THE CHASE, 1946

ImageThe Chase begins much as this morning has gone for me. Chuck Scott (the ever-affable Robert Cummings), on a street, is in front of a cafe thinking about breakfast.

ImageChuck looks down and spots a wallet. He rifles through it, finding a fair bit of money, and takes himself to the most important meal of the day. When finished, and because he’s such a stand-up guy, he delivers the wallet to its owner at the fellow’s home address, which happens to be a hulking Miami mansion with a lot of ostentatious statues and fancy plants. Yep – our good friend Scotty’s steered himself straight into the home of a gangster.

The gangster in question is Eddie Roman – a marvelous Steve Cochran – who’s eerie in his politeness – he’s glamorous, he’s friendly, and he might be a total psycho. I mean, in our intro to him, he slaps his manicurist for doing a poor job:

ImageDirectly following that, he’s really quite genial to Scotty, recognizing Scotty to be an honest guy with a trustworthy face. And who’s that in the background? Why, it’s the great Peter Lorre, who wanted to take some non-bad guy roles at this point in his career, but allegedly took the part of Gino, Eddie’s right hand man, as a favor to producer Seymour Nebenzel who worked on Lorre’s breakout film, (and all-around masterpiece) M. Lorre’s a total hoot as an American – he’s got a tan, his shirt’s open, his hair’s slicked back, his unmistakable voice has been smoothed out and doesn’t really sound like it’s from anywhere. If you’re used to seeing Lorre in his urbane European weirdo roles, it’s a treat. Relaxed and American or not, he’s still one of the best villains around.

ImageEddie offers Scotty a job as a chauffeur, after a bizarre test-drive where he introduces Scotty to a device in his car which allows him to accelerate from the backseat while the driver steers from the front. As you can imagine, this is probably an ill-advised toy for a psycho gangster to have, and Eddie nearly accelerates them into an oncoming train.

Eddie also happens to have a beautiful wife, Lorna – gorgeous Michele Morgan and her perfect bone structure. It’s apparent that their relationship has degenerated to the point where he keeps her like an exotic bird, trapped in his flashy gangster house, and she’s perpetually sullen and wounded. Uh-oh. Gangster husband, unhappy wife, strapping good-guy ex-GI chauffeur? Looks like Scotty’s got himself in a whole pack of noir trouble.

Lorna’s in the habit of taking evening drives out to the beach in opulent evening wear, and on one of these occasions, she offers Scott $1000 to help her get to Havana and away from Eddie. Scotty agrees instantly because A. She’s totally irresistible and he definitely wants in her pants and B. He’s a white knight and C. He could use $1000. He buys them two tickets on the evening ship and they make plans to steal away during her routine evening beach drive.

In their stateroom on the boat, things get super-sexy after Lorna learns Scotty can play piano and stares out the window meaningfully at the life she’s leaving behind. Then, they stare at each other for an uncomfortably long time, a shadow falls, and Scotty walks to the window and very deliberately draws the curtains. But hey, it’s 1946, I’m sure he was just teaching her to play chopsticks.

ImageEverything is going well for Scotty and Lorna until they’re in a bar – it’s the next evening, they’re in Havana, and we, the audience, have lost a day. Suffice to say, I’m not going too much further into the plot. Scotty is framed for a murder he didn’t commit, and spends a period of time in a somewhat Lynch-ian Twilight Zone where he soon finds the events of the day didn’t happen to way he thought. He’s chased by the police through the shadowy night streets, and then… well, best watch Scotty’s multilayer, continuously spiraling nightmare for yourself.

Clocking in at a lean 86 minutes, The Chase spends just enough time on each of the three movements of the story, with enough clues for the audience so that the ending is rewarding and structurally sound. The Chase leans on Franz Planer’s expressionistic cinematography, as well as its curious visual motifs (a set of daggers with jade See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak of Evil monkeys, the device in the car that allows a madman to control the speed, a particularly odd moment where Scotty hides in the apartment of a local girl, who is face down on a table, sobbing, and, oh yeah , if you piss Eddie off, you may earn a trip to his special wine cellar. Until he sends his vicious, man-eating dog after you) to maintain a sense of claustrophobic strangeness.

