Never was a great movie more dissed and dismissed than was “Out of the Past” when it came out in 1947, by movie critic James Agee. Agee was the movie critic for two magazines, Time and The Nation.
In The Nation, his entire review consisted of 39 words: “Conventional private-eye melodrama. More good work by Musuraca, largely wasted. Kirk Douglas wasted as usual. Bob Mitchum is so very sleepily confident with the women that when he slopes in clinches you expect him to snore in their faces.”
Musuraca is Nicholas Musuraca, the cinematographer who shot the movie. “Out of the Past” was only Kirk Douglas’ third movie, and no, he wasn’t wasted. And while words such as “sleepily,” “languid” and “lethargic” have often been used to describe a lot of Mitchum’s work, I don’t think any of them apply here.
In his review in Time magazine, Agee wasn’t too much more expansive. Here’s an excerpt: “‘Out of the Past’ is a medium-grade thriller … . Fairly well played, and very well photographed (by Nicholas Musuraca), the action develops a routine kind of pseudo-tension.
“When he performs with other men (most memorably in ‘The Story of G.I Joe’), Robert Mitchum is a believable actor. But it seems to be a mistake to let him tangle — as a hero, anyhow — with the ladies. In love scenes his curious languor, which suggests Bing Crosby supersaturated with barbiturates, becomes a brand of sexual complacency that is not endearing. Jane Greer, on the other hand, can best be described, in an ancient idiom, as a hot number.”
My take on “Out of the Past” is more in line with the late Roger Ebert, who called it “one of the greatest of all film noirs.”
Turner Classic Movies — TCM — as I have previously written, is showing a huge film noir festival all day on Fridays this month and next. In total, TCM will be airing 121 films during the festival, which it calls “Summer of Darkness.” If you can only catch one of these 121 films, I suggest you catch “Out of the Past.” It airs today at 10 a.m. PT on TCM, which is 1 p.m. this afternoon back east. If you miss watching it or recording it then, Amazon currently has it available for streaming at your convenience. It’s not available for streaming right now on Netflix.
I’m not going to talk about the plot of “Out of the Past,” because I don’t want to ruin it for those of you who haven’t seen it.
But there are some things you might like to know. As Ebert writes in his review of the film, “Most crime movies begin in the present and move forward, but film noir coils back into the past. The noir hero is doomed before the story begins — by fate, rotten luck, or his own flawed character. Crime movies sometimes show good men who go bad. The noir hero is never good, just kidding himself, living in ignorance of his dark side until events demonstrate it to him.”
Bosley Crowther, the New York Times critic who reviewed “Out of the Past” when it came out, was more positive about it than Agee was. Crowther wrote, “[I]t’s very snappy and quite intriguingly played by a cast that has been well and smartly directed by Jacques Tourneur. Robert Mitchum is magnificently cheeky and self-assured as the tangled ‘private eye,’ consuming an astronomical number of cigarettes in displaying his nonchalance.”
Ebert also noticed the smoking in the movie. In another article he once wrote, “‘Out of the Past’ [is] the greatest cigarette-smoking movie of all time. The trick, as demonstrated by Jacques Tourneur and his cameraman, Nicholas Musuraca, is to throw a lot of light into the empty space where the characters are going to exhale. When they do, they produce great white clouds of smoke, which express their moods, their personalities and their energy levels. There were guns in ‘Out of the Past,’ but the real hostility came when Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas smoked at each other.”
Ebert was so intrigued by the smoking in the movie that he says years after the film was made, when he ran into Mitchum, he asked him about it:
Ebert: Did you guys have any idea of doing a running gag involving cigarette smoking?
Mitchum: No, no.
Ebert: Because there’s more cigarette smoking in this movie than in any other movie I’ve ever seen.
Mitchum: We never thought about it. We just smoked. And I’m not impressed by that because I don’t, honest to God, know that I’ve ever actually seen the film.
Ebert: You’ve never seen it?
Mitchum: I’m sure I have, but it’s been so long that I don’t know.
“That was Mitchum for you,” Ebert wrote, “a superb actor who affected a weary indifference to his work.”
The dialogue in “Out of the Past” is exemplary and is without question some of the best dialogue in the film noir canon, which, as a genre, is known for sharp, snappy repartee. Ebert writes that the movie “was based on the 1946 novel ‘Build My Gallows High’ by Geoffrey Homes, a pseudonym for the blacklisted Daniel Mainwaring, and the screenplay credit goes to Mainwaring, reportedly with extra dialogue by James M. Cain.
“But the critic Jeff Schwager read all versions of the screenplay for a 1990 Film Comment article, and writes me: ‘Mainwaring’s script was not very good, and in one draft featured awful voice-over narration by the deaf-mute. Cain’s script was a total rewrite and even worse; it was totally discarded. The great dialogue was actually the work of Frank Fenton, a B-movie writer whose best known credit was John Ford’s “Wings of Eagles.”’”
When “Out of the Past” was filmed, in late 1946, Mitchum and Douglas were both 29. Jane Greer was 22 when the film went into production, according to Lee Server’s obligatory and compelling 2001 biography “Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don’t Care.”
Of Greer, Server writes, “Only four years in Hollywood and Greer had already had more than enough colorful and bizarre experience for one lifetime.”
She had been discovered by Howard Hughes. Once in Hollywood she met Rudy Vallee, who was 23 years older than she was. Hughes, according to Server, was furious, and ordered Greer to stop seeing Vallee. Writes Server, “Vallee continued his pursuit, and at last the 18-year-old (Greer) agreed to be his wife, to Hughes’s disgust.
“When the marriage turned rocky, Hughes [who was only 4 years younger than Vallee] came back into Greer’s life, this time pouring on the charm. He wooed her like a high school boy, taking her to the carnival, riding the merry-go-round with her, and winning her some kewpie dolls at the midway games. They began a love affair. But before long the high school suitor act faded and Hughes’s erratic behavior — for instance leaving her alone in a restaurant for an hour while he disappeared to wash his clothes compulsively in the men’s room sink — proved too much for the teenager. She went back to Vallee, who was eccentric and a bit kinky — he had a fetish for dying Jane’s hair jet black, painting her face milk white, and dressing her in black lingerie, black stockings, and black spike heels that made her teeter — but at least he was predictably weird.”
Greer’s real-life story only lends credence to the belief that in the golden age of Hollywood, the only thing stranger than some of the stories filmed in front of the camera was what was happening behind the camera.
As for the final words about the greatness of “Out of the Past,” I again turn to Mitchum biographer Lee Server:
“What in 1947 seemed to all concerned ‘just another private eye movie’ would become more properly seen as one of the masterworks of golden age Hollywood, an extraordinary confluence of art and craft in the name of entertainment: the brilliant cast of whispering performers; the lyrically cadenced, hard-boiled dialogue; and narration comparable to Chandler at his best, endlessly quotable; the haunted light patterns supplied by Nick Musuraca, setting a new standard for Hollywood chiaroscuro; and Jacques Tourneur’s hypnotic direction, eschewing the sharp edges and bombast of the Germanic nightmare style of noir for the opiated atmosphere of a waking dream.”
About Mitchum in this movie, Server writes, “In ‘Out of the Past’ it all came together, the combination of psyche (cynical romantic, comic pessimist, fatalist) and image (trench-coated pulp knight, honorable tough guy, outsider) that transcended any individual film, that defining mix of art and nature, of personality, physicality, talent and metaphysics that made the difference between a movie actor — even a great movie actor — and a star.”
If you love movies, miss this one at your peril …