A review requested by Chris W, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Out of the Past is not the best film noir ever made, nor does it necessarily include everything that makes the genre its beautifully toxic best self (there's a distinct lack of urban rot, which I myself tend to associate with the noir-est noirs). But it might very well be the most quintessential and typical of all films noirs, the one that I'd want to hand to somebody just learning about the form, and promise them that it's all in there: this is the tone, this is the cultural context, this is the violence, this is the hard chiaroscuro beauty of black and white set against each other like jewels in the handle of a dagger. It's ridiculous to say "if you only ever watch one film noir" in the first place, and doubly so to end that sentence with anything other than "make it Double Indemnity", but I'll tell you what, Out of the Past puts in a good bid for that kind of breathless hyperbole. When people like me talk about '40s Hollywood filmmaking as some of the best in history, this is precisely what we have in mind.

It's all right there in the title, changed from the original Build My Gallows High of Geoffrey Homes's novel (a pseudonym of Daniel Mainwaring, under which he also wrote the film's screenplay). The past isn't done with us, as they say: you can try to keep away from it but pieces of it will always come crawling after you to pull you back into whatever swamp you were trying two escape. That's the heart and soul of noir: a fatalism born not out of random bad luck but personal culpability - noir heroes and antiheroes are always ultimately plagued by that one wrong choice they made to kick off the plot, which haunts them until they (usually) die. And so it is with Jeff Bailey Markham (Robert Mitchum), who only wanted to retire to a tiny town, meet a swell girl, Ann (Virginia Huston) and run a filling station. To live the promised American Dream, one that was being packaged with bright shiny ribbons in the years after World War II ended - Out of the Past came out in 1947 - as the United States finally had a chance to feel mostly good about itself for the first time in over 15 years. But one day, from out of... I don't know, out of someplace, Jeff gets a visitor in the form of Joe Stefanos (Paul Valentine), who wants him to pay a visit to Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). I would not spoil the pleasure of hearing the explanation of who Sterling is and how he connects to Jeff's past given in Mitchum's weathered, weary voice, nor the details of who this Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) is that came between them. All that needs saying is that Jeff's protestations that he wants to be left alone, please, don't prevent him from diving right back into a viper's nest of untrustworthy friends and openly venomous but magnificently sexy women.

It's easy to get caught up in the moral universe Out of the Past depicts, which is perfectly typical of the genre: only a could of characters who are purposefully keep to the sidelines can possibly be thought of as "good" to any meaningful degree (the sweetly sexless Ann, a cop played by Richard Webb who's jealous of Jeff, and a deaf-mute teen boy played by Dickie Moore, because sometimes you just go right for the most melodramatic symbolic embodiment of the Pure Fool that you can get your paws on), and the hero is a better person than his antagonists for almost no other reason than because, unlike them, he at least wants to be something besides toxic human garbage. And in its Manichean division of its women between the pleasant but fixedly impersonal blonde Ann and the sexually charged, gleefully unscrupulous brunette Kathie, the film has what could easily be the clearest-cut example of noir's celebrated, derided conception of the attractive, destructive power of untrammeled femininity that I've seen - though even despite Greer's perfectly on-target performance, Kathie perhaps isn't one of the top-tier femmes fatales, if only because Out of the Past is more interested in the cold psychological gamesmanship between Jeff and Sterling (though Greer has markedly more screentime than Douglas). I don't know if there's a word for the negatively charged homo-anti-eroticism that passes between Mitchum and Douglas - two males drawn together by their electrifying, unspoken hatred for each other - but this film alone is enough to prove that there should be. Roger Ebert described the film as a series of scenes in which the two actors angrily smoke at each other to assert dominance, and that's no less than true: this is the smokingest of all classic Hollywood films, and no actor ever got more mileage out of the limitless character-building possibilities provided by having a cigarette to fiddle with and smoke to exhale than Mitchum in this movie. And certainly, a lot of that goes towards creating a very clear relationship between the film's two central men that requires no words, only postures, expressions, and tone of voice: Douglas's insinuating whine and Mitchum's forceful baritone matter more, on balance, than any of the actual thoughts they communicate with them.

I have abandoned my train of thought, though, which was going something like this: it's so easy to latch onto Out of the Past in terms of its merciless way of grinding up its characters for their sins - and it doesn't hold back from judging everyone who commits even the slightest infraction, harsh towards its protagonist even by film noir standards, but at least as important is the film's visual scheme for drawing us into its moral universe. It surely did not invent the visual language of noir, which entered Hollywood through the 1930s horror films made by recent German immigrants and had been first matched to crime pictures at least as far back as Fritz Lang's 1937 You Only Live Once, but Out of the Past even more than The Postman Always Rings Twice (the definitive post-war noir), perfected the marriage of the neo-Expressionist noir style with the sunshiny open spaces of southern California. Everything preceding the long flashback where Jeff relates his history of violence to Ann is basically that: cloudless sky and severely clear daytime images that present a pleasant small-town idyll with a coiled-up tension lying in wait, whether it's the church that lingers deep in the frame at the end of the road, silently commenting on the intrusion of Joe the devil into this quiet place, or the way that the sun reflecting off of a beautiful river tends to make the image feel harsh instead of relaxing. I will confess that, for as much as I deeply admire the film's late drift to the standard hard-edged lighting and claustrophobic shadows of its genre, I'm never more impressed than I am with that opening act, which is far more unique in its intentions and its effect.

Out of the Past was one of the most important post-war A-pictures made by RKO, a studio that was not by its nature very much invested in making A-pictures, and it was handed off to one of their most reliable director/cinematographer duos, Jacques Tourneur and Nicholas Musuraca, and that's pretty much already explained what we need to know about how and why the images turned out the way they did. This was the same pair of filmmakers that had invented and perfected the famed Val Lewton horror film aesthetic with Cat People, the first and best of that producer's legendary run of horror movies in the 1940s (which also shared with Out of the Past the low-key art direction of Albert S. D'Agostino, who here does a great job presenting worn-out Americana). Already, the blend of Tourneur's French-tinged poetics with the overtly Germanic idiom of Universal horror and its knock-offs marked Cat People as a special sort of mongrel, a particularly American, urban visual polyglot that could never have been set in Europe, though it has a certain musty tinge of Old World fatigue. Out of the Past took that mixture and re-directed it; while Cat People is no slouch as a work depicting psychology, it still uses its visuals primarily to express atmosphere. Out of the Past is much more directly psychological in its lighting and its heavily subjective frames; it not only makes us share Jeff's general perspective, it positions itself inside his attitude, alert and wiry and increasingly bitter and grim.

Now, the usual caveat that we have to apply to all films noirs certainly comes into play here: the mentality that Out of the Past so flawlessly evokes is a caustic one, its tired cynicism about its characters offering little in the way of joy or sympathy. For I understand that there are many people who find noir much too bleak to get any pleasure out of it, though I'm baffled by them. This is, truly, a perfect encapsulation of the mindset and aesthetic of noir, but not everyone is going to hold that as a compliment. For myself, the film's unyielding potency is all the justification it needs; this is a brutally beautiful indictment of a simply brutal world, and Mitchum's performance is one of the highlights of the entire genre. It is unsparing in the most acute, insightful, and artful way, essential viewing for the noir fan and the kind of movie that could make a neutral third party into a noir fan in the first place.