There seems to be a consensus, in all the books on films noir that I've come across, that "Out of the Past" is a pretty fine, not to say iconic, example of the genre. I bought it a few years ago and was not impressed. However, after having read some more stuff recently and been encouraged once again by a host of positive opinions, I watched it again. Well, still no dice. I'm not even convinced that it's a particularly good film, never mind a classic example of noir. The major problem is the script. While memorably snappy here and there ("Baby, I don't care"; "A dame with a rod is like a guy with a knitting needle"; "Awfully cold around the heart"; and Bailey's voice-over in the flashback), it loses focus and momentum in the last third of the film, the San Francisco/Tahoe scenes. Here the film is complicated by needlessly tortuous plotting, and Kathie's villainy seems awkward and dull.
The San Francisco scenes are the most noir-ish in terms of style and setting. Set at night, in the rain, there are long moments of quiet as Bailey sidles in and out of bars and apartments. Yet the photography is unremarkable and adds nothing to the mood of the piece that the night-time does not bring on its own. This contrasts starkly with the opening of the film, set in daylight in mid-town America, by the fishing stream, and with the second third of the film, set in Acapulco, in the sunshine and brightness, and the romance of the beach. Yet there is a standard noir voice-over against the sunshine which, though it doesn't jibe with the intense romance that plays out there, is no doubt intended to underscore Bailey's fatalism and Kathie's projected betrayal. The tone is so uneven that the mood of the film, intentionally cynical and bleak, simply drains away into a dullness that is only reprieved by the out-and-out nihilism of the ending.
And yet there is some good stuff too. The flashback sequence is probably the best in the film, despite the asymmetry of its components. In fact, perhaps this very conflict of styles brings a complexity and depth that the rest of the film sadly lacks. Bailey's utter abandonment of his better self to Kathie, punctuated by his wonderfully poetic narrative, gives heart to a film that sorely lacks one. The pain and shock on Bailey's face when Kathie shoots Fisher dead, is mirrored in the viewer's. After this, nothing matters and no-one cares it just slides away into tedium.
The performances are very varied. I am conflicted by Mitchum's. Much as I value him as an actor, his laconic, careless mannerisms are reduced to weariness in this film; his resignation approaches enervation. There is nothing at all convincing about his feelings for the character of Anne Miller, and though Bailey belongs entirely to the milieu of Kathie and her sociopathic impulses, one cannot feel any sympathy for him, as he feels nothing for himself. All is emptiness.
While there is at least a seamless effortlessness about Mitchum, the same cannot be said of Jane Greer. She is fundamentally without charm as a seductress and unconvincing as a femme fatale. When compared to Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson, or even Gene Tierney as Ellen Berent, her shortcomings are glaring. As an actress she reacts to the role instead of making it her own.
The only real bright spot in the film was Kirk Douglas, to be honest. Whit Sterling really thrived. Whether venal, cool, angry, amused or simply smooth, he managed to evince a real passion for life and, alone of all the characters in the film, laughed. Whit suddenly slapping Kathie was the only time I felt anything as the film dragged to a close.
Noir cynicism and suffering are one thing ("In a Lonely Place", for example), but lifelessness is something else again. "Out of the Past" is mired in the sense of its own meaninglessness. It is beyond loneliness, beyond bitterness. This is not film noir. This is boredom.
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