Out of the Past (1947)

“You can never help anything, can you? You’re like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another.”

‘Out of the Past’, directed by Jacques Tourneur in 1947, is a film noir starring Robert Mitchum as a private investigator in hiding whose past catches up with him when a businessman tracks him down to complete a job. This leads him into a labyrinthine plot involving double cross, a femme fatale, Kathie, played by Jane Greer, and a tragic and bloody climax. For me the plot was one twist too many, but the style: the dark visual tone, the way the action was directed and the intensities of the performances were enough to hold my attention. Interestingly, I watched this just before Howard Hawks’ 1938 ‘Bringing up Baby’ which made me realise how close the knotty and chaotic film noirs were to the screwball comedies. Each have plots that tend towards baroque plot swerve in unlikely directions, and each are only successful if the director is a master of the genre. In this case, Tourneur is just that – not only the master of the genre, but one of its creators. Ten years after this, he would direct one of my favourite horror movies, ‘Night of the Demon’, and ‘Out of the Past’ makes it clear why he was so suited to this. The ambiguity of the characters and the nightmarish maze of circumstances that Mitchum’s detective finds himself lost in are excellent foundations for a shift into the horror genre. This might be an indication of the fact that I haven’t entirely bought in to film noir – and to appreciate it I seem to latch on instead to related genres that I find more recognisable. For me, I enjoyed this movie, but craved something more unusual and European throughout.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s a meticulously directed and stylish crime drama with a set of strong performances. All told I’d rather watch ‘Night of the Demon’. Weirdly, I’m going to suggest ‘His Girl Friday’ as a double bill, to make the most out of the similarities between two unlikely genres.

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