OUT OF THE PAST (1947) revisited

February 7, 2021

***** This is an entry into my “Revisited” series where I re-watch a classic movie and then write about it – not with a traditional review, but rather a general discussion of the movie, those involved with it, and its impact or influence.

 Greetings again from the darkness. There are a few films that provide the perfect example of Film Noir, and this one from director Jacques Tourneur is unquestionably one of them. Tourneur is also known for CAT PEOPLE (1942) and he’s the son of prolific French director, Maurice Tourneur. Daniel Mainwaring, under his pen name Geoffrey Homes, adapted the screenplay from his own novel, “Build My Gallows High”.

Jeff is the owner of a small town gas station, and although relatively new to the town, he’s made a few local friends – in particular Ann, with whom he has a pretty serious, though not altogether honest, relationship. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before Jeff’s mysterious past catches up with him, and this happens pretty early in the story. He’s called back to the big city by one of the henchmen for mobster Whit, who wants Jeff to track down Whit’s mistress, Kathie, who absconded with $40,000. It’s an offer Jeff can’t refuse, and soon enough he’s in Acapulco entranced by the “dame” he’s paid to track down. What follows is a slew of twists and turns, double-crosses, dangerous close calls, and yes, yet another “dame” that can’t be trusted.

The noir hijinks are a blast to watch, thanks in no small part to the extraordinary cast. Robert Mitchum plays Jeff, and his dry, laconic approach allows him to walk that line between being an anti-hero and a good guy that we root for. Whit is played exceeding well by not-yet-a-star Kirk Douglas, whose pent-up energy and fast-talking nature are the perfect dueling partner for Mitchum. While the screen presence of Mitchum and Douglas can’t be denied, it’s Jane Greer who steals nearly every scene she’s in playing Kathie. Duplicitous is not a strong enough word for the character of Kathie. Ann is played beautifully by Virginia Huston, and Rhonda Fleming comes into the story as Meta Carson about halfway through, competing with Kathie for the title of least trustworthy woman you’ll likely come across. Other supporting performances come from Paul Valentine as Whit’s henchman Joe, Richard Webb as Ann’s protective and jealous suitor Jim, Steve Brodie as Fisher, and Dickie Moore as Jeff’s trusty employee known only as The Kid.

Director Tourneau was a master of creating atmosphere, and his career took him through many types of projects, formats, and genres: Short films, westerns, horror, adventure, war, mystery, and crime. The last few years of his career were spent directing TV movies and series. He passed away in 1977 at age 73, leaving behind two movies, OUT OF THE PAST and CAT PEOPLE that would be selected for the National Film Registry. Writer Daniel Mainwaring also passed in 1977 (age 74), and though he began as a journalist-turned-novelist, his greatest success was as a screenwriter. In addition to this film, he also wrote another noir classic, THE BIG STEAL (1949), in which director Don Siegel reunited Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer; and the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956), also directed by Siegel.

 Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas are both considered giants of Hollywood past. Mitchum is viewed as the consummate tough guy, and his characters often stood out due to the air of indifference in his acting style. He was only nominated for one Oscar in his career, but the memorable roles are many – including westerns, romance, and crime thrillers. Mitchum’s “bad boy” persona was only enhanced by his serving jail time for a marijuana offense in 1949, however in real life, he was married to his wife Dorothy for 57 years (although his extramarital affairs were well known). He also had some success as a singer-songwriter, and on screen, he is remembered for two of the best ever screen villains from CAPE FEAR (1962) and THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955). Fans of TOMBSTONE (1993) recognize Mitchum’s voice as the narrator, and his final screen appearance was in 1997, the same year he died at age 79.

Kirk Douglas was nominated for 3 Oscars, and very few actors were more proficient at stealing a scene, and even fewer duplicated his long-lasting screen presence. He was a showy performer who was hardly known when cast in OUT OF THE PAST, the movie that vaulted him towards stardom. His most iconic roles include Vincent Van Gogh in LUST FOR LIFE (1956), Doc Holliday in GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL (1957), and in two Stanley Kubrick films, PATHS OF GLORY (1957) and SPARTACUS (1960). Douglas is often given credit for virtually ending Hollywood’s “Blacklist” by hiring Dalton Trumbo to write for SPARTACUS. Douglas worked frequently in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and made eight films with Burt Lancaster, another industry legend. A stroke in 1996 made speaking very difficult for him, but therapy allowed him to get back on stage and on screen. In the early 1960s, Douglas starred on stage in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and he held on to the screen rights until his son, actor-producer Michael Douglas, turned it into a 1975 box office hit starring Jack Nicholson. Kirk Douglas was married to his second wife, Anne, for 65 years until his death in 2020 at age 103.

