‘Out of the Past’ and the Genius of Film Noir
Film Noir rejects the traditional hero versus villain storyline in which the hero doesn’t need to make much effort to be loved by the viewer. Indeed, its main roles are occupied by Men and Women who are seriously flawed and, often knowingly, on the path towards their own doom. No character is innocent; all are guilty of something.
In ‘Out of the Past’ (1947, Jacques Tourneur), Robert Minchun plays the leading role of Jeff Bailey, a former private investigator in search of a way out. He wants to confront his past once and for all in order to be at peace with it. But there’s something within him that, added to unfortunate circumstances, made that desire an impossibility.
Jeff Bailey is torn between the desire of a new life, a desire personified by Ann Miller (Virginia Huston), and his obsession with the past, personified by Femme Fatale Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer). Why doesn’t he forget about his past, about Kathie? She brings nothing but trouble. Even more troubling is the fact that Bailey is aware of Kathie’s damaging effect on his life throughout the story. “I think I’m in a frame”, he tells Petey, his driver, “all I can see is the frame. I’m going to see the picture.” Every minute of this movie, we hear the obvious screamed: You’re going face first into a trap.
Here lies the very essence of the Film Noir genre and the perfect specimen that is ‘Out of the Past’: Bailey is bringing about his own doom. A sensible person might forget about the picture and try to get out of the frame, but not Bailey. He’s finding more and more reasons to stay in the frame. The reasons? Just one: Kathie. Bailey’s behavior changes throughout the movie due to Kathie’s role in his life. Whenever we see him about to make an important decision, a moment is taken. That moment is crucial to Bailey’s character. In fact, it defines it. Truth is, Bailey chooses to take the riskier road all the time regardless of the harm it’ll bring him. And these choices show that his self-destructive impulse is very much alive. He could stop at any moment and run away with Ann; she’s waiting for him. All he has to do is go back. But he doesn’t.
Fatalism plays an important role in this movie, to say the least, with its influence clearly drawn from Greek tragedies. The hero is doomed, no matter what he does. Bailey’s only attempt to get rid of the past by attempting to frame Kathy leads to his death. But what is perhaps the most tragic element in ‘Out of the Past’ is the fact that Kathie’s downfall was the result of her only attempt to trust someone: Bailey. Kathie’s survival as a Femme Fatale would have been ensured were it not for the fact that she was willing to run away with Jeff, twice. But that is not to say that the movie is depressing. Happiness is virtually non-existent, yes. But the genius of this movie prevents that fact from installing an air of gloominess: the movie just happens to have a non-happy ending. I would go so far as to claim that, by non limiting itself to happy endings scenarios, Film Noir contributed in restoring the balance disrupted by the traditional notion of happy endings.
Kathie is nothing less than the perfect example of a Femme Fatale, a wiles-using treacherous woman who rarely hesitates to kill to get what she wants. She never fails to maintain a serene expression on her face when others would show panic. This serenity fascinates Bailey as well as the viewer because it shows that there’s something deep in her acts; they’re not random or impulsive, but carefully thought out. She knows that making mistakes is not an option and acts accordingly.
Another aspect of Film Noir is its lighting technique. Using low key lighting and carefully chosen focus, it is at work especially during scenes of high tensions, mirroring the style used in the German Expressionism of the 20s. For example, when Kathie kills Fisher, she is shown as though all shadows decided to suddenly surround her, highlighting the gravity of the situation. We can go so far as to say that the character’s personality is shown by the way the character is lit.
But what is perhaps the most striking peculiarity of ‘Out of the Past’ is the witty remarks exchanged between the characters: they always mean something; when Whit asks Jeff if he wants a cigarette, Jeff replies “smoking”, declaring his independence; when Joe tells Jeff that he can’t miss Whit’s house, the underlying meaning is that Jeff can’t afford not to go; when Kathy wants to invite Jeff to meet her at her favorite Mexican restaurant, she simply informs him subtly that she sometimes goes there; and when Kathy declares that Fisher will not tell Whit anything, she is in fact sentencing him to death.