Out of the Past is considered to be a classic film noir, which doesn’t mean that much to me since I’m not a particular fan of this genre. It has been used for so long that it is hard to do anything new with it, but you can’t expect that from a movie from 1947 of course. You can expect the basic tropes of this genre, stereotypes and sometimes a surprise, if you’re lucky. Out of the Past doesn’t have that many surprises, but it’s a nice enough movie anyway. While the plot becomes rather convoluted in the second half, the movie is never really boring, well acted and has some nice directorial touches by Jacques Tourneur. But it’s also nothing special, really, one of those old movies that are fine to watch, but probably not too memorable in the long run.
It’s the story of Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) who started a new life after leaving behind his criminal past. The movie is half flashback of his past, which is a bit weird structurally, but shows us both lives in comparison, especially his different choice of women (and thereby the narrow-minded image of women). On the one hand there is Kathie (Jane Greer), the woman he has to find for his gangster boss Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). She is the femme fatale of the movie, in a way a problematic trope in itself because it is the embodiment of the idea that women are evil or at least dangerous. The movie surely proves that, as Jeff falls for her right away and she repeatedly backstabs him for selfish reasons. So, she easily fulfills the cliché of the danger of trusting women, of women being erratic. But wouldn’t that implicate a strong woman who more or less knows what she wants?
The problem is that Kathie never feels strong, only wrongheaded, passive and strangely obedient. The first shot we get of her from Jeff’s point of view, the one where he falls for her right away, she looks down, so that we don’t even see her eyes. Her love for Jeff is written in the script, but it feels more like she is obliged to fall for him, but not out of real passion. He’s a man, she’s a woman, what else is she supposed to do? Her motivations are never really clear, either she just follows the most powerful man or she is greedy or simply crazy. Her final shot is awkward, too, making her look like a dead, materialistic nun.
Jeff’s other love interest, Ann (Virginia Huston), is treated much worse, though, the real personification of obedience. She doesn’t know about Jeff’s past and when he tell her, she is understanding and never wavers from her love for him. But she seems to have no agenda at all, being in love with him seems to be everything she lives for. So we get shot after shot of her, looking at Jeff with a great longing, feeling for him, waiting for him, but never really doing anything.
In the last two scenes, the movie decides to basically torture in a really weird chain of events. Jeff died in the accident with Kathie and Ann, mourning for him, asks the mute kid (Dickie Moore), who was Jeff’s friend, if Jeff had wanted to run away with Kathie. If he says no, she knows that Jeff really loved her and not Kathie, maybe being sad that he died even more. If he says yes, she will always believe that Jeff betrayed her and that she wasted her time with him, marrying the other guy who always hangs around her, even if she doesn’t love him as much. The kid nods, making her run away quickly to her new future husband. This seems awfully cruel for no real reason. The last shot shows the kid nodding and smiling at Jeff Bailey’s name, as if to say: “Yeah, we were cool, you and me.” Well, no, you’re not you cruel jerks, after ruining this poor woman’s life.
One other thing, before we leave, a more positive note, is a scene early in the movie, where we see Jeff doing his job and getting information. He does so by going to an African-American nightclub, talking to a black couple. This is 1947, but nothing about that scene makes it seem like anything special. No one is portrayed as inferior in any way, the scene would have probably gone the exact same way if it had been white people. That’s somewhat surprising for a movie from that time, where normally black people could only play servants or fools. In some weird way, the scene would almost still be worth mentioning today.