I’ve seen film noirs, a bunch of them, but for some reason, this little film called Out of the Past seems to come up recurringly in discussions of the greatest of the genre. Not just the greats of the genre, no; the greatest. For me, the idea of greatest film noir of all time would be narrowed down to one of the absolute milestone classics that literally define the genre, like The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity. Not to say that Out of the Past isn’t a great example of noir, because it is, but methinks the hype machine may be overclocking just a tad on this one. Director Jacques Tourneur has a couple other B-movies on the list, but this is generally regarded as his masterpiece, and it’s pretty easy to see why; this film succeeds at just about every level.
Robert Mitchum, a fan favorite for classic cinema lovers and rightly so, stars as Jeff Bailey, a mild-mannered gas station owner… or is he? Called in by a former associate, he takes his current girlfriend Ann Miller along for the ride, during which he regales her with the tale of his sordid past, including his relationship with Kathie Moffat, a dame he was willing to die for. Mitchum is excellent, as he always is; I got through the whole film without seeing him as Rev. Powell, which is a testament to how believable he makes the rugged noir hero. The femme fatale, played by Jane Greer, was a different story; she was good, but she was a little more femme and a little less fatale, in my opinion, pulling off the love-torn mistress side almost all of the time, including when she should’ve been more, well, evil. As far as film noirs go, this easily meets all the qualifications, from the heavy and elaborate use of shadow to the sheer gumption of the narrative, constantly circling Mitchum’s character and waiting for a weak spot to show itself, with Mitchum’s hard exterior doing its best to fend it off.
Like I said in the opener, this is a real good film noir, but to call it one of the, if not the, greatest of all time may be stretching it a little. Or then again, maybe I’m just a little jaded when it comes to noir, having seen so many from the list. Thumbing through the genre list at the back of the Book, I’ve only got a handful left, and scanning their entries leads me to believe this may be the last straight noir that I’ve yet to see, until now. There will still be noir elements in other films I’ve got in the future, but I’d be surprised if I found any that reach the average level of Out of the Past. If you’re a fan of noir, this will really stick to you in all the right ways, and if you’re not, you might still want to check this out to get some other things out of it. Just don’t expect the second coming of noir with this, like I basically was.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10