Out of the Past (1947)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur

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“I’m no good, and neither are you.”

Are films noir sexist?  A female character is only ‘good’ if she serves the male hero’s storyline.  The traditional noir hero is only out for himself, and he inevitably runs into the femme fatale who really is just doing the same thing.  She’s protecting herself, male hero be damned, but the films often vilify that character because they don’t let our hero do whatever he wants.

The women of noirs are either in service of the main character’s goal, just by supporting him from the sideline, or they’re against him by virtue of having their own goals.  Is this a thing?  Am I pointing something out or missing the point completely?  I can’t quite tell.

This has more to do with the genre as a whole because Out of the Past is quite good.  It’s a nice little noir, about the type of protagonist we expect, in this case Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum).  We will meet him and say goodbye to him through the eyes of another character, meaning that we are given an impression of Jeff before we’re allowed to study him with our own eyes, and our ultimate opinion of the man may be shaped by the misinformation spread by someone else.

Jeff seems like a good dude, but they always seem like good dudes in noirs, don’t they?  He’s a detective who fell in love with a woman he was supposed to track down, and when he himself is tracked down, it’s in a pleasant little town where he lives a modest life with Ann (Virginia Huston).  This is when his past catches up with him, and he narrates to her what led him to this point.

That’s roughly the first half of the movie.  The second half takes plays in the present, as Jeff is forced to go on another rabbit hunt by the man who first hired him, Whit (Kirk Douglas).  It was Whit’s wife Kathie (Jane Greer) whom Jeff fell in love with but who turned on him.  She is now back with her husband, and the main question that hangs over each of her scenes is whether or not she can be trusted, at least by Jeff.

See, he has a pretty good idea he’s being set up, as a punishment for his original crime of falling in love with Kathie.  This time we will learn for sure that she’s in on it.

A lot happens in this movie, as tends to happen in films of this genre.  There are plot twists and turns, but the through line is Jeff’s affair with Kathie, her ‘betrayal,’ his flight to small town Americana where he meets a woman who doesn’t backstab him (Ann), his forced reentry back into the crime life a la A History of Violence and his absolute desperation not only to save himself but to prove himself to Ann, who’s hearing about all of this for the first time.

It’s a man out to save his soul, I suppose, and maybe that’s what sets this apart from other films noir.  For the most part it’s like so many other stories of this genre.  The characters look the part, roles are populated more by genre archetypes than individuals, and there is a sense of doom hanging over everything that happens.  In these films the main character has no idea what’s coming, but as audiences we do.

So we watch him struggle but ultimately flounder, and in that sense this is like so many other films we’ve seen.  Taking place mostly in San Francisco, there is a clear connection to The Maltese Falcon, and it’s hard not to picture Humphrey Bogart in the Mitchum role here.

But in Out of the Past, Jeff has already attempted to leave the game behind.  We meet him as a tortured man but one who holds onto a certain kind of hope that his character isn’t supposed to have.  He was backstabbed by a woman he loved, the femme fatale, and lived to see a normal life.  We see him for the first time on the banks of a lake, professing his love to Ann.  Things are going great for a character who is supposed to be struggling.

But of course he’s pulled back in, and maybe we have a greater sense of loyalty to Jeff Bailey because we’ve seen that he can muster up a few kernels of optimism.  He belongs in this genre based on profession alone, but in terms of his core character, he’s destined to play a semi-regular on Leave it to Beaver.

What I take away from the film is that Jeff was corrupted by the ‘game,’ whether or not he realized it.  He may have tried his darnedest to get back out to see the light of day, but it was his original sin, to live the life of a jaded private eye and prey on the privacy of others, that doomed him.  It was a choice made long ago for which he must atone, and keeping in line with genre tropes, he doesn’t.

*Also, this may be a stretch, but the only other “Bailey” movie character I can presently think of is James Stewart’s George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).  Perhaps there was a purposeful connection between the two characters, meant to underscore Jeff Bailey’s attempts to leave behind a life that was so ingrained with him.

Up Next: Pavilion (2012), Medicine for Melancholy (2008), True Grit (2010)

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