, and I worked on this business for awhile, I'm leaving it as is. As I sad, I'm working from a list I copied on July 3rd, 2008- so while the order might be different than the present incarnation of the list, this will hopefully be the only one that's fallen off.)

1 Response to "IMDB #250: Out Of The Past"

  1. Who's this Wall-e kid and how did he crack the top 20 in a single week?

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