 Jane Greer was only 22 when she filmed OUT OF THE PAST, yet she had the aura to make us believe her Kathie could turn any man inside-out. She won beauty pageants as a baby, and sang with orchestras as a teenager, but the movie camera and big screen took her to a new level. As her career was just starting, she got caught in the infamous web of Howard Hughes, and only a quickie marriage to singer Rudy Vallee allowed her to escape. Her two best known films are this one and THE BIG STEAL two years later, in which she again co-starred with Mitchum. In 1984, she appeared in Taylor Hackford’s remake of OUT OF THE PAST, entitled AGAINST ALL ODDS. In the film, she plays Rachel Ward’s mother. After her second divorce in 1963, she had a long-term relationship with actor Frank London. They both passed away in 2001. She was 76.

Rhonda Fleming was in her mid-20s during filming, and had already appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND (1945). Her career spanned more than 40 films, including Robert Siodmak’s THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1946), Fritz Lang’s WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (1956), and John Sturges’ GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL (1957). She worked with most every leading man of the era, including four films with Ronald Reagan. As a gifted singer, she performed in  Broadway musicals and was featured in her own concerts. Fleming spent most of the 1960’s and 1970’s doing TV work. She was married 6 times, and died in 2020 at age 97.  The third female star in the film was Virginia Huston as Jeff’s small town girlfriend. Ms. Huston’s acting career lasted less than a decade, and she also appeared in FLAMINGO ROAD (1949) with Joan Crawford, and as Jane opposite Lex Barker in TARZAN’S PERIL (1951). She passed away from cancer at age 55 in 1981.

Paul Valentine, who plays Whit’s smirking henchman Joe, also had a fairly limited career, although like Ms. Greer, he also appeared in the remake AGAINST ALL ODDS in 1984. It was one of his last screen appearances. Richard Webb, Anne’s intense and jealous protector Jim, was a hard-working character actor from the 1940s through the 1970s, and he authored some books on psychic phenomena. Dickie Moore plays the deaf-mute “Kid”, Jeff’s confidant, and was the epitome of a child star. Beginning at age 18 months, Moore appeared in 52 movies by age 10. If you are ever in a trivia contest and the question comes up about Shirley Temple’s first on screen kiss – you’ll rack up the points if you answer ‘Dickie Moore’. He appeared in five Best Picture nominees, but his acting career was over by age 30. While researching his book on child stars, he met actress Jane Powell. They had been married for 27 years at the time of his death in 2015.

The film stands the test of time and is right there with THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) and DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) and any others considered classic Film Noir. In fact, Humphrey Bogart was originally offered the role of Jeff, and while we can imagine him in the role, Mitchum was terrific in making it his own. No one has ever said, “Baby, I don’t care” any better, and it is also the name of Mitchum’s 2001 biography written by Lee Server. In addition to the great cast, Tourneur makes creative use of lighting and camera angles throughout, and all of that adds up to a fun movie-watching experience in spite of some of the confusion on how the story progresses. It’s a must see for anyone who enjoys classic movies or wants to experience a young actress stealing a film right out from under two screen legends.

*NOTE: I previously wrote about this movie in 2011, but I felt the urge to dig a bit deeper after re-watching it recently.




September 3, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby.” In an effortless manner, it sweeps the reader into a magical world through prose that brings the parties and characters to life. Nick, Jay, Daisy, Tom, and Jordan become people we know … some we may like, others not so much. We precisely envision Gatsby’s estate, Nick’s bungalow, and that speeding yellow car. There have been multiple movie versions, with the most famous being 1949 with Alan Ladd, 1974 with Robert Redford, and 2014 with Leonardo DiCaprio.

