Saturday, November 21, 2009

Someone Asked Me To Be An Expert In Something Part 1: Out Of The Past

So when I'm not blogging I also serve as a critic for the local weekly. I have a column where I basically get to write about what ever film I want as as long as it clocks in a 500 words or under everybody's happy. Anyway this somehow led to me programming the first half of a film noir festival and today I get to tell a bunch of people why Out Of The Past is awesome. I've had tougher jobs. So I thought I'd go ahead and post my introduction for you fine people. Forgive me if the cadences are a bit off, they're written for speech after and the editing I did on them was minimal.

When I was first asked to pick a film for this screening the one that leapt to mind before any others was Out Of the Past.

Out Of The Past in so many ways isn’t just a film noir, it’s the film noir. All the elements we think of when we think of the genre, the classic stars, the moody shadow drenched style, and doom laden story are all present and accounted for in Out Of The Past. Keeping that in mind I’d like to share two quotes that to me sum up Film Noir better then any other.

The author James Ellroy put it pretty simply when he said “Film Noir, means you’re (blanked).” Scorsese put it a bit more eloquently when he said, the essence of Film Noir was “No matter which way you go Fate sticks out its foot to trip you.”

It’s fitting then that the director of Out Of The Past, Jacques Tournier, knew a little something about fate. Today he is best known for his horror films; particularly those he made with Val Lewton. Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie, The Leopard Man, as well as Night Of The Demon which he made after their partnership but which shared many similarities with his earlier work. All four of these excellent films, deal with fate as a conscience malevolent force. From their opening frames there’s no doubt that the film’s could end any other way except the way that they do. No way for its desperate characters to escape what fate has in store for them. Film Noir so often narrated by the dead, or dying shares this concept, and Tournier applies it masterfully here.

Like Ellroy and Scorsese said, the main conceit of Film Noir is that you’re doomed. This is in direct contradiction to most Hollywood films of the time, and indeed today, with their basic message that everything is going to work out for the best. That fate is kind. The message of Film Noir is that everything is not going to work out OK, Fate is not only uncaring it is actively malevolent.

As Ebert said in his essay on the film, “Most crime movies begin in the present and move forward, but film noir coils back into the past. The noir hero is doomed before the story begins -- by fate, rotten luck, or his own flawed character. Crime movies sometimes show good men who go bad. The noir hero is never good, just kidding himself, living in ignorance of his dark side until events demonstrate it to him.” Mitchum’s certainly charismatic, but he’s a man with no qualms about working for a mobster and no problem with screwing over his partner and client. Once he gets a whiff of the woman in question it’s not his brain he’s thinking with.

Out Of The Past provides us with one of the greatest Noir casts of all time. Mitchum has such dynamic that we can actually fool ourselves that he might get away for a little. Kirk Douglas is one of Noir’s great villains, his cool malovelence is scarier then then his rage ever could be, he never even raises his voice.

But the real key to the movie is Judy Greer as Kathie, as Ebert notes, “Mitchum and Douglas think the story involves a contest of wills between them, when in fact, they're both the instruments of a corrupt woman.” The Femme Fatale in her purist form. However, The crime writer Ed Brubaker… and if you like crime fiction (and if you’re here I’m assuming you do) and you’re not reading Brubaker you’re missing out. Has a different view “Kathie has often been called the ultimate Femme Fatale, but to me she’s so much more then that. Because I can understand Barbara Stanwyck’s motivesin Double Indemity –she wants out of her loveless marriage and she wants to be rich- but Kathy Moffett remains an enigma. Why is Kathie doing any of the things she’s doing? What made her so alone and so afraid that she’ll turn on almost anyone, even trying to murder the people she loves.” It’s that beautiful chaotic desperation that elevates Moffett and Out Of The Past to a level most noir films never achieve. Kathie’s only motive appears to be survival and yet with Jeff, she finds both happiness and passion, as well. That she’s wiling to give the latter up for the former is her undoing. But it’s a particular kind of human failure and one again which comes from desperation. Long after any viewing of Out Of The Past I will find myself wondering where that desperation comes from.”

Desperation is really the key word in Out Of The Past. Everyone in it is desperate for something, Mitchum’s trying to escape his past, Douglas is trying to keep control of his empire and the only woman he’ll never be able to keep, and Greer is desperate to get away from whatever terrible thing is driving her. Of course none will get what they want, the trap is already been sprung, the only thing anyone can hope to do is “Die Last” as Mitchum says late in the movie.

In closing I’d like to take another quote from Brubaker’s essay “Good noir often has an element of disability layered inot it. It’s symbolism and character all at once – the old man in the wheelchair who hires Bogart in The Big Sleep, the Professor’s sexual hang ups in Asphalt Jungle, the reporter with two canes in Lady From Shanghai the GI with shell shock in The Blue Dahlia, just to name a few off the top of my head. Noir is showing us a fractured world full of damaged people, who nonetheless try to survive, but who mostly fail… The mute kid that Jeff Markham befriends fits that noir theme here, serving as both a supporting character and as a symbol for Jeff’s need to keep his past a secret. That alone would have been a great noir beat., to hit, but the final stroke of genius of this film is that only the mute boy and the audience ever know the truth about Jeff and why he does the things he does. No one else in the film does, not even the girl who loves him. The silent pact between movie and viewer echoes long after the final credits have rolled.”

And that to me is what Noir is, a dark secret that reaches out past the decades, coming for us always Out Of The Past.

No comments: