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“Out of the Past”

I thought of writing a post about how the incredibly selfish, stupid, and insane people are combining to try to make sure that the Covid virus starts killing hundreds of thousands of people again, but why upset everyone, including me, on a Friday? Let us hope that people who actually care, and think, and want to help their fellow humans, not kill them, sufficiently outnumber the first group, and that this will be enough.

Instead, I will write about my favorite motion picture of all time. It is “Out of the Past,’ produced and released in 1947, an excellent year for movies, particularly film noirs. One thing to note is that so-called “genre films”: mysteries, or science fiction, or film noirs, somehow almost never get mentioned in the list of “greatest films,” though there may be an exception or two, like “2001: A Space Odyssey.” “Out of the Past,” or “OOTP,” as I will call it, is often listed as the greatest film noir movie of all time, but never have I seen it on a list of greatest films. I think that it absolutely should be, though, for many reasons.

The movie was based on a novel by Daniel Mainwaring, writing under the nom de plume of Geoffrey Homes. “Build My Gallows High,” published in 1946. I have read this, and it is good, but the movie is definitely better. Homes is credited with the screenplay for OOTP, but a long and well documented article which I read, and cannot locate right now, makes a very strong case that the RKO studio heads were not satisfied with his screenplay. They brought in the highly regarded novelist and screenwriter James M. Cain for a rewrite, but apparently they did not like Cain’s screenplay at all, and it almost completely changed the story. So they utilized the vastly underrated talents of Frank Fenton, who was a writer with the studio, and had earlier written two novels, one of which is considered to be superb.

And it was Fenton who essentially wrote this incredible screenplay, which he never received any writing or screen credit for. He wrote or collaborated on many other screenplays, including “The River of No Return,” and “Escape From Fort Bravo.” OOTP is unquestionably his masterpiece. I am not a film expert with vast knowledge of all the movies, but my opinion is that perhaps the greatest two film scripts ever, are OOTP and “Casablanca.”

Many critics and fans rave about the writing in OOTP. There are so many unforgettable lines. As we know, the genre of film noir is often lauded for clever lines, mostly similes. “It was as hot as a pair of loaded dice,” something I just made up; anyone can make them up. They became almost cliches, unfortunately. But what Fenton’s dialogue, often as read in the voiceover narration of Robert Mitchum, as Jeff Markham/Jeff Bailey, has, is virtual poetry, somehow not self-consciously clever, or forced, but natural, beautiful, and haunting.

I could fill up ten pages with the great lines, but I’ll just give you a few: “They say the day you die, your name is written on a cloud.” “Who says?” “They.” “You’ve been a lot of places, haven’t you?” “One too many.” “You don’t like to make mistakes, do you?” “They don’t let me have many.” “You wait for me to talk. I like that.” “I never found out much listening to myself.”

And then, “And then I saw her, coming out of the sun.” “I even knew she wouldn’t come the first night. But I sat there, grinding it out…and then she walked in, out of the moonlight, smiling.” “I never saw her in the daytime. We seemed to live by night. What was left of the day went away like a pack of cigarettes you smoked. I didn’t know where she lived. I never followed her. All I had to go on was a place and time to see her again. I don’t know what we were waiting for. Maybe we thought the world would end. Maybe we thought it was a dream. And we’d wake up with a hangover in Niagara Falls…And then she’d come along like school was out, and everything else was just a stone you sailed at the sea.”

It never declines one iota from that. But it is never as if Fenton is trying to impress us, or that the dialogue is stylized. If you are interested, you can read the entire screenplay; or better yet, watch the movie to hear it. OOTP is certainly not just about dialogue, though. It was directed by Jacques Tourneur, who is very highly regarded. Tourneur’s cinematographer, as in several of his movies, was Nicholas Musuraca, who is considered the absolute master of light and shadow in film. One of the principal features of film noir is the use of shadow, often nearly darkness, which is a metaphor for the stories themselves. So most good noirs have that element, but OOTP combines and contrasts some beautiful images of the daylight in a place near Lake Tahoe, with the mysterious and ominous night scenes in San Francisco.

