“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.

36 Responses to ““And then I saw her…””

  1. For me Tourneur’s key film was I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE

  2. Jane Greer entering the cafe is one of the great entries in film history, by the way.

  3. david wingrove Says:

    It’s a pity that the lovely Jane Greer never made it as a star. Rumour has it that she refused to put out for Howard Hughes…and that put the lid on her career.

  4. Out of the Past is one of my favourite films. It’s a beautiful mood piece. I love the great dialogue. For example:
    Jeff Bailey: That’s not the way to win.
    Kathie Moffat: Is there a way to win?
    Jeff Bailey: There’s a way to lose more slowly

  5. In the TV documentary mini-series about RKO Jane Greer says that Tourneur’s english was rather hesitant. “First part of film Good Girl. Second part of film Bad Girl!” he told her. She alos spoke very fondly of Mitchum who spoke up for her getting proper leading actress treatment from the RKO brass.

    It’s an amazing movie.

  6. In Geoffrey Homes’ original novel we had Red and Mumsie McGonigle, later to become Jeff and Kathie. In an earlier draft of the screenplay, Kathie’s entrance scene had Jeff rescuing her from a shark attack in the Pacific Ocean. Doesn’t quite have the same resonance, does it?

    “In reality, and in the RKO archives, there are two complete drafts of the script Build My Gallows High- which of course went on to become Out of the Past- written by Cain. The first is dated March 11, 1946; the second, April 3. Neither draft bears much resemblance to the finished film. Cain shaped the script to fit the mold of his novels, and by the time Tourneur rolled the cameras, most of Cain’s changes had been reversed.
    His first change wasn’t much of an improvement: Mumsie Martin/McGonigle becomes Maisie Clemmens- Maisie is short for May Zenobia!”

    The above is from “the Past Rewritten”, an article by Jeff Schwager that I found digging through a stack of old Film Comment magazines, dated January/February 1991. Pretty detailed in its relating of the involvement Homes/Mainwaring, Cain and Fenton had in the evolution of the film’s screenplay.

    I remember the impact this film had on me the first time I saw it in the early Eighties. Seeing it in a darkened theatre back then made all the difference in the world, the film possessed a doom-laden undercurrent that permeated the senses, somehow you just knew things were going to end badly. Mitchum’s performance as well as Greer’s, Musuraca’s wonderfully dreamy camerawork, Tourneur’s deft, delicate direction, all crucial components that collectively come together to make this an unforgettable piece of filmmaking. Fatalism at its most sublime.

  7. Guy,
    I had that copy of Film Comment, and it was fascinating. The script was bounced around, but it seemed that Fenton hadn’t just minor input (Cathie Moffat was his idea after all the other outlandish names), but IIRC the structure was really put together by Cain (second draft? I don’t remember now), but Fenton inserted some better dialogue and a key scene. The article (concentrating on scripts) ignores what Tourneur and Musuraca put into it. The “going into the sticks to run a gas station, away from the city” idea runs all the way back to Heat Lightning, if not further.

  8. Here’s a paragraph from a NY Times article dated February 5th:

    “So when Mr. Scorsese talks about “Shutter Island”, he also inevitably needs to speak of remembered films like those of Jacques Tourneur, who made the doomy, complex noir “Out of the Past” (1947). “I like watching ‘Out of the Past’ repeatedly,” he said, “because I never know quite where I am in it, I don’t know what’s the beginning, the middle or the end. I screened it for Leo and the other actors just to show that sense of a character not knowing where he is at a given point in time and trying to figure it out from scene to scene.” (He confided, “I didn’t think it was going over at all, but at the end Leo applauded and said to me, ‘That’s the coolest movie I ever saw.'”)

    He gets it.

    After reading this post this morning I scrambled to try and figure out where I’d stored this particular issue of FC, and finally found it. Toward the end of his piece Schwager does indeed make the case that if any one writer out of the three was responsible for what finally appeared on the screen, it was Fenton. “But far and away his most important contribution came in rounding out the characters. His Jeff is smart, his Kathie devious, his Whit bitter: he found the right tone to make them all human, and to make their passionate entanglements believable. Fenton… built up his own script with the muscular characters, language, and action that gave the film its power. Scene for scene, his script is a blueprint for the film we see.” And here’s the last sentence of the piece: “It’s too bad Frank Fenton didn’t get the credit for it [the script] that he so richly deserved.”

