Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Build My Gallows High, Baby: Out of the Past (1947)

It’s like a battle of the mugs—Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas, squared-off and tussling for domination of femme fatale Jane Greer. Sure, supposedly it’s about money, but we know what it’s really about. Doughboy syndicate thug Whit Sterling (Douglas) hires private dick Jeff Bailey (Mitchum) to track down the lovely and ethically-challenged Kathie Moffat (Greer). Bailey takes the job and travels down Mexico way to stalk his wild prey. But once he finds Moffat in Acapulco, he falls head over heels in love with her and quicker than you can say “Doh!” Bailey and Moffat flee to San Francisco to start a new life far away from the clutches of Sterling and his goons. Riveting stuff, to be sure, and that’s only the first half-hour. To say any more would be murder. The rest is pure cinematic pleasure; the kind of movie making Hollywood sure doesn’t care about today. I’m not even sure they could make it even if they tried. Director Taylor Hackford tried to re-make the film—as Against All Odds—back in 1984 with Jeff Bridges in the Mitchum role, James Woods substituting as Douglas, and the horribly miscast Rachel Ward standing in for Jane Greer (who also has a bit cameo in the film). The whole affair was dreary pseudo-noir with a sunny California twist.

Out of the Past is the quintessential film noir. A palpable sense of doom and self-destruction haunt every frame, pulling the viewer down into the inevitable blackness awaiting bad guy gone good, Bailey. At the beginning of the film, when Bailey’s past comes back to smack him in the kisser, we almost believe him when he tells his small town girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston) that he’s just a normal guy, a good guy who’s content running a little gas station in Nowhereville, California. But by the end of Bailey’s confession—he tells Ann about his wicked, wicked past while the two drive up to Sterling’s Lake Tahoe abode—we know he’s lying. Bailey still hungers for Moffat, still hungers for the lifestyle of booze, tawdry sex, and violence that fueled him for so many misbegotten years. Snappy dialogue, crisp direction from Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, Curse of the Demon, and Nightfall, among many others), co-star Rhonda Fleming (her brief appearance just oozes sex), and fabulous performances easily make this film the classic that it is.

Available on DVD from Warner Home Video.

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