my favorite movie palace, the paramount theater, is running a fantastic noir double feature this week. it includes otto preminger's laura (1944) and the film i am here to talk about today, jacques tourneur's out of the past (1947).
if ever there was a case where there was no use in running, boy, have we found it. robert mitchum plays jeff bailey, a former private eye who was always smart enough to know when to keep his mouth shut and honest enough to get the wrong people to trust him. he has since left that racket behind for a more bucolic existence running a modest gas station. he has also fallen in love with ann miller, a small town girl and a paragon of virtue if ever there was one. when an old acquaintance blows into town, summoning jeff to a meeting to square some accounts, jeff decides to come clean with ann and on the drive up tells her his story.
it seems a man hired jeff to do a job one time. the job was a dame. the dame took some shots at the man, including one that found the mark, and made off with forty grand. now he wants her brought back. jeff makes some inquiries, catches her scent and follows her south of the border. he catches up with her, that's his bad luck. from that point on his fate is sealed. if only that damned telegraph office had been open...
this film is about as hardboiled and dark as noir got during its golden age. jane greer should be on the mount rushmore of femmes fatale for her combination of ruthless cunning and allure. before we even meet her we are made aware of just how far she is willing to go to have things work out in her favor. the bullet in kirk douglas is a testament to that. whispering whatever it takes in robert mitchum's ear is child's play compared to the trio of homicides she racks up by the end of the film. his falling for it, in spite of her status as a grand larcenist and attempted murderer, is a testament to her other attributes. a woman like that is a force of nature. a woman like that is undeniable.
it's no accident that this first, fateful kiss takes place after leaving the fickle roulette wheel only to end up on the beach surrounded by nets everywhere you look. you spins the wheel, you takes your chances. just take care that you don't end up on the hook, completely ensnared. when jane greer is the house, don't even sit down at the table. i know. that's easy for me to say. even after having seen what happens to every man who crosses her path i don't know that i could guarantee i would make the smart play. if you can confound the two mightiest chins in post-war hollywood what chance does a regular joe have?
the dialogue is noir to the core as well.
"she can't be all bad. no one is."
"well, she comes the closest."
"oh jeff, you ought to have killed me for what i did a moment ago."
ice cold and whip-smart. the characters may be hurtling around, playing infinite angles, hoping to be the one left standing but their words give them away. there is an inevitably here, leering, monolithic. that sound you hear? that's the steady step of the inescapable past. and, for all their machinations, the fatalistic language the characters use gives them away. in their hearts, they are resigned to it. none of them can move fast enough or talk loud enough to drown out that thing stumbling persistently behind and they damn well know it. the past is patient. and, while you might sleep, albeit fitfully, the past never rests.
the noir pedigree is already solid with all of this in place but tourneur and cinematographer nicholas musuraca pile on the style as well. the mood and tension that tourneur was so adept at layering throughout the psychological thrillers he made with val lewton translates well to the dark alleys and morally ambiguous characters that populate the noir cityscape. look at these beautiful shots.
these folks knew their way around light and shadow. they knew their way around our dark collective heart. you have one more chance on sunday, 1.16.11, to come down to the paramount and see for yourself. it's a matinée, show starts at 2 p.m. laura begins at 4 p.m. and, in keeping with the duplicity to be found on the screen, you get admission to both shows for the price of one ticket. i highly recommend that you do.