  9. One really fascinating feature is this “first half, good girl, second half, bad girl” idea, because only at the very end of the flashback do we see Cathy as she is — the version beforehand seems to be Jeff’s romanticized memory. She completely transforms when she snarls “Break his head!” And Jeff can’t help himself but make her alluring even though he’s telling the story to his current girlfriend, to whom he should really downplay this…

    In some way the film gets away with quite an inconsistent approach to character — more than that, it makes that a virtue. For instance, Whit ISN’T bitter, at least not until the end. He’s dangerous, for sure, which is carried in Kirk Douglas’s performance even though he underplays it magnificently.

    What’s baffling is that Fenton’s other credits don’t really support a vision of him as the prime mover behind this great script. I can see the structure coming from the novel and from Cain. Does River of No Return boast such great lines? “I don’t wanna die but if I have to I’m going to die last.”

  10. Jenny Eardley Says:

    I might be wrong but doesn’t “They Live By Night” follow the same cliché? Farley Granger escapes prison and starts working as a mechanic before the baddies tempt him into a few heists. It didn’t look very serious work, just the sort I can’t cope with like changing the oil.

    I could have sworn that a few months ago Out of the Past was in the Radio Times listed as Build Your Gallows High. Great film anyway. Greer is the perfect femme fatale.

  11. It is indeed a beautiful film. Mitchum really hit it off with Jane Greer on set and they remained lifelong friends. (Not the same with Kirk Douglas, though, whom Mitchum thought typified movie star arrogance.) Mitchum and Greer’s last appearance together was in a film noir spoof made for Saturday Night Live in the late eighties. That would be fun to see.

    Mitchum’s biographer confirms what David W. says about the malevolent effect of Howard Hughes on Greer’s career.

  12. “… he underplays it magnificently.”

    Douglas, from what I’ve read, was in a sort of pissing contest with Mitchum, who as we all know was an underplayer par excellence. Supposedly he realized that Mitchum’s laid-back style of acting had him upstaged, and Douglas found himself having to adapt to the situation by responding in kind.

    Cain is in fact credited with the film’s structure. “In his second draft, Cain came up with the structure the film would ultimately employ-Part 1 consisting of Jeff telling Ann about his past as they drive to Whit’s mansion, Part 2 picking up when they arrive.” But Fenton , according to Schwager, “…deserves credit for many of the film’s key plot elements. He designed Jeff and Kathie’s escape from Mexico. He chose to have Kathie shoot Whit in front of the fireplace, and to have her make her last desperate attempt at escape, killing Jeff and herself in the process.” Schwager acknowledges Fenton as “a reliable but little-known screenwriter in the late Forties,” but states afterward that “a look at Fenton’s draft of the script (the initials FF appear at the top of every page) shows without question that he was responsible for the film’s best dialogue.” Perhaps it was a fluke, a one-time happy accident that Fenton concocted some of Out of the Past’s best dialogue. But this is the notion that Schwager proposes, valid or otherwise.

  13. Greer also had a role in Taylor Hackford’s 1984 remake — Against All Odds. Slick and lavishly produced (with a great car chase scene) but nowhere near the Tourneur.

    Current Oscar “It Boy” Jeff Bridges was fine in Mitchum’s role. But it was written in a softer mode.

    And Rachel Ward is no Jane Greer.

  14. “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.”

    Lynch had actually done this previous to LH, in Wild At Heart. Laura Dern’s weird cousin Dell (Crispin Glover) disappears in flashback. Later, as Dern & Cage drive away from a gas station, Dell emerges all greasy from a garage.

    The scene was deleted (finally came out on DVD last year), but having a character start a new life in a gas station must’ve been important to Lynch so he wrote it into Lost Highway.

  15. The Cinema’s Greatest Gas Station:

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  16. Of course Jeffrey Beaumont’s dad runs a garage in Blue Velvet, so he returns to it at the beginning of the story.

