Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Out of the Past (1947)

If there's any picture out there that might get you to take up smoking and boozing it's probably this one.  Everyone smokes in this thing and they look pretty good doing it.  We got Mitchum smoking.  We got Kirk Douglas smoking.  We got femme fatales smoking.  We got Mitchum drinking.  A lot.  We got bars.  We got cabanas.  We got smokey night clubs.  We got bourbon.  We got smoking while driving.  Maybe a little drinking while driving.  We got smoking in black and white which looks much better than smoking in color.  Hell, we even got some smoking before and after fishing.  This picture's got everything an addictive personality could want and dread at the same time.  If some kid came up to me with a cigarrette dangling from his lips and said he saw this picture and had to try it for himself I'd probably just nod my head knowingly and ask if I could bum a smoke.  If this picture came out today it would probably be rated X for smoking.  Fucking MPAA. 

What we also got is a pretty god damned labyrinthine story that nearly lost me at about the halfway point which is one of the reasons I just gave up and started paying attention to all the smoking going on.  What is it with these noirs (film term I learned on the internet) that strive for befuddlement as an emotion?  Well, I haven't seen too many noirs to be honest.  Just this and The Big Sleep (off the top of my head).  The Big Sleep makes this one seem like Star Wars in regards to plotular complications.  And yet, despite my confusion, I can honestly say this is a great motion picture.  It's involving (emotionally and intellectually), beautifully shot, has some great performances, and never becomes predictable beyond the fact that we know a lot of these characters are gonna die.  Yeah, half the time I had no idea what was going on, and I'm dreading the part of this write up where I mention the plot, but I was never less than captivated.  Shit man, I'll say it.  Great fucking movie.  Better than The Big Sleep anyway.

The story started off simply enough.  We got a guy coming into a small town called Bridgeport looking for a man named Bailey.  Bailey runs the gas station and is played by Robert Mitchum so we're pretty sure he's not entirely on the up and up.  You might even say the guy looking for him has come out of his past.  Whenever bad men try to turn their lives around their past almost always catches up with them.  Bailey is trying to live a quiet existence now.  He's friends with some deaf and dumb kid that works for him at the gas station. He's got a girl that he plans to marry.  And he loves to fish and smoke.  He's covered up his past for the most part as exemplified by the part where his girl asks him if he's ever been married before and he responds with "not that I can remember".

Well, this guy comes into town thinking Bailey is somebody else.  That somebody would be Jeff Markham, who used to work for a heavy named Whit (Kirk Douglas).  Apparently, he used to be some sort of private dick a while back, had a partner who still works as a bag man for Whit, but whatever shit he used to pull is never made abundantly clear.  His past is mysterious and he did some bad things is the point.  This part of the picture reminded me of Cronenberg's History of Violence except that Bailey/Markham gives up pretty quickly and confesses to his girlfriend, who is surprisingly accepting.  Jeff's gonna go with this man to Lake Tahoe, meet with Whit, see what he wants, and then come back so they can get married.  No complications whatsoever, he promises her.

Complications ensue.  Turns out Whit wants him to find an old flame of his named Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer).  That's what he's good at, apparently.  Finding people.  Whit wants her back.  Kathie's fled to Mexico and Jeff is forced/payed to follow her.  He finds her and, predictably, they have a whirlwind affair.  Some time passes, things are going well, Jeff and Kathie make plans to run, Whit and his cronies show up in Mexico, awkwardness, tension, drinking and smoking, etc.  Jeff has to cover things up, says she's already moved on, here let's have some bourbon and some smokes while Jeff contemplates how to get out of this sticky situation, etc.  Kathie walks into view, Jeff says "hey, look over there", etc.  The story then takes Kathie and Jeff, via steamer, north to San Francisco.  Jeff told Whit she headed down to South America, but he's too smart to buy that shit.  Things get progressively complex as Jeff's former partner, and current Whit employee, Stephanos spots Jeff at the racetrack...and now I just realized I'm regurgitating plot.  Sorry, there's a lot of it.

Here's a quick sum up:  Jeff and Kathie have a falling out involving murder and forty thousand dollars.  Jeff returns to Bridgeport and his bride to be.  His past catches up with him again.  Jeff's hired for another job by Whit.  Kathie is back in the picture.  He does the job Whit hires him for.  There's another murder.   Back to Bridgeport.  More shit comes out of his past, etc.  A lot of shit happens in this one.  Very few characters are innocent.  Even the deaf and dumb kid shows how a simple rod and reel can be a lethal weapon.  I stopped trying to keep up with the goings on and just began focusing on the characters and the thick atmosphere.  Also, the snappy dialogue which was incredible.

For example.  An exchange between Kathie and Jeff when she thinks he's going to kill her.

Kathie:  I don't want to die.
Jeff:  Neither do I, but if I have to, I'll die last.
puff puff

Jane Greer portrays Kathie as one of those nasty type bitches that you can't help but love even as she's twisting a knife into your back.  Slowly.  She's the definition of a femme fatale.  Mitchum's Jeff Markham is interesting in that he seems pretty slow half the time but he somehow manages to stay ahead of the game, just enough.  Things aren't going to end well for anybody.   People die off screen and then their bodies just show up.   There's no chance Markham can escape his past and have that life he tried to have, but we root for him anyway.  It's not often that Mitchum can make us sympathize with his characters, but he achieves that here.

Someday I'll check out more of these film noir type deals.  The director (Jack Turner?) is probably best known for his Cat People picture (unseen by me) and I guess a couple episodes of "Bonanza".  I can't imagine anything he's done topping this one however.  It's overly complex without becoming boring.  We're not sure why the characters are doing what they're doing or which side they're on half the time.  These are all bad, selfish, people even if some of them are trying to change their ways.  Despite all this, the heartbreak we feel at the end is genuine and deserved.


F-Stop said...

Apparently it's the equivalent of a Tom Waits song. I don't know how anyone gets through one of his albums without taking up drinking and smoking.

brian said...

Wow, apparently all the Mexico stuff was a flashback told from Markham to his girl in Bridgeport. How the hell did I miss that? Usually I hit pause before I go to the bathroom. This review is practically moot. In my defense, it was never made all that clear.

elmo said...

The last "dark film" I saw was Touch of Evil, which was more atmospheric than anything. I actually thought the smoking in Madmen would get to me, but I survived it.
And duuuude- my new Netflix email is plingmo@hotmail, IF you wanted to friend me.

Gianni said...

"never becomes predictable beyond the fact that we know a lot of these characters are gonna die"

Yeah, I'm not sure it'd be a movie you'd watch if there wasn't a multitude of death.

Good read, looking forward to the next one.