Can a film noir be too perfectly noir?

I think I’m one of the few people who doesn’t care much for Out of the Past. It may be that for me the closer a movie gets to film noir, the less it appeals to me. I can’t argue with any of the superlatives used to describe this one. But despite all it does right in terms of noir, I can’t get terribly enthused.

Out of the Past (1947)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur

Often regarded as one of the quintessential film noirs, if not the film noir, Out of the Past is a movie I have a difficult time watching despite its bona fides. Perhaps it is because of them.

From its femme fatale to the way it is shot to the sense of a hero moving inexorably to an end that won’t be good and that character’s doomed desire to escape his past, this movie has everything noir is suppose to have — including its weaknesses.

I’ve tried watching this movie three times recently and each time I’ve found the first half difficult to get through. This is partly because it is largely exposition.

Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey, whose real name is Jeff Markham, reveals his past to his romantic interest, Ann Miller (Virginia Huston). It’s done in flashback on an all-night drive to Tahoe.

"And then I saw her, coming out of the sun, and I knew why Whit didn't care about that 40 grand."

Despite having a great entrance by Jane Greer as the femme fatale Kathie Moffat (“And then I saw her, coming out of the sun, and I knew why Whit didn’t care about that 40 grand …”), this 40 minutes of flashback drags. I think there are a couple of reasons for this.

To begin with, much as I love Robert Mitchum and his indifferent, laconic style (which strictly speaking is perfect for the role), it allows the movie to drag, or feel that way.

Similarly, as wonderful as the noir imagery is, it feels as if the film is so concerned with its tone it forgets to pick things up and get moving along.

It’s style takes precedence over everything. (Cigarette anyone? They smoke to beat the band in this movie.) This is also reflected in the dialogue where the word “Baby” either precedes or ends every line directed at a woman.

Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey/Markham and Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat.

Once we return to present time, things pick up, at least to a degree. The story gets more convoluted but it also gets more energy (although Mitchum continues to appear to be on the verge of nodding off from boredom).

Oddly, all these flaws are also what make it a near perfect film noir. Frankly, I really don’t understand why or how this happens, though I appear to be alone in feeling as I do about the movie.

It makes me think of something Cesar Milan (the Dog Whisperer) says every so often about dogs: sometimes you are dealing with the dog and sometimes you are dealing with the breed. In Out of the Past, it strikes me that the breed (or genre) takes over and the dog (the movie) gets lost.

It’s a great example of genre; it’s not so great an example of a movie.

Jeff Bailey is locked out from the kind of life he would like to have.


Roger Ebert has a fascinating bit of information on the writing of the script, which is credited to Daniel Mainwaring and based on his novel Build My Gallows High:

… The critic Jeff Schwager read all versions of the screenplay for a 1990 Film Comment article, and writes me: “Mainwaring’s script was not very good, and in one draft featured awful voice-over narration by the deaf-mute. Cain’s script was a total rewrite and even worse; it was totally discarded. The great dialogue was actually the work of Frank Fenton, a B-movie writer whose best known credit was John Ford’s ‘Wings of Eagles.'”

2) The 1990 movie The Hot Spot, directed by Dennis Hopper, owes its central idea to Out of the Past — a man who can’t escape who and what he is. In the Hopper movie, we see Virginia Madsen playing a character very much like Greer’s Kathie Moffat and Don Johnson plays a character with the same conflict as Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey.

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