    Yeah, I think of all the niggling problems that make Taylor Hackford “more hack than Ford” as I think Anne Billson put it, the fact that he even contemplated remaking this film mark him out as a dolt. As Conan Doyle put it, approximately, “talent instantly recognizes genius, but mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself.”

    Of course good dialogue comes out of good scenes, so maybe Cain’s structure inspired new heights in Fenton. The IMDb gives one quote from fenton’s River of No Return script, and it does sound like something from OOTP: “One thing about this, the longer you last the less you care.”

    Possibly Tourneur’s sense of understatement makes Fenton’s work seem even better: there are lots of good lines in Garden of Evil, for instance, but it doesn’t have the same beauty because the actors are too keen to impress.

  17. Tony Williams Says:

    BUILD MY GALLOWS HIGH was the original title for OUT OF THE PAST and used for the English release. The company felt that American audiences would stay away from a film with gallows in the title. One influence on the opening scene may be Hemingway’s short story, THE KILLERS, rather than THEY LIVE BY NIGHT. In this case, there is one killer arriving in town rather than two is Kathy is in the mold of Ava Gardner from the Siodmak film version.

  18. Damn, I was just going from memory and I got the FC article almost right. Now if I can just remember where my keys are…

  19. Of course I love “Out of the Past” — what thinking cineaste doesn’t? I also love the FC article by Schwager, and I’m glad people are citing it. One might add, though, that the Frank Fenton writing for “Out of the Past” wasn’t an entirely isolated phenomenon. He’s also credited for the script of “His Kind of Woman” and for a noir-ish western I haven’t seen, a thing called “Station West” with Greer and Dick Powell. I remember reading, in passing, that the latter had memorable dialogue — which sounds like Fenton at work.

    I don’t *believe* that the similarity has been brought up, yet, between the openings of “Out of the Past (1947) and “The Killers” (1946). Both involve thugs searching out a male protag who’s trying to forget about his past.

    I did have one “Aha!” perception about “Out of the Past” recently. If you’ll forgive me quoting myself …

    “This is in the sequence where Jeff meets Kathie in the cafe. Kathie walks out, having told Jeff about the bar with American music, and we hear [a phrase from Roy Webb’s score] on the soundtrack. It sounded familiar to me. Then I realized what it reminded me of: the opening phrase in the ‘Willow Song’ in Verdi’s OTELLO. It’s the phrase when Desdemona sings ‘Piangea cantando nell’erma landa’ — the same upward phrase that starts each stroph of the song. Here’s a link to a video where the phrase occurs at ‘1:54’

    “And then it struck me that: (1) the Verdi is, basically, a ‘listen to my tale of woe’ aria; and (2) what we see in ‘Out of the Past’ is a flashback and Jeff, essentially, *is* asking that Ann (the character no one remembers) and the audience ‘hear his tale of woe.’ Jeff Bailey is a figure taken advantage of in a way not unlike Verdi’s Desdemona.”

    This is probably more Roy Webb at work than Tourneur, admittedly. But still.

  20. I’m afraid I brought out the similarity in the above post, and Tony mentioned it again in his response!

    Good to know Webb was not only plundering the classics in a time-honoured Hollywood tradition, but doing so intelligently.

    Looking at various Fenton quotes on the IMDb, I’m starting to recognise his trademark style, but it feels quite different when Tourneur isn’t at the helm — someone like Preminger or Hathaway hits the lines hard, whereas in Tourneur’s films the dialogue is always treated throwaway, no matter how pithy it is. Which makes it seem even better.

  21. In THE SCAR, which Paul Henreid both starred in and directed, there’s a memorable scene, beautifully shot by John Alton, where Henreid’s character is a gas station attendant looking after a car containing the two hoods who are hunting for him (one of whom is Jack Webb). Another noir with a grease monkey is QUICKSAND, with Mickey Rooney as the mechanically inclined primate and Peter Lorre the proprietor of an arcade. Jeanne Cagney, Jimmy’s sister, plays the bad girl/love interest of Rooney, and I gotta say, Jeanne’s kind of got her brother’s looks, which isn’t a good thing. I found Jocelyn Brando more attractive by comparison.

  22. Christopher Says:

  23. A nice short from the Coen boys:

  24. Thanks for the garage-noir, Guy! I knew there must be more out there.

  25. Oh God yes. That may well be just the tip of the iceberg.

  26. Haven’t watched Impact yet but that may be the strongest example of the garage-as-refuge, where our protagonist escapes from being a patsy in, essentially, an Anthony Mann film, and becomes a mechanic in, effectively, a Frank Capra film.

  27. david wingrove Says:

    “Rachel Ward is no Jane Greer”…

    My God, what an understatement! Rachel Ward is barely Rachel Ward.

  28. Haven’t seen Impact in maybe ten years but seems I recall Ella Raines is the garage mechanic in that one, worth revisiting for that reason alone.

    David W., thanks for that last comment, gave me a hearty laugh.

  29. Wow, never have horses been so for courses, or something. I finally saw this on my Dad’s big screen and ab-so-lute-ly hated the dialogue. (I had been an usher at the NFT when this was screened but never managed to stay awake. Seeing it again I understood why.) It even very nearly put me off Robert Mitchum as well. He’s a self-pitying narcissist, too young to be this weary.
    “Why me?” he asks. Douglas (excellent) says “I know people who are honest, and people who are smart, and you’re both.” Now I put it to you that here’s a line that deserves to be taken outside and kicked in the teeth. What’s wrong with “You’re honest and you’re smart”? (especially given that Mitchum’s character proves to be neither.) It has the rhythm of an epigram, it has the kick, sure, but actually it’s waffle. It is essentially a joke that doesn’t work. And everyone in this film talks in jokes that don’t work. All. The. Time. While the dialogue in something like Sweet Smell of Success carries a contagious caffeine high in its first-draft beat surrealism, this is simply lazy. Oh boy did I hate it. My Dad’s with you though. Grr.. this film.

  30. Excellent sex scene though.

  31. I’d argue in favour of all the dialogue, and my particular defense of the line you cite is that it carries an entire extra meaning to the suggested alternative. Douglas conveys that his acquaintances are all either crooks or idiots, and Mitchum is the only person he knows who is neither. He couldn’t say that with your line, and it doesn’t matter that he’s wrong about Mitchum, who’s not really an admirable character at all.

    So my feeling is that it’s a taste thing rather than a competence thing.

  32. Oh yes it’s absolutely a taste thing, I agree. But I don’t see how “You’re honest and your smart” doesn’t, if you think about it, convey exactly the same extra meaning a lot more elegantly. I’ve probably been watching too much Mad Men.

  33. Some people like terse, some people like florid. I like terse AND florid. I think Douglas’s line is sly, and suits a gambler in that he doesn’t come right out and say what he means. Mitchum has a line about “standing around trying to impress each other” later, so if the dialogue is unnecessarily blowzy that suits the scenario fine for me.

    I think it’s neat that what Mitchum accuses Greer of being, a creature who blows in the wind, who “just couldn’t help it,” and who doesn’t take responsibility for her actions, applies equally to him. His decision to die at the end is really his only personal choice where he’s not being tugged or pushed. Also seems fitting that she appears to shoot him in the groin at the end.

  34. Hm. As a very late entry to the “starts his life over as a mechanic” collection, may I suggest Sean Penn’s “The Pledge”, in which Jack Nicholson pseudo-retires from police work in order to buy and run a gas station he thinks is key to solving a string of unsolved murders?

    I need to see “Out of the Past” again. I saw it once, under poor circumstances where I couldn’t give it my undivided attention, and I’m still haunted by it; it was like watching three movies, not one. Mitchum particularly interested me because watching him, I could totally buy that he was the cool and canny fellow everyone seemed to assume he was, even though he does almost nothing to demonstrate this.

  35. Thanks — by weird chance, my most recent post 15/09/16 is about the original of The Pledge, the Swiss movie It Happened in broad Daylight, later turned into the novel The Pledge and filmed by Penn.

    Everyone starts to feel like the haven’t been paying attention around the middle of Out of the Past where the plot goes on a werid walkabout in San Francisco, and Jane Greer is replaced by another, oddly similar vamp. in fact, being as Barry Gifford is a big noir fan, all this oneiric displacement, and the garage, probably inspired Lost Highway.

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