Sunday, December 20, 2009
Out of the Past
Out of the Past is a masterpiece of mood by director Jacques Tourneur. Shot beautifully in Black and White, the shadows are as much a character as any of the cast. The film starts building a sense of foreboding immediately with a hitman finding Robert Mitchum's character, Jeff Markham hiding out in his assumed identiy as gas station owner Jeff Bailey. It's telling that his only employee is a kid who is deaf and mute.
Mitchum is tremendous in this role, world weary, mysterious and haunted. He's seen it all and isn't easily rattled, live or die it's all the same to him, but all the same he won't go out without a fight and a wisecrack. He's tough and smarter than most and he's well aware of both. The starring role was almost taken by Humphrey Bogart, but instead turned out to be Mitchum's first lead role. The performance launched his career from there. Bogart would've been good, but I think Mitchum's more low key fatalist demeanor really made the film.
The inital set up is that Jeff Markham took on a new identity as Jeff Bailey and opened up a gas station in a little town to extricate himself from his messy former life as a hardnosed PI. Joe Stefanos(Paul Valentine), a hitman working for Whit Sterling, (the client Markham doublecrossed before disappearing) finds Markham at the gas station. On greeting Joe and the prospect of a meeting with Whit(Kirk Douglas), Markham is totally unsurprised. He certainly realizes that the fantasy he built for himself is all over, but he only says, totally deadpan,
"I wish I was happier to see you."
Douglas' Whit is the perfect foil for Mitchum's Markham. Cool, collected and powerful, serving up revenge in the most efficient way possible. Before his disappearance, Markham was hired to find Whit's girl Kathie (Jane Greer)and ended up falling for her and planning a get away together (some money was also stolen) When things went really bad, Markham disappeared into his Jeff Bailey life.
On finding Markham, Whit says he'll overlook the doublecross if Markham takes on another job for him. Whit exudes pure malice for Markham, but plays it straight on the surface, presenting Markham a way out which both of them know is designed to get Markham deeper into trouble.
Mitchum and Douglas talk almost entirely in double meanings, neither willing to give up his true hand entirely to the other. It turns out that Kathie returned to Whit after their trouble. Whit makes Markham aware of this by bringing Kathy out and saying
"You remember Kathy dont you?"
"Yeah I remember Kathy." Markham replies, without the slightest change in inflection.
The dialogue is so sharp, that it's hard not to laugh at the audacity of Markham. He knows what page everyone is on but doesn't let on, as if he knows he's too sharp to be beaten, or he just doesn't care and wants to be entertained.
Most of the past doublecross is explained by Markham telling it to his latest girlfriend, Ann Miller(Virginia Huston) Ann is a sweet and wholesome, girl next door, who Markham really cares about. Of course Markham has as much chance at a future with her as he does of running a gas station forever. Markham attracts trouble and sometimes runs right into it. With Kathie back in the picture even fully aware that she can't be trusted, it's no mystery which way Markham will go and all three of them know it. Meeting with Anne after the new job starts to blow up, Ann, speaking of Kathie says
"She can't be all bad, nobody is."
"She comes the closest."
But even so, he can't walk away.
Markham figures out immediately that the new job is a set up. He discusses leaving his fingerprints on a glass while having a drink with a guy due to be murdered. But he plays along as if knowing he can outsmart and out shoot everybody.
Although Whit comes across as a vicious and dangerous guy, with a foolproof scheme to snare Markham, you have to agree that Markham would beat everyone at their own game if he wasn't on some level agreeable to his own downfall. His smartest trick is manuevering himself into it without playing down to his opponents.