Also of note – keep an ear to the ground for its subtle treatment of Scotty being ex-army. The screwed-up ex-solider in Blue Dahlia was more than enough to have the original ending sacked the the production code, but The Chase is able to calmly work in the idea that Scotty’s problems stem from (army) “shock”. Classy work, Philip Yordan.

Always a measure of quality, The Chase is based on the story “The Black Path of Fear” by noir mainstay Cornell Woolrich. Woolrich stories are the basis for a ton of fantastic films (Rear Window, Black Angel, Phantom Lady, Bride Wore Black), and The Chase is no exception – the story is full of so many distinctive, nightmarish images that it’s a natural fit for the screen.

ImageThe Chase is public domain, so by all means, check it out on YouTube, or if you’re in Vancouver, you can see it on glorious 35 mm at Pacific CInematheque today and tomorrow. It’s a part of the UCLA Festival of Preservation, along with Joseph’s Lewis hyper-sexual, murderous couple road movie GUN CRAZY.

‘Til next time, maybe it’s best to just keep the wallet.

Vera, Detour

Forgive my untimely absence – I was busy with a First Aid course… certainly useful, as I make it my business to know as much about life and death as I can. Another bit of housekeeping – now on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hardboiled_girl. Let’s be twitter-friends, have a few laughs.

ImageNow back to the matter at hand, the incomparable Ann Savage as Vera in Detour. Ann Savage, born Bernice Lyon, screen-tested at Columbia, took a few minor roles, and ended up being paired with Detour co-star Tom Neal in 1943 for what appears to be the largely forgettable Klondike Kate – an early entry in the career of Mr. Gimmick himself, William Castle. (Who would, of course, go on to bring the world many great 50s-60s drive in horror classics and that Joan Crawford axe murder movie. Party on, William Castle.)

By the way, I feel it pertinent to mention, when Ann Savage wasn’t destroying the screen as Vera, she looked like this.

ImageSavage and Neal would go on to share the screen several times, though never again matching the raw power of their anti-chemistry in Detour. Ann Savage would go on to dismiss many of her other roles as “mindless”, noting that actresses were often scenery in stories devoted to male characters. As Vera? She’s something else. When she shows up the in middle of the film, it’s pretty clear that if they lock horns, she’ll devour him.

ImageI’d hate to see a fellow as young as you wind up sniffin’ that perfume Arizona hands out free to murderers!

In between spitting out some of the film’s best one-liners, getting piss-drunk and sexually agressive, chain-smoking and uttering clench-jawed threats, Vera’s femme fatale fashion is as sparse and as gritty as the story itself. So what does your typical hard boiled girl, after falling off the crummiest freight train in the world, wear for a day of hitchhiking? Black pencil skirt, nubby knit white sweater, collared blouse, envelope purse. Add your own gormless, ineffectual sap, and keep in mind that hitching rides won’t exactly help you keep your schoolgirl complexion.

Later in the film, Vera slaps on some warpaint and gets dolled up in this black evening dress. She asks Al if she rates a whistle. She sure does. The popularity of shoulder-pads in the 1940s was to be expected – as women entered the workforce and took on stronger roles in a male-dominated society, the soft bias-cut styles of the 30s gave way to the power silhouettes of the 40s – strong shoulders, nipped waists. The 40s look has always served the femme fatale well – and in Vera’s case, we’ve got the 40’s fatale trifecta – sharp shoulder pads, bat-wing sleeves, and a gigantic broach at the bust. It’s an awesomely intimidating look, so dress with care.

ImagePersonally, I favor the flouncy nightgown and peignoir sets of the 50s, but for an all-night, shacked-up-in-an apartment bender, you can’t beat a simple terrycloth robe and a hair scarf. Lubricate liberally with alcohol and innuendo.

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‘Til next time, keep it cordless.

DETOUR, 1945

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In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that no one has as much fun in the movie as they’re clearly having on this poster.