Now, as to the plot, which is every bit equal to the writing and direction and cinematography. There are three main characters, though every one of the other characters is very well written and acted. The stars–and this is one of the greatest threesomes in any film, ever–are Robert Mitchum as private eye Jeff Markham, Kirk Douglas as smooth but very dangerous gambler/”big op” Whit Sterling, and Jane Greer as alluring, mysterious Kathie Moffat.

Greer was only 22 when she was picked to do this movie, and as far as I am concerned, it is one of the greatest performances in film history. She is perfect, I will leave it at that. The highly esteemed film historian Robert Osborne once said that she and he became friends later on, and that she was one of the nicest people he had ever met in Hollywood. And you can see it; even when she is Kathie is at her worst (and she fluctuates), she still has a bit of a twinkle in her eyes, so it is hard, at least for me, to ever dislike her very much.

Mitchum was early in his career, and this was Douglas’ second film. Both are superb; Mitchum in particular, with the much larger role, as he is in almost every scene. I believe that the studio wanted Humphrey Bogart to play the role, and that Bogart felt that he had been cast in too many noirish films, so turned it down. As incredibly great as Bogart is, no one could have played this role any better than Mitchum.

Some people like to think that the classic film noir has the protagonist as a “chump,” manipulated by the femme fatale. They usually think of “Double Indemnity,” which many hold up as the greatest film noir, but which I think is not close to as great as OOTP. Jeff Markham (he later changes his name to Bailey as camouflage), is very smart, no chump at all. He handles things brilliantly at stages, but the story is like a chessboard, and it is very difficult to maneuver all the pieces to the needed endgame. I like to look at the development of the story as a chess game in some sense, where Mitchum cannot afford to have any of the key pieces removed from the board too early.

There are four locales in this movie, each with its own ambience and ethos. Bridgeport, CA, where we see the first scenes, where Bailey has attempted to settle down with Ann, runs a gas station, and fishes. New York, which is shown in the brilliant extended flashback, where Jeff is working as a private detective, and is hired by Whit Sterling to find Kathie. Acapulco, where he meets Kathie. San Francisco, where he has to deal with a labyrinthine plot against him. Each of the locales is indelible as they contrast with one another.

I could rave about this film forever, because it is just perfect in every aspect. The only things which probably have kept it from the ultimate acclaim which it deserves, are that the plot gets twisty; is always coherent, but probably confuses first-time viewers; and that it is a genre film, so that people who did not particularly care for that genre; or perhaps do like it but see many noir films, take it for granted.

It is not a film about social issues, it is not meant to be a metaphor for significant human concerns, which seems to be what is required, at least now, for a film to be considered “great.” It is escapist, taking place in a different time. But it is certainly recognizable in terms of the most powerful emotions. It is film as a story to immerse yourself in. And it stays with one; the coda is haunting. “Out of the Past” is my choice for the greatest film ever made. I would have given Oscars to Mitchum for Best Male Actor, and Greer for Best Female Actor. And OOTP as Best Picture, even over “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which is a fine movie, but not as good as OOTP!

I am certainly not a member of any academy which can vote on any of this, which is sometimes frustrating, when I see films which I don’t like at all, winning Best Picture trophies.. But I guess it is okay, as long as I can sometimes share my opinion on such things. Great art should be able to surmount the vagaries of popular opinion, at least one likes to believe that. And if not, well, then one still has one’s favorites to extol.


4 Responses

  1. From “The Blue Dahlia” (1946), screenplay by Raymond Chandler:

    Joyce Harwood (Veronica Lake): Well, don’t you even say ‘Good night’?

    Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd): It’s goodbye, and it’s tough to say goodbye.

    Joyce: Why is it? You’ve never seen me before tonight.

    Johnny: Every guy’s seen you before. Somewhere. The trick is to find you.

  2. Off topic: You can click and help people for free at Greater Good and Free Rice. WP won’t let me make links on William’s threads, but feed those phrases into your favorite search engine and you can find the sites quickly.

    • IBW, I enjoy the Free Rice game and it feels good to know that I am helping people by playing it! Thank you for telling us about these sites.

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