Monday, November 17, 2014

Out of the Past—Classic Film Noir

Is it more admirable to struggle, hopelessly, against your fate, or to accept it with as much dignity as you can? Robert Mitchum, as Jeff Bailey/Jeff Markham, in the brilliant film noir OUT OF THE PAST, tries one and then settles for the other.

And he does it in great film noir style, traipsing around gritty nighttime New York and San Francisco in a fedora and a trench coat, with an omnipresent cigarette practically surgically attached to his lips. Mitchum is a great physical presence, a quite large man with broad shoulders and a deep chest, and a sinewy, sinuous slow and cocky walk that seems to say, “I can kick your ass now or later, but I’m going to kick your ass.” And you don’t doubt him for a second.

And Jane Greer, as Kathy Moffat, the beautiful, sultry and terribly sexy femme fatale, has an equally dangerous physicality, a vamp-y, lusty sense of her own sexual power that mirrors Mitchum’s in the sense that she seems to be saying “I can f$%^ you now, or I can f$%^ you later, but I am going to f$%^ you.” And you don’t doubt her for a second.

And when Moffat says “we deserve each other,” and when she asks Markham if he believes her when she says she didn’t steal $40,000 from the gangster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas in a great early role) and he tells her “I don’t care” you believe them again. The irresistible force and the immovable object, the yin and yang, the head cheerleader and the quarterback on the football team, the masculine and feminine principles, the two of them are so powerfully drawn to each other that you can’t imagine they could ever resist each other.

But Markham should have, because Moffat is as morally diseased as she is physically perfect. Markham is hired to find her after she shoots her boyfriend Sterling and absconds with $40,000. Markham is a gritty guy in a gritty profession, and agrees to do it even though he knows Sterling may be lying when he says he only wants her back. Sterling tells Markham he likes him because he is smart and honest, implying implies that even those qualities can be bought, which they apparently can.

Markham finds her, of course, and instead of fulfilling his contract, he runs away with her. They both have the idea that they will live an idyllic life of romance, of laughter, of picnics and the racetrack, their primitive longings for each other transmuted into some kind of genuine partnership, something exalted and grand, something miles away from the grime and squalor of the city streets they grew up on. Markham tells Moffat, “Nothing in the world is any good unless you can share it,” and they do try to share their world.

But you can’t escape the past, or who you are, and they are tracked down by Markham’s old partner, who wants some of the dough Moffat stole. Markham gives him a good thrashing (what other outcome could there have been, as Mitchum exudes a supreme physical and sexual confidence, even going so far as telling Douglas as Whit Sterling, when it looks as if they are to come to blows, “forget it, you’re out of shape,” as Markham gracefully takes a seat on the couch and Sterling decides not to test him), but then Moffat kills the partner in cold blood as he lies, senseless and helpless, on the floor. It turns out she did steal the money, and she runs back to Sterling.

Perhaps Markham can’t help his romantic and decent impulses any more than he can help himself from being attracted to Moffat. He goes into hiding as Jeff Bailey, after Moffat leaves, in an unassuming little town in the Sierra Nevada, Bridgeport, runs a gas station, and falls in love with Ann Miller, who is an Ivory Soap kind of girl, the kind of girl who had the best handwriting in third grade in Catholic School and was liked by the nuns and her classmates both. When Sterling finds Markham, Markham tells Miller everything, and she tells him she still loves him, believing Markham didn’t kill his partner (in the dark and convoluted plot, Bailey eventually gets framed for three murders by both Sterling and Moffat), or the other two.

Sterling pushes Markham back into another job for him, and Markham lets himself be pushed, perhaps having an impulse to ruin himself instead of ruining Anne’s life (she really does play a likeable character, a good girl who is not prudish or prissy, and who genuinely love Jeff, going on picnics with him and watching him fish, kissing him and believing in him in a way he can’t believe in himself).

The plot is not all that important, dark and convoluted as it is. Let us just say that Sterling, his henchman, Markham’s partner and a lawyer who got caught up with Sterling all wind up dead, and Moffat is in one way or another involved in all the deaths. She’s the most completely cynical character of the bunch, gulling both Markham and Sterling with that beautiful thoroughbred body, the brooding black eyes, and the radiant smile that promises that you are the only one.

Markham makes one last attempt at the good life, to be with Ann, when he goes to see Sterling to un-frame himself and set everything right. But Moffat has killed Sterling, and tells Markham to run away with her or go to jail for the murders he has been framed for. She is capable of speaking out of both sides of her mouth, this one, as is everyone in the movie, practically, except perhaps Ann and the boy who helps Markham at the gas station, who saves Markham’s life, and who is true to Markham and Ann till the end, no matter how much danger that puts him in. The boy is deaf and mute, unable to be manipulated or to manipulate others with the very language that everyone else uses to deceive.

And so Markham drives away with Moffat, and lust and venality and corruption seem to have taken the day, except that Markham has tipped off the cops. Moffat kills Markham, telling him he is a double-crosser in a voice that seems to betray her truly evil nature for the first time, and the cops kill her.

Maybe it is both noir and romance, this movie, because now Ann is free to be with the boyfriend who has been pining for her all through the movie, a good guy whom she passes up for the more magnetic Markham, whom she can’t resist any more than Markham could resist Moffat. The two survivors drive off together in the end and you know that death at a police roadblock is not in their future.


  1. Believe it or not, I saw that movie when it first came out.

  2. I don't watch tv films like this, but I feel you do a great job in your reporting!!! TJ Straw in unsophisticated Manhattan... yes, Virginia, there are pockets in the Big Apple where we are simple country folk...