Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Five

5 out

#5 — Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)

I wouldn’t necessarily term Out of the Past the best film ever made that clearly qualifies as film noir (at least one film above it on this personal tally fits squarely into that cinematic subcategory), but it is without question the work of art that I would project onto a wall to answer any questions about what makes that amazing convergence of shadow, cynicism, and fang-sharp dialogue so enthralling. It slaloms expertly around every last milestone of the form, formulating into a picture that could have been used as a template. It’s sharp enough that even pallid imitators would wind up looking borderline ingenious. The movie itself strides with an amused swagger.

The thrill of it begins with the dialogue. The screenplay was credited to Daniel Mainwaring, adapting his novel with the amazing title Build My Gallows High (which was the name given to the film in some territories outside the United States), and it is a procession of hard-boiled wonders. When I first saw it, I felt the only method available to properly convey the immense pleasures of the film was an eager transcription of some of the devilishly good dialogue, a tactic I’ll cave into again. When Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum, because a film noir cannot be quintessential without Robert Mitchum in it), the former private eye who’s trying to escape the seedy world in which he once ran by serving as the proprietor of an out-of-the way-filling station relates his new chosen lot in life, he explains, “I sell gasoline, I make a small profit. With that I buy groceries. The grocer makes a profit. We call it earning a living. You may have heard of it somewhere.” He dismisses a disingenuous claim of helplessness by saying, “You can never help anything, can you? You’re like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another.” And then there’s the exchange in the film that remains my favorite: when Ann Miller (Virginia Huston), the woman Jeff’s been courting, meekly stands up for someone by arguing, “She can’t be all bad. No one is,” Jeff’s quick retort is “Well, she comes the closest.” This isn’t how people actually talk, but it damn well should be.

Jacques Tourneur directs the film with a unerring feel for using the shadows to enrich every element of the story: the sexual allure, the threat, the encroaching gloom of bad men doing bad things for bad reasons. Every bit of inky artistry he mastered as one of the most gifted members of horror producer Val Lewton’s stable comes through in the film, with the added heft of the danger coming from the corrosiveness of human nature. It’s hard to argue with the pithy pointedness of the novel’s original title, but the comparatively bland Out of the Past — a title that’s as clear a case of studio timidness as anyone is likely to find — actually works quite well, offering the simple, clear reminder that the most troubling parts of an individual’s history aren’t likely to stay distant and contained. Shadows shift in size and direction, but they’re never fully gone.

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