The Critics: The noir to end all noir

CLASSIC CINEMA

THIS MOVIE is 51 years old, but you can still imagine Jane Greer's lipstick, fresh and poisonous, on your collar. She's the dangerous woman who went off with Kirk Douglas's $40,000, and so Kirk hires Robert Mitchum to find her. He fetches up at a cafe next to a small movie-house in Acapulco - "then I saw her, coming out of the sun", and he realises that this isn't just about the $40,000. He falls for her, and he forgets about how nasty Kirk can be.

She warns him about that, and she has a self-pitying look that says, you're not going to trust me are you?, as if trust were a form of abuse. All he can say - or sigh - is, "Baby, I don't care." For this is Mitchum at his loveliest and most resigned, the angel of his own approaching end.

Coming out of RKO in 1947 and made for very little, Out of the Past is often cited as an axiomatic film noir. In Mexico, Greer and Mitchum only meet after dark - "We seemed to live by night," his voice-over says, alluding to the titles of so many other noirs.

The black-and-white photography is by Nicholas Musuraca (a name fit for a villain), and it is the epitome of shadowlands, in which sometimes we see no more than the damp shine of eyes, lips or blood. There's also a sultry, fatal love theme by Roy Webb that takes delight in raising hopes it can stub out. Not to mention the cigarettes! Quite apart from the central trio, there are unerring supporting performances from Dickie Moore, Steve Brodie, Paul Valentine, and a feline Rhonda Fleming.

At RKO in those days, everyone knew his craft and respected the rules of the genre without fuss. Years later, Mitchum liked to pretend he could hardly remember Out of the Past among so many other films. But this one is special, because of its script. The story came from a novel, Build My Gallows High (the film's original title in Britain), by Daniel Mainwaring. The script is credited to "Geoffrey Homes" (Mainwaring's pseudonym). But recent research in the script files at RKO shows that Mainwaring did a first draft, and was followed by novelist James M Cain, who did a revision. And then, the very stylised dialogue of the film came in yet another rewrite, by Frank Fenton.

The question is of some interest because the film is rightly famous not just for the sardonic wit and fatalism of the talk, but because so much of what is said is also an elaborate, comic reflection on talk, what people mean, and on how our various forms of communication are all unreliable. Indeed, the talk for talk's sake is nearly rococo, postmodern and camp. It's as if Noel Coward had rewritten Jim Thompson, and it supplies a mocking framework to the hard-boiled routines. I don't know a film made so early that is so intent on teasing the way it's being made.

That brings us to Mitchum, and what made him unique. When the novel was first published, Humphrey Bogart tried to get Warner Brothers to buy it as a vehicle for him. Years passed, and it ended up at RKO. Mitchum was younger, more deadpan, more serenely hopless than Bogart could ever be. A year earlier, in The Big Sleep, Bogart cracked terrific jokes; but in Out of the Past, Mitchum acts as if laughing at jokes is indecent, or a waste of energy. He didn't give a damn, and let that show - with the result that he still looks the most modern of actors, utterly unconvinced by the flim-flam.

There's another man to remember in Out of the Past. Did such a script, such players, and the great Musuraca need direction? Of course, they did. And the director was Jacques Tourneur, a man who made fine adventure movies (The Flame and the Arrow), horror pictures (Cat People), and movies like this with the same ease. He was the son of Maurice Tourneur, one of the visual story-tellers of silent film. There's a modest grace to nearly every shot in Out of the Past - it's like whatever it was that Bobby Moore had in his prime, the trick of just knowing where to be for the best view.

'Out of the Past': NFT, SE1 (0171 928 3232).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
tvStrictly presenter returns to screens after Halloween accident
News
Boxing promoter Kellie Maloney, formerly known as Frank Maloney, entered the 2014 Celebrity Big Brother house
people
Sport
Dwight Gayle (left) celebrates making it 1-1 with Crystal Palace captain Mile Jedinak
premier leagueReds falter to humbling defeat
Sport
Harry Kane
premier leagueLive minute-by-minute coverage
News
video
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

    Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

    £45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

    Day In a Page

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin