Noirvember Files: Out of the Past (1947)

Noirvember Files: Out of the Past (1947)

Many know Jacques Tourneur, the acclaimed French genre director, from his primal fascination with shadow. Films from his RKO horror period, the likes of Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man, are enriched and eventually suffocated by the unseen and the intangible; impressions of figures cast across swimming pools, jungles, and desolate townscapes. Their brief spectral qualities still evoke a lingering chill, one which Tourneur returns to, again and again, like a craving for fright. It is the connotation of power - being threatened by an unknown force beyond control – that drives his work, even in his Western entries such as the masterpiece Canyon Passage; a film which portrays the Other as elements on their own accord, at peace with lush foliage and endless sky. It is ingenious, then, that his ultimate film, 1947’s Out of the Past, barrels past physical manifestation and commits entirely to the ever-present danger of finality.

 Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas in  Out of the Past .

For a classic, bare-bones example of Film Noir, Out of the Past rarely makes exuberant, outlandish music out of its shadows. Instead, it is akin to a quiet stream of water, or a small, gentle snowfall cast against a mountainside. Much of its power comes not from surface, but what surface implies. The film is, at points, an aching tragedy, at others, a harrowing Horror picture, and throughout, an apocalyptic shout into a ceaseless void, but all of it is found in the implications of the labyrinthine plot. To spoil or even discuss the story’s incredible dexterity and concentration would defeat the purpose of Tourneur’s visualization of it and how the images complicate narrative meanings.

This is a film composed out of bellowing smoke, shimmering rays of light, gradually-shortening cigarettes, and the hideousness which collapses the space between each, and its highest brilliance is found in the ways visual gestures, props, costuming, and other embodiments of performance embrace the inevitability of the story: the dead-end road of no return. This can be found in the first scene of the film: a man driving into a California town, in search of a man who will, in all likelihood, know exactly what the inquiry is about even as he plays dumb and curious. A typical Noir narrative ignition, to be sure, but its pictorial anguish pervades the screen as the town of Bridgeport presents itself as the first and last town in the history of the world. It is so spare, so uncommonly quaint, that the evil arriving into city limits could’ve brought a storm of fog and mist and thunder along with it and no audience member would’ve bat an eye. But of course, Tourneur doesn’t need that.

What arrives instead is a big city man in a trench coat and a hat, and that’s plenty terrifying, questioning and tearing at the moral fabric which Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum, in one of his finest clown shows of depression and conviction) created in his attempt to erase the past and move on. And it is set on a sunny day, with the light of the sun illuminating the Americana, to only further complicate the foreboding sense of a world gone wrong.

 Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum in  Out of the Past .

Even going past the fundamental gumshoe elements of this text, Out of the Past is a clear influence on every mystery or detective story since, whether explicitly or through the vast lineage of early 50s Noir which capitalized on its unique heartbreak and viciousness. Within the first ten minutes, a scene on a secluded beach recalls David Fincher’s Zodiac, right down to the timing of the edit and the blocking of bodies within the composition (although it is far less gruesome). To think of an entire history of Noir is to, essentially, think of Out of the Past, because no other odyssey of the movement is as crystalline or as pure in spirit, intent, free of pretension. Think of Stanwyck, Bogart, Welles – they all collapse like pieces of fumbled celluloid in comparison to the life and vitality of Tourneur’s triumph of the dreary.

The only Noir that lives on after the genre itself dies with Out of the Past’s overwhelmingly fruitless conclusion is Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, which is a strange hellscape afterlife piece of its own. Jacques Tourneur found in exploration of shadow that the true mysteries of existance lie in light. Out of the Past unearths them to the tune of a scream.

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