In the spirit of the day of love, I thought I’d share one of my personal favorites – DETOUR. And, guess what? It’s in the public domain, so if you have an hour and seven minutes and would like to feel worse, why don’t you pour yourself a drink (best make it a double) and spend some quality time:

Yep, Detour was certainly the premiere feel-bad movie of 1945 (unless you were a drinker on a downward spiral into melodrama and disappointment– in that case, The Lost Weekend probably hit you where you live… incidentally, beyond my girl Doris Dowling as Ray Miland’s doormat and noir veteran Miklos Rozsa’s theremin-laden score, I could take or leave it. I prefer my Billy Wilder a little more subtle or at least with a sense of humour.) (Or unless you’re a social-climbing, working woman bent on protecting the reputation of your murderous daughter who was unsuccessfully (the movie) or successfully (the book) knowing your husband in a biblical sense… then Mildred Pierce probably floated your sadness boat.) But, I digress (sorry – ’45 was a good year), and you’d be hard pressed to find a more sordid, grim, or utterly doom-laden story than Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour. Rife with technical errors and made for a song ($100,000 – cheap like borscht) Detour was nevertheless the first noir, and the first b-picture to be selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. Oh yeah – it’s that good.

There were the big five and the little three, and then there were the Poverty Row studios. Poverty Row films were quick and dirty – made on shoestring budgets with minor stars, or possibly folks famous for other reasons (the 40’s equivalent of when you suddenly see one of the lesser known girls from The Hills pop up in a low-budget horror movie). Poverty Row films were typically the b-picture to the major releases, or sometimes the lead pictures in the second run theatres. Which basically means there was a lot of – but not exclusively – garbage. PRC, or Producers Releasing Corp. certainly lucked out with Austrian director Edgar G. Ulmer, who made three solid noirs for them, the most well-known being Detour.

Al Roberts (Tom Neal, before fighting with Franchot Tone and also pre – manslaughtering his wife) is having a bad night. He’s drinking coffee in a diner and being kind of a dick to everyone. See, they’re playing his song, the one that reminds him of his old life.

Al was a nightclub piano player with the love of a decent woman; Sue, the singer in his nightclub band. Sue heads to Hollywood to make it big, and Al thinks about their bright and happy Bon Jovi song future in this kind of terrifying daydream:

detour02But she ends up working as a waitress. Penniless Al decides to hitch to Hollywood to meet her. Between a life spent watching horror films and Detour, I know what’s up with hitch-hiking. It’s either backwoods cannibal families or a slow descent into your own personal hell, and in this case, it ends up being the latter.

Al catches a ride with a Mr. Charles Haskell, a fairly well-to-do fellow with a nice car and scratches on his hands. The scratches are from a girl he picked up. “There oughta be a law against dames with claws.” Well said, Chuck. Only Haskell’s time for one liners is almost up, and as soon as you know it, he’s dead. Accidentally. In his sleep. Or so Al says.

Al does the sensible thing, and I mean sensible if morals weren’t really a big deal for you. He reasons that no one would believe he didn’t kill Haskell, therefore, he should hide the body and take the car. Naturally, he should take his money too, as Haskell certainly can’t take it with him. And then Al decides to take Haskell’s clothes, too; after all, no one would believe someone dressed as he is would have such a nice car. Turns out once you’ve entered the moral sludge pit, it’s hard to climb out of.

detour2After successfully crossing the state line as Haskell, Al picks up fellow hitchhiker Vera – the incredible Ann Savage, who eats the role for breakfast with a performance that’s an easy 30 years ahead of her time. Vera will get her own post, but suffice to say, Ann Savage is the femme fatale of your worst nightmares. At 24, she’s a total powerhouse – Vera is a snarling, vitriolic hellcat, but Savage’s performance is nuanced enough that Vera’s few moments of vulnerability are enormously affecting.

Detour_Jaime_June11Turns out, Vera recognizes the car and the clothes, but not Al. She’s the dame with claws, and now she’s got them in Al, as she orders him to fence the car and give the proceeds to her for her silence. They spend hours in a motel room, tolerating each other, while Vera gets drunk. She even propositions him in a rather (1940s) overt manner, which he rejects. Vera’s a bit of a wistful drunk, and she’s equally revolting and alluring. Shame boner.

They’re about to sell the car, when Vera realizes she has more to gain by forcing Al to impersonate Haskell long enough to collect an impending inheritance. For a moment, this looks like it might be the main plot of the film, a rather familiar identity theft ruse that genre fans can cozy up to. But, not so fast – an absurd twist of fate sees to it that spineless Al is freed from his situation, but only until he’s carted off to the big house. No mercy for wrong-doers.

Detour doesn’t work despite its technical limitations – it works because of them. With a narrative that’s clumsy more often than sharp, reversed driving shots and amateurish rear projection, we can’t even retreat into the glamour and technical accuracy of the big studio noirs. Detour is story about irredeemable bottom feeders, and the movie is a distilled version of that. It’s seedy and unsafe in a way that few other, if any, studio films can equal.

vlcsnap-2010-07-26-15h21m58s3Typically noir is about the real locations, the real grit of the city in stark contrast to the theatrical sets of the studio backlot lovingly evoked in wonderous Technicolor in musicals or comedies. Detour’s ratty sets are used to great effect. The rear projection is strictly second-rate, which lends a bizarre, otherworldly quality. Al didn’t just take a detour to on the way to Hollywood, he set on another road entirely which leads to the great cosmic joke that his life becomes. The makeshift sets – the walk he takes with Sue on a ‘street’ which is only fog and a street sign, the police car which emerges from the darkness only adds a sense of impenetrable isolation to the already impossibly dire circumstances.

Otherworldly low budget-ness aside, also of note is Al as a narrator. He’s a slimy, simp of a man, and his version of events is questionable. He isn’t narrating the story we’re watching, only offering up pitiful excuse after pitiful excuse for his own behavior before lamenting what a victim of fate he is. And Vera? Well, Vera will get her own post, but until then, she’s a marvel – an absolutely vicious, castrating harpie. There hasn’t been another hard-boiled girl quite like her.

Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.

detour

Yessir, the abyss stares back. So have a Happy Valentine’s day, kid, and stick to the main road.

FALLEN ANGEL, 1945

ImageA wise old sage (Tom Waits) once said, “You don’t meet nice girls in coffee shops.” Which is certainly true in Otto Preminger’s other film noir, 1945’s Fallen Angel. Hoping to capitalize on the surprise success of Laura – which also starred one-time SAG president and all around decent dude Dana Andrews, Fallen Angel was released to lukewarm reviews. While a little saggy around the middle, the film is well acted, well shot by the dependably great Joseph LaShelle (the man responsible for the first of many Twilight Zone dutch angles), and solidly directed by Preminger.

Eric Stanton gets kicked off the bus for insufficient fare in the sleepy town of Walton near San Francisco. (Just kicked off, not fined exorbitantly – What up, Vancouver?) He wanders into the nearest greasy spoon, Pops, and therein finds a whole pack of trouble in the form of waitress Stella (Linda Darnell). Stella thinks showing up for work is optional, seeing as how Pop (Percy Kilbride) has a sweaty-palmed, yet sweet, old-man crush on her.

And, oh yeah, she wanders in wearing this hat, kicks off her shoes, and takes Eric’s hamburger. Like a boss.

ImageEric, like every other fellow in the diner, is smitten. Shortly thereafter he leaves and spots a poster for a psychic act. Sensing a con (him being a conman and all), he inserts himself into marketing for the act by convincing the ex-mayor’s spinster daughter to allow them to perform their heathen spirit show. She agrees, and Eric introduces himself to her nicer, younger, and blonder sister, June – Alice Faye in her first non-musical. As an aside, legend has it that cuts to Faye’s performance caused her break-up from Fox and subsequent 17-year sabbatical from Hollywood.

Meanwhile, Eric courts Stella while at the same time watching her steal from the cash register and date various other men. He vows to give her what she wants, which isn’t so outlandish  – a home and marriage, even though he doesn’t have any money. She stands firm – he must marry her and provide a home if the relationship is to go any further. So, that’s a healthy start to a lifelong reunion, but anyway, Eric comes up with the classy plan to marry June, take her money, and have the marriage annulled.

ImageIt takes approximately one date for Eric to seduce June, as he tries to show her things he likes (alcohol, clubs, and kissing), and she confesses her secret – despite her love of piano, heavy books, and hanging out with her laugh-riot sister, she secretly wants to be just like girls in magazine ads. If you start the below clip at around 2:10, you’ll see this magic beach date for yourself.

It’s after they get their marriage certificate things start to go off the rails. After a shocking murder, Eric is – at the very least – a person of interest. He’d probably be advised not to leave town, but he does, ever loyal June in tow (at this point, she’s already been rejected on her wedding night and is amenable to giving Eric the money he wanted.) Imagine that xoJane article:

“I married this boy and then I found out he only wants to steal all of my money and have the marriage annulled so he can run off with his other girlfriend. Then he became a murder suspect. What should I wear on the train while we hide out?”

ImageAfter a police beating and an arrest, a confrontation at Pops, and a conviction, Eric is eventually won over by June’s kindness and good nature. Order is restored.

Except it isn’t. And Fallen Angel is unsetlling for just that very reason.

Stella’s end is particularly harsh and almost not in line with typical noir rules, after all, she isn’t a scheming, black-hearted, stone cold sociopath. But hey, that’s a noir rule in and of itself – bad shit happens to everyone, no matter where they’re tipping the moral scale. One could interpret Fallen Angel as merely a bad girl cautionary tale; if you go flashing your shit all over town you may – I hesitate to say – get what’s coming to you. But that’s too easy, and I think, an un-earned criticism. Stella isn’t your standard femme fatale, her wants are pretty typical – security and a home. She’s brusque, sullen, and hard-edged, but who wouldn’t be, when you’ve been lied to and yanked around as much as she has?

Her small, one room apartment is particularly affecting. It’s miles away from the home she dreams about, and there is the curious addition of a large stuffed bear, featured prominently in a few shots. We aren’t in a sin-laden boudoir of a girl with easy virtue – we’re in the rooming house of a lonely girl with a dead end job, trying to use what she has to get ahead. Stellas aren’t born, they’re made, and as she’s tossed aside by the men who took her out – most notably, Eric, by the end of the film, there is a profound sense of injustice and loss.

June’s prize for being kind, good, and loyal? Eric, who’s just barely made good on the substantial amount of faith she’s shown in him. Eric’s prize for being a charming yet conniving con man who certainly used Stella as much as she used him? June. Pop’s prize for loving Stella and putting up with her being kind of a shitty employee? Nothing. No one got what they deserved.

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ImageBeyond the gorgeous composition of shots like the two above, LaShelle’s cinematography also features a unique focus on faces in the crowd. At the cafe, in the audience, and walking around San Francisco, Fallen Angel wants you to keep your eye on the other lives surrounding yours. It’s an eerie tactic which helps to pay off the ending, and compensates for some of the film’s more arduous scenes.

Anyway, I’m probably due in some coffee shop somewhere, but, hey, in the meantime, play Stella’s song on the jukebox and be thankful you don’t get what you deserve.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY, 1947

ImageWho wasn’t a fan of Tyrone Power in 1947? He was all dreamy! He looked great in period costume, with a rapier, and with a lacy cravat. He made movie-love and swashbuckled like a champ. He was Zorro, for chrissakes. But 20th Century Fox’s biggest star wanted to prove his range, (being the heir to the Tyrone Power acting dynasty and all – following his Father, Grandfather, and Great-Grandfather, all named Tyrone Power) and he campaigned for the lead in the film version of William Lindsay Gresham’s gothic sleazoid carnival noir, Nightmare Alley. Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck wasn’t pleased about it, but eventually relented, giving top production value to a film that would’ve ended up with b-status. What results is a sordid little movie made by some very talented folks.

Not that it benefited from that at the time – Fox didn’t publicize Nightmare Alley’s release and unceremoniously dumped it into a few theatres, just long enough for it to be disliked by critics and then locked away for years due to copyright disputes. Eventually released by Fox’s Noir imprint, Nightmare Alley’s finally been getting the love it deserves.

ImageStanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) weasels his way into carnival work and is fascinated by two acts – the geek, a howling drunk who bites off the heads of live chickens and is paid off with whiskey (a sideshow act which is quite illegal), and mentalist Mademoiselle Zeena (an excellent Joan Blondell, ingenue days firmly behind her, all patient and world-weary with her dark roots showing) who works with her drunkard husband Pete using an ingenious code to predict and answer burning questions from her audience. Stan wants to know the code and work with Zeena, but she remains loyal to Pete (hoping to send him to detox) and to keeping the secret of the code, which she plans to sell someday.

Then, Stan *accidentally* gives Pete a bottle of prop wood alcohol rather than moonshine which leads to his death. With little choice, Zeena teaches Stan the code, they fool around a bit, and it all results in a successful carnival act. Stan ends up as skilled in fake mind-reading as Zeena.

His girl on the side is Molly – Coleen Gray, as steadfast and adorable as ever, with an electric act where she gets to look like this:

ImageZeena finds out, and Stan and Molly end up married and ousted from the carnival. Stan gets a real tux and they start a classy new act, using the code in nightclubs. The beginning of the end (maybe the mid-point of the end) is when Stan meets a calculating female analyst, appropriately named Lilith (Helen Ritter in predatory masculine-cut 40’s suits), and they plot to fleece Lilith’s rich patients with Stan fencing messages from beyond the grave.

nightmarealleyAnd it would’ve worked, too, if Stan didn’t enlist the help of naive young Molly to serve as a ghostly apparition, in a gorgeously shot garden scene where she emerges, back-lit in the woods while Stan and the dupe watch. After Molly’s ill-timed freak-out, Stan flees with the dupe’s money – or so he thinks.

Lilith, of course, is prepared with a double cross, and The Great Stanton ends up a poor old drunkard. What makes a geek, Nightmare Alley asks? Bad decisions. A God Complex. Analysts. Desperation. Alcohol.

Whether it’s the fault of the production code or Daryl F. Zanuck himself, here’s where Nightmare Alley cheats itself. Stan shows up at a carnival, inebriated, looking like this:

nightmare-geek…and tries to get a job. He is told there is only one job opening – the geek. He is asked if he can handle it, to which he responds memorably with “Mister, I was made for it.”

And that should be the end – pride goeth before a fall and all of that, but then we are treated to a sentimental coda where there is hope for Stan to reunite with Molly, as if the idea of Zorro spending the rest of his days out of his mind on moonshine and biting off poultry heads is just too much to bare.

But, it certainly wouldn’t be the first or last tacked-on ending to an otherwise hard-hitting film noir. It’s not a perfect film, but it is a consistently interesting one – without gangsters, detectives, or gun molls, Nightmare Alley manages to be genre defining with its carnival setting and strong performances. There’s something particularly seedy and anti-American about the carnival’s dirty underbelly. Some of Nightmare Alley’s strongest moments are veteran cinematographer Lee Garmes’ ambling tracking shots behind the carnival tents and away from the lights. There’s some great use of non-diegetic sound – at pivotal points in Stan’s downfall (mostly when he’s drinking and feeling guilty over Pete’s death), he hears the tortured howling of the geek. Brilliant.

Tyrone Power was quoted as saying “Charm is Bullshit”, and never has that sentiment been more apparent than in his portrayal of Stanton Carlisle. Power’s ‘The Great Stanton’ is a scheming opportunist – certainly, there’s no shortage of charm in his arsenal, but it has none of the warmth that made teen girls swoon. Handsome as ever (save the end, when Ben Nye transforms him into a hollow-cheeked ghoul), there’s still something markedly off about him, even in the early scenes with his narrowed, kohl rimmed eyes – swarmy through and through.

Alas, following one of his best performances, Tyrone Power never made another film noir. He did, however, go on a possibly romantic vacation with Cesar Romero and do a lot of critically acclaimed theatre.

‘Til we meet again – steer clear of the seers and stay out of the geek tent.

xo.

Kathie Moffatt, Out of the Past

OUT OF THE PAST / BUILD MY GALLOWS HIGH

“I never told you I was anything but what I am. You just wanted to imagine I was. That’s why I left you. Now we’re back to stay.”

Kathie Moffatt steals money, wracks up a respectable body count, threatens lackeys, and double crosses with the best of them. She lives with fellas while reminaing quite unmarried, manipulates anyone in her midst, and looks terrific in white. In a shoot-out, she chooses to shoot back – even while out-numbered and out-gunned… without breaking a sweat or losing composure.

Just how good is Kathie? After stealing $40,000 ($427,164.65 today) Ex-lover Whit purportedly doesn’t care about the money – he just wants her back. Unlike some femme fatales, she’s not escaping her dead-end domestic life (in fact, we know very little about her life prior to her relationship with Whit, and, subsequently, Jeff), she’s not a victim of circumstance, and she’s not looking to settle a personal score. She’s simply looking out for number one, and it’s unclear whether she has any use for either man as anything other than a tool for personal gain, self-preservation, or merely a distraction.