In 2013, Robert Steven Williams and Richard Webb began a project documenting the five months in 1920 that Scott and Zelda spent in Westport, Connecticut. A 1996 article in “The New Yorker” magazine by renowned writer Barbara Probst Solomon gave credence to the idea that much of Fitzgerald’s inspiration for “The Great Gatsby” (and West Egg) came from those few months spent in Westport, Connecticut. Now you might think, ‘yeah, that’s kinda interesting’, but in the literary and academic worlds, it caused quite an uproar and backlash. See, foremost Fitzgerald expert and biographer Matthew Bruccoli was adamant that Great Neck, Long Island was Fitzgerald’s only inspiration for the classic novel … and Bruccoli staked his career and reputation on it. He scoffed and refuted any such notion that Westport played a role.

Filmmakers Williams and Webb proceed to systematically examine evidence, even though many literary scholars were, at a minimum, quite skeptical. Some background on Westport is provided, including noting its two most famous residents, Paul Newman and Joann Woodward, the 1956 movie THE MAN IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT, Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” episode based there, and an entire season of “I Love Lucy” where Ricky and Lucy were living in the town. Numerous writers spent time in Westport, though few of the town’s current residents are aware of Scott’s and Zelda’s summer of 1920.

We see the cottage they lived in. She was only 19 years old, and the couple had been married only a short while. What’s most compelling is that during that summer, an eccentric and private millionaire named F.E. Lewis resided in the massive estate adjacent to the Fitzgerald house. Lewis was a mysterious man who threw lavish parties at his mansion overlooking the water. Sound familiar? Was Lewis the inspiration for Jay Gatsby?

An academic conspiracy doesn’t gather much interest outside the ivy walls, but Williams and Webb make a very compelling case that deserves consideration. It has always been presumed that Long Island was the basis for the novel, but even Scott’s and Zelda’s granddaughter, Bobbie Lanahan, believes it’s obvious that a writers experiences can be blended into a composite for fiction. Further evidence is offered by the previously unknown McKaig Diary, which details much of what occurred that summer.

Williams enlists the help of actor Sam Waterston (who played Nick Carraway in the 1974 film version) and narrator actor Keir Dullea (Dave in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) to guide us through the journey. Clips from the movies and an analysis of Scott’s other writings, as well as Zelda’s novel “Save Me the Waltz”, lend credence to the thought that those 5 months in Westport made quite an impact on ‘America’s first pop stars.’ Most of us simply prefer to enjoy a good book, but for those who must know the background and what influenced the writer, the documentary makes a very good case for the important role of Westport, Connecticut for Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”.

watch the trailer:


December 4, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Finally caught back up to this one after close to 30 years. I have always listed it among my favorite Film Noir movies and now I remember why! The story is not dissimilar to many of the detective films from the 40’s and 50’s, but this one is based on Daniel Mainwaring‘s brilliantly titled novel “Build My Gallows High”. It stars ultra-cool Robert Mitchum and an up-and-coming actor named Kirk Douglas, in just his second film.

 As with any Film Noir, there must be a “dame” stirring up trouble for the men who just can’t seem to think clearly around them. Here we get two fabulous women who can’t be trusted: Jane Greer and Rhonda Fleming. We also get some of the most creative lighting you will ever see in a movie. I am guessing the production budget was very small, but the shadows and darkness work very well for the story. The next best part of this one is the stream of classic lines. Some are funny and others are quite jolting, given the seriousness with which they are delivered.

The movie is directed by Jacques Tourneur, who also directed Cat People just a few years prior. His best scenes here involve Mitchum, Greer and Douglas playing cat and mouse with dialogue, but I also enjoyed Rhonda Fleming’s brief but impactful appearance.

 A couple of interesting notes on those involved. Jane Greer was discovered by Howard Hughes and has some pretty frightening things to say about their time together. She was a very young bride to Rudy Vallee, but Hughes broke up the marriage pretty quickly. Ms. Greer also appeared in Against All Odds in 1984. That film was basically an updated remake of this one. In that film, she played the mother of Rachel Ward‘s character. Since this was Kirk Douglas’ second film, you can really see how little range he had at this point. Very interesting to compare this to some of his later work.  If you enjoy the noir genre, this is a must see.

check out 39 seconds of one scene and you’ll get a feel for the shadow effects: