“And then I saw her…”
“And then I saw her, coming out of the sun…”
“She waited until it was late… then she walked in, out of the moonlight…”
“…and then I saw her, walking up the road in the headlights…”
OUT OF THE PAST is as near to a perfect film as I can conceive of. Screenplay is credited to Geoffrey Homes, from his novel Build My Gallows High. Homes was really Daniel Mainwaring, who has a slew of credits but nothing that even hints at the excellence of this. I’d like to read his book though. I hear his femme fatale is called Mumsy McGonagall or something though, which doesn’t quite have the soft allure of Cathy Moffat, Jane Greer’s character name in the movie.
Uncredited work was also done by Frank Fenton, who started in England with, among other things, an awful travesty of PG Wodehouse called STEP LIVELY, JEEVES! (where there’s no Bertie Wooster and Jeeves is an idiot) but went on to some reasonable credits including HIS KIND OF WOMAN and RIVER OF NO RETURN. But they have none of the epigrammatic wiz of OOTP’s dialogue. (“I hate surprises, myself.”)
An uncredited James M Cain must surely be responsible for the injection of genius, including, I suspect, the series of entrances from the light by Cathy, which form a kind of refrain. If the other writers managed to get lines in there, by some remarkable alchemy, all the good lines have been preserved and no bad lines taken their place. Homes can perhaps be credited with the unusual structure, which redeems the stock noir elements by reconfiguring them in an odd shape. How stock are they? Well, Mitchum’s man on a run is discovered working in a gas station by a hood who enters a diner, exactly like in THE KILLERS. There’s no reason why Mitchum, a man on the run and a former private eye, should be able to start a new life as a car mechanic. Where did he get the skills? But it works symbolically — the garage is a little bit of urban grime transported to rural small-town America, so it’s the place where he fits in. (The third “start a new life in a garage” movie is LOST HIGHWAY, where Bill Pullman literally regenerates and rejuvenates from a felon into a grease monkey.)
This particular cliché is amusing and odd, and it isn’t by any means overused (I think Arthur Lubin’s IMPACT trots it out again though, and there may be others — do you know of any?) and as I say, the film’s crazy structure stops any feeling of over-familiarity. In addition to the rural and Mexican idylls, which add an unfamiliar feeling, and the fact that no private eye hero ever fell down on the job as badly as Mitch does here, we have this strange shape: leisurely intro in small town, flashback that eats up half of act one, taking in the first job Mitchum undertakes,the Mexican romance, and a time-lapse leading up to the first murder, then we come out of the flashback at the halfway mark and we get the second job, in San Francisco with a whole new plot and femme fatale (flaming Rhonda Fleming), and then our third act with climax bringing us full circle to the countryside and the original characters. Impressively, it follows the standard proportions of the Hollywood drama without giving you that familiar feeling of knowing where you are in the story.
Plus director Jacques Tourneur, among a hundred thousand felicities, offers this shot —
“The kid” played by Dickie Moore, is a very cool character. Here, the shot is beautiful in itself, and part of its beauty comes from the long lens which softens the background, but also gives us the sense of observing from a distance with Mitchum. It feels very modern when you see it in action.
But ultimately, what’s beautiful about this film goes beyond what can be expressed by talking about individual elements — Tourneur never had such strong material before or since, though I am second to none in my admiration of CAT PEOPLE, NIGHTFALL, NIGHT OF THE DEMON et al. This is the one where his poetic sensitivity rebounded off the material in THE most beautiful way.