Jane Greer has said in interviews that Jacques Tourner gave her minimal direction – asking her if she knew the term “impassive”, and saying “First half of the film…good girl. Second half… bad girl.” Witness:

The interest – dare I say, excitement, that registers in her eyes prior to the shooting is some of the most emotion we see that isn’t for the benefit of someone else.

“I didn’t know you were so small.” “I’m taller than Napoleon.” “You’re prettier, too.”

Taller than Napoleon? Indeed, and save a few hot-headed murderous decisions, possibly a better tactical strategist.

Life Lessons from Kathie Moffatt:

1. Do not understimate the power of a  pure white dress. Practical for summer and meals without red sauce, disarming for when your gambling ex-boyfriend sends a flunky out to report on your every move (if you’re lucky, he’ll be Robert Mitchum)… Girl in white walks out of the sun into a little cafe next to a movie house….What’s she up to?

imagesCA1PHAHOAnswer: No good.

You’re wonderful Kathie. You’re magnificent. You can change sides so smoothly.

2. Buy in, don’t sell out. Kathie effortlessly (and arguably sociopathically) works whatever angle suits her agenda in the situation. It could be concluded that Kathie is the worst of the three – Jeff is more or less honorable to the last and even swarmy Whit has a displaced sense of loyalty. Critics of the femme fatale (calling her wholly an invention of the patriarchy – imagine that!) point to her utter lack of noble attributes. Be that as it may, it’s worth noting that she’s just a much better scoundrel then they are.

Kirk Douglas, Jane Greer Out of the Past (1947)

3. If your surivival comes down to making deals with a morally ambigious good guy, best to see that he won’t ultimately suffer a crises of conscience – or in this case, the gnawing realization he’ll never overcome the magnititude of his past, as he may decide that the only solution is an unceremonious murder-suicide by police checkpoint.

‘Til next time, hold on tight to your 40 grand… and don’t trust honest guys.

OUT OF THE PAST, 1947

If you’re of the opinion that you can overcome the mistakes you’ve made in life, that you can identify the error of your ways, learn from your mistakes, and take off into the sunset, Out of the Past disagrees. Of course, it can’t help any that you buried the body of your ex-partner after he was murdered by your lover.

Out of the Past, 1947

Originally considered by Warner as a vehicle for Humphrey Bogart, the rights to Out of the Past (originally an unpublished novel titled “Build My Gallows High”) went to RKO. The script was purportedly re-written (apparently pretty poorly) by James M. Cain then scrapped with a final version being attributed to Daniel Mainwaring with excellent, yet uncredited dialogue by Frank Fenton. As a classic Hollywood noir prototype, Out of the Past is among the best; the leads are superb, the photography is stylized but tasteful, the plot is convoluted, and the dialogue is quick. A classic through and through.

Things are going pretty well for Jeff Bailey, alias Markham (Robert Mitchum, in a career highlight role that almost went to John Garfield or Dick Powell) – he’s a small-town gas station owner who has the love of a good woman – Ann (Virgina Huston, likeably milquetoast and little more than an allegory). The weather’s nice, and Jeff’s quick with one-liners, and everything seems to be falling into place.

That is, until he’s tracked down by a former business associate and his presence is requested by another ex-associate, gambler Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas, on loan from Paramount and fresh off of double suiciding with Barbara Stanwyck in the incredible Strange Love of Martha Ivers). Jeff levels with Ann on his mysterious past, and so begins the flashback that dominates the first half of the film.

Years ago, Jeff was working as a private investigator in New York when assigned by Whit to find his ex-girlfriend who allegedly stole $40,000 and shot him – a Ms. Kathie Moffat (Gorgeous and impassive Jane Greer, certainly a contender for Ms. Noir). On the contingent that she will not be harmed, Jeff makes quick work of finding her Mexico, where they drink bourbon, smoke at each other. Did Kathie steal the money? Baby, Jeff doesn’t care. You can see for yourself in this wind-swept beach rendezvous which never fails to cause immediate swooning. Here, let’s watch it together.

Swoon.

So anyway, they fall in love with a series of gorgeous photographed beach meetings during a fatalistic voice over and decide to leave Mexico together when Whit meets Jeff at his hotel (Jeff still living on his dime and all). Jeff denies locating Kathie and tries to quit, but Whit insists he continue the search. Shortly thereafter, Jeff and Kathie move to San Francisco to live a blissful and purposely vague unmarried life – censorship fun fact – Kathie living with Jeff (and later, Whit) out of wedlock was originally forbidden by the production code administration, being a portrayal of gross illicit sex, but they relented, so long as we never actually see their living arrangements. Presumably, they just hang out on the run together and go to movies at the shitty theatres.

