Mitchum runs out of time in Out of the Past (1947)

Robert Mitchum flees to the high mountain country and starts to live a new life. But it's not long before he's caught by something out of his past. Fate tracks him down and reunites him with Whit, the man he betrayed, and Kathie, the woman who betrayed them both. This is a smartly-plotted film with good performances by male stars Mitchum and Kirk Douglas. It also subtly balances between noir and drama, perhaps too subtly for its own good.

Like The Killers which was released the previous year, the hero flees the noir underworld and tries to start over in a small town gas station. But a chance encounter with someone from his past ends his rural refuge. The Killers is brilliantly directed by Robert Siodmak, who masterfully uses suspense and creates a palpable sense of menace and dread. Jacques Tourner doesn't direct Out of the Past with such flourish. Instead, the story unfolds gradually as a conflict between morally ambiguous characters. Mitchum's character Jeff was sent to retrieve Whit's runaway girlfriend Kathie but ended up running away with her himself. Presently Jeff is involved with a woman who's another man's girlfriend. Even high-powered gangster Whit, played to oily perfection by Kirk Douglas, is also humanised by his combination of cunning and geniality.

Both Jeff and Whit are smarting over having lost Kathie to the other at different times, and it's Kathie who trips up them both. She's also the film's stumbling block. Kathie's so thinly-characterised that if actress Jane Greer were cut out of every scene and replaced by a stick figure drawing, no one would notice the difference. She's a cartoon figure who sharply contrasts with the male figures in this film. Greer gamely has a go as the femme fatale but fails without individualised characterisation from the screenwriter or restraint from Tourner. Barbara Stanwyck could have created something out of nothing, but I know Barbara Stanwyck and Jane Greer is no Barbara Stanwyck.

Alternately puppydog eager, tender and tough, Mitchum plays Jeff with complexity and depth. He's smart to know that he's walking into a trap set by Whit. Smart too as he tries to escape from a chain of events that began with one grave mistake made in the past.

Tourner and his director of photography Nicholas Musturca eschew the high-contrast black and white photography of most noirs in favour of blacks and greys. They give the film a more subtle look but still use shadows to visually foreshadow the fate of characters. Locations span from Mexico to San Francisco to the California high country and break up the feeling of claustrophobia that's key to many noirs. Tourner could have used the expansive settings to contrast with the boxed-in characters but doesn't. The earlier High Sierra also places noir in a country setting and better creates an ironic contrast between the big country and the hero's option. Tourner's style is more subtle. Since he's following in the footsteps of those who have already made such an impression, that light touch isn't enough. It's the lack of powerful style that lets this film vanish from one's mind and back into the past.

(June 27, 2001)

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