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Noirvember 2019: Out of the Past (1947) Jacques Tourneur

Out of the Past (1947)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur

Produced by Warren Duff

Screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring

Based on the novel Build My Gallows High by Daniel Mainwaring

Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca

Edited by Samuel E. Beetley

Music by Roy Webb

RKO Pictures

(1:37) Warner Archive Blu-ray

The third and final film in the Noirvember Film Noir Festival at the Severna Park Library

I think we’re onto something here. Each week at our Noirvember film noir festival, the attendance grew. People started bringing friends. A handful of people cornered me before the movie, saying things like, “I just watched Cry Danger (or Laura, or La Bête Humaine, or Sweet Smell of Success)… What do you think of that one?” Another person asked me, “Is Gilda a film noir or a drama?” These are great questions. People are watching film noir. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.


I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to see so many people so interested in these films. I wanted to reward them - or at least some of them - before the screening started, so I had three noir-related giveaways. I always hand out “tickets” at the beginning of each show, and I usually draw ticket numbers out of a hat, giving winners single (slightly used, donated) DVDs.

Last night I gave away a four-film set of Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall DVDs, a wonderful set in any format.

My other two prizes were very special: one-year subscriptions to two different film noir-related publications: The Dark Pages Newsletter for Film Noir Lovers and the Noir City e-magazine. (Check out the great cover by Michael Kronenberg.) So if you weren’t one of the winners, you can still take advantage of both publications. (You’ll just have to pay for them yourselves!)

I also handed out a flier titled “What Should I Watch Next,” with lists of film noir titles from the 1940s, 1950s, the 1960s and beyond, and international noir, noting which are available at the library or on our Kanopy streaming service.

I began my introduction to the film by saying “Out of the Past may be the ultimate film noir. It contains flashbacks, voice-over narration, snappy dialogue, a mysterious haunted protagonist, night scenes, deep shadows, low camera angles, a femme fatale, the concept of fate, and the idea that you can’t escape your past. And smoking. There’s a lot of smoking in this movie!”

Although RKO wasn’t an upper-tier movie studio, they did have a few aces up their sleeve. First was Robert Mitchum, who was just becoming a big star. Then you had Jacques Tourneur, who had made some classic “less is more” horror movies with producer Val Lewton, including Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man. You also had one of the finest cinematographers in the film noir (or any) era, Nicholas Musuraca. (Of course there’s certainly an extended talent pool: Daniel Mainwaring’s script, Roy Webb’s unfairly-neglected score, and much more.)

Kirk Douglas, in only his third film, was already establishing the Kirk Douglas persona, and quite impressively, but the film belongs to Mitchum, who was just beginning to play dark, brooding characters. Mitchum is a master of reaction shots, which is on full display in Out of the Past.

I also talked about the differences between this and our first two films, Double Indemnity (which was mostly told in one long flashback) and The Killers (told in non-sequential order via many flashbacks). Both of those films are fairly easy to follow, but Out of the Past gets a bit convoluted, yet that’s one of the important aspects of film noir: having a protagonist who doesn’t quite have all the pieces lining up, who’s missing something he needs to solve the case and possibly save his life. The best thing you can do as an audience is to stick with the characters and enjoy the ride. (You can always analyze later.)


After the film I took the audience through a short examination of the scene in which Fisher (Steve Brodie) confronts Jeff (Mitchum) and Kathie (Jane Greer), who have secretly been seeing each other. I mentioned that anytime you see a low camera angle that has the room’s ceiling in view, the director is showing you a trapped character (or two). We also see Jeff in his trench coat - mostly illuminated - and Fisher in darkness. There’s a moment in which Jeff moves into the shadow (yet his face is still illuminated), signifying that he’s literally and figuratively stepping into darkness.

And what about Kathie? As Jeff and Fisher get into a fight, you can see the shadows of the fire from the fireplace wavering over her as if she’s in the flames of hell. Up until this point, we’re not really sure (although we have a pretty good idea) what Kathie’s all about, but as the shadows play over her face, we see just a little bit of a smile. She knows what she’s about to do and she’s relishing it.

After Kathie fires the gun and kills Fisher, we see one of the all-time great Mitchum reactions shots as Jeff faces her with a “Who are you?” look, glancing quickly down at the gun in her hand, in case she’s planning on more target practice, then looking back at her face as if seeing her for the first time. A superb scene.

Afterward, I talked a little about Mitchum’s marijuana bust and its aftermath, the rest of his career, and a bit about Greer, Douglas, and others involved with the film. And then - the moment I always look forward to and sometimes fear - I always ask the audience, “What did you think?”

A few people had questions about various plot points, but one audience member said he didn’t think the film was confusing or convoluted at all. (Maybe I should show The Big Sleep next?) Many people appreciated the film’s writing, especially the snappy dialogue, pointing out that “People don’t really talk like that, but I wish they did.”

Another person pointed out the contrast between the scenes in the city and those in the small town of Bridgeport. The danger is camouflaged somewhat, but it’s still unmistakably present. That's the great thing about film noir: It can happen anywhere. I recommended a couple of other noir movies that have extensive scenes outside cities such as On Dangerous Ground (1951), Tourneur’s Nightfall (1957), Ride the Pink Horse (1947), and Inferno (1953), which not only takes place in the desert, but is also in color and in 3D.

One gentleman mentioned that he always thought Mitchum was basically playing the same role in every film, but that he may have to reconsider that thought after watching Out of the Past.

I asked the group which femme fatale is the most evil: Phyllis Dietrichson or Kathie Moffat. The jury’s still out, but I think they’re leaning toward Kathie. “She killed more people,” someone said.

Needless to say, I had a great time presenting these movies at our little festival and I think the audience did as well. I am so fortunate to have such a good (and growing) group of people who are willing to watch movies that are 50, 60, or 70+ years old and discuss them. It’s really a dream come true. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If your local library doesn’t show films (of any kind), ask your library staff if they can. The sense of community you’re building by presenting these films on a big screen is enormous, especially in an age where so many people are watching movies on their computers, tablets, phones, and other devices by themselves. I urge you to find a way to watch movies with other people and talk about them afterward. If I can be of help, just let me know.

So with that, our series ends, at least for this year. I hope to bring another Noirvember festival to the Severna Park Library in 2020. But in the meantime, seek out some great film noir.

Photos: IMDb, Spectrum Culture, Screenpedia, Classic Film Freak, The Dark Pages, Film Noir Foundation

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