But the unwedded bliss can’t last, as a chance meeting with Jeff’s ex-partner (who was to receive a portion of Whit’s payout upon the recovery of Kathie) leads to a confrontation in a remote cabin that ends in ex-partner’s death at the hands of Kathie (to be fair, he did call Kathie a cheap piece of baggage), while Jeff attempted to settle their differences with a simple brawl.

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Kathie settles the argument between Jeff and Fisher.

Jeff is left to bury the body, and discovers what we all knew – Kathie did, indeed, take the money.

Aaaaand, now we’re back to the present.

At Whit’s home the next day, Jeff is bemused by the appearance of Kathie, the three share a tense breakfast where Whit and Jeff smoke at each other at Whit enlists Jeff’s help to steal incriminating tax documents from Eels, an attorney with incriminating tax documents on Whit. Smelling a rat, yet feeling a responsibility to Whit, Jeff goes with Eels’ secretary, Meta Carson – a little cold around the heart and Out of the Past’s secondary femme fatale, to steal the briefcase in question.

(Fun fact on this scene – if you’re watching subtitles, you’ll notice that it appears that Eels says “Apple Martini?” as if he was about to fix Robert Mitchum some kind of hideous, radio-active green concoction made from some kind of God-forsaken apple schnapps. It’s a transcription error – he is merely offering Jeff a martini, which he will conveniently end up leaving his fingerprints on).

And then the double-crossing starts to double-cross itself. Jeff doubles back to find Eels dead and hides the body. He manipulates Kathie into disclosing the location of briefcase, while she simultaneously reveals her previous manipulation that she has signed an affidavit attesting that Jeff himself killed his partner.

ImageJeff is now wanted by the police, and arranges a meeting with Whit and Kathie, threatening to turn the briefcase over to the IRS unless he is given the affidavit. (Oh, and by this point, Kathie’s attempt to have Jeff killed has been foiled by a young deaf boy who works with Jeff at this gas station). Shortly after, Kathie kills Whit, and, with only her left to make deals with, Jeff concedes to going with her back to Mexico.

That is, just until he drives her intentionally to a police stake out, she tries to shoot him, he commits slightly ambiguous suicide and she dies in a hail of bullets.

Despite an occasionally meandering story which I have tried to relay as simply as I could – please feel free to print it out as a pocket size Out of the Past double cross guide, Out of the Past is a stone-cold classic noir which encompasses all of the main genre hallmarks. As in Cat People, not only does Director Jacques Tourner know his way around a shadow (not to mention, of course, shadow master Nick Musuraca who also photographed Stranger on the Third Floor – common candidate for the first film noir), he/they also have the eerie ability to portray the familiar – the small town, the beach, even the serenity of Lake Tahoe with a great deal of menace. That, and Out of the Past is probably one of the all-time great smoking movies. Everyone smokes pretty consistently in the film, which isn’t uncommon, as smoking and noir go hand in hand, but there are a number of significant cigarettes in the film – Kathie and Jeff’s first date, Jeff and Whit’s breakfast meeting (“Cigarette?” Whit asks, “Smoking.” Jeff answers dryly) – even when Jeff knocks out one of Whit’s henchmen, steals the briefcase, then stops to steal one of the unconscious man’s cigarettes. The cigarettes are a form of sparring (and the smoke is attractively back-lit).

Famously nonchalant Robert Mitchum lends Jeff an air of quiet awareness of his situation, the more laconic and cold he is, the more sobering the inevitability of his situation becomes. It isn’t so much what’s happening on screen that’s hard to take – it’s Jeff’s ambivalence towards it. When, exactly did Jeff give up on self-preservation, Ann, and his future? Hard to say, but with repeat viewings, I’d saying – much earlier than it originally appears. As Jeff mentions to Kathie near the top of the film, there isn’t a way to win, only to lose more slowly.

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“You’re no good and neither am I. That’s why we deserve each other.”

‘Til next time… just get out, will you? I have to sleep in this room.