OUT OF THE PAST (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)

Jacques Tourneur made perhaps his most highly regarded film, at least among numerous aficionados of film noir, Out of the Past, from a script by Geoffrey Homes (a.k.a. Daniel Mainwaring), which James M. Cain and Frank Fenton fine-tuned, based on Homes’s novel Build My Gallows High. I love film noir, and I always enjoy Out of the Past, but its extremely complicated plot—perhaps to court the financial success of Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946)—takes getting used to.
     The serpentine plot slips into and out of gas station owner Jeff Bailey’s flashback as he attempts to bring girlfriend Ann up to speed about his past, which has caught up with him. Originally Jeff Markham, he found and fled with mobster Whit Sterling’s girl, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer, giving the performance of a lifetime), who convinced him she hadn’t stolen the fortune that led Whit to charge Jeff to find and return both the girl and the loot. Now Whit, having found him, seeks payback, and more, by embroiling Jeff in a scheme that Jeff knows is a frame-up. It turns out it involves murder.
     The charm of this second-rate noir is the tension that Tourneur draws between the plot, a series of narrative knots and frayed rope, and his elegant, silken style. The plot belongs to Markham/Bailey; the film, to Tourneur.
     Those who praise the film as Hollywood’s greatest noir also praise Robert Mitchum’s lead performance as Markham/Bailey; but Mitchum is middling—nowhere near the high level of his Jeb Rand, the same year, in another noir, a noir western, Raoul Walsh’s Pursued. Kirk Douglas is rudimentary as Whit.
     Dickie Moore, who had given Shirley Temple her first on-screen kiss, is scene-stealing as the deaf-mute employee who is loyal to Jeff.

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