Friday, April 13, 2012

Build My Gallows High: Out Of the Past

Many would argue, and successfully, that if you were going to see only one movie from the film noir genre, Jacques Tourner's 1947 crime drama Out Of the Past should be it. Before World War II, heroes were heroes, they killed the enemy and protected the ones they loved and their homeland while risking their own life; that’s still the definition of a hero today, but during World War II, something dark was creeping into the idea of the hero, many in film simply call him “the anti-hero,” but that’s not enough, it’s far more complex than that. The “dirty war” American men were fighting was rubbing off on them and they couldn’t be rid of. Tournier’s 1946 classic film noir Out of the Past perfectly illustrates how even if you don’t pull the trigger, just being an accomplice is enough to get you killed because you’re all ready dead.
The opening is a road sign, and each destination is some place in the film where we are going to be taken, except one: Bridgeport, Los Angeles, Lake Tahoe, Reno and Bishop, and it’s the last of these places, named after a religious leader (a bishop who leads a flock) that we are NOT going to visit in the film. Whit (Kirk Douglas) is not “white,” and even though he runs people and the show, and even tells Jeff (Robert Mitchum) that he’s “back in the fold,” (as if Whit’s a shepherd), there is no high spot for moral integrity and that’s the point.
It takes a real smooth actor to pull off a part like Whit Sterling: he seems like a rich patsy, but you always know that he didn't get rich being a patsy, and while does seem to like people thinking he's a patsy, he doesn't like to be taken as one.
“The boy,” as he is called throughout the film, is “deaf and dumb,” but not so dumb; his inability to hear means that he’s the role into which the audience fits, because just like him, we are not going to hear everything that’s being said. If, like him, we can manage to “read lips,” and read between the lines, we might pick up on it, but the chances are, we don’t want to. The most important parts of the story are those lurking within the shadows and we just don't want to go there.
Miss Kathie Moffat, played by Jane Greer, one of many successfully wicked femme fatales of the era. What is the essence of the femme fatale, the fatal woman? A dumb man. Instead of being what a woman should be, like Kathie's counterpart Ann, Kathie is the gorgeous woman men want to be a saint, but never will; with looks like hers, she knows she can get away with murder, even several murders, and she almost does. Whereas Kathie leads men into darkness--call her Eve--the women like Ann were trying to lead men back into the light of reason and truth, that's why shadows play such an important role in film noir. Please note how her gloves cover her hands, the symbol of strength, because her strength comes from hiding her strength, and we'll see this again with the fur coat.
It’s an important illusion the title: Out of the Past makes it sound like it happened years ago, but in fact, it was still taking place. In film noir, there are usually two women, and one of them might only be an ideal (hence, an absent figure from the story line) or it might be that one woman has a dual image, as in The Maltese Falcon, but the reason it’s important is because one woman will symbolize what America was before the war, the ideal, innocent and beautiful; the other woman will be what America had become because of the war and, like Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) of Out Of the Past, she will claim she had no choice about it, just as America not really having a choice about entering World War II.
There are just too many fabulous shots in the film to narrow it down to one "iconic" shot for the film, but this shot certainly portrays for us the concept of relationships in film noir: there are nearly never two people really present together at the same time. She's looking at him, and he's looking away from her; other times, it's reversed, although Kathie does a good job of looking at people, especially men, because how else will she know how far she can play them? Even when two people are looking at each other, they are never nearly "on the level" with each other, but at lest one is also figuring out a way to frame  or get out of a frame. The only thing higher than the body count in a film noir is the cigarette count.
The moment of “real poison” for Jeff, when he decides to go ahead and fall for Kathie, is when they have gone back to her place for the first time and they are running through the rain. She puts a towel over his head and starts drying his hair, hard. Then he does it to her, throwing the towel, knocking over the only light in the room and the door flying open, letting in the storm. Kathie drying Jeff’s hair so hard that he calls out to her to stop could be taken almost as a “brainwashing,” since hair symbolizes our thoughts, and Kathie is drying them like a washerwoman with a wash board, getting rid of any doubts Jeff might have.
Jeff can’t do that to Kathie because, even now as she will say at the end of the story, “she’s running the show” and she’s all ready decided she wants to run off with Jeff she just has to lead him in that direction of making him think it's his idea. When Jeff takes the towel and throws it onto the lamp, knocking it over, Jeff is “putting out the light of reason” that tells him if she used Whit, she’ll use him. When the door flies open and the storm comes in, that’s the door to Jeff’s heart, and he’s let Kathie and the stormy emotions she brings with her in through the front door.
A great moment of really seeing Kathie is when she thinks no one sees her. I think this is only one of two moments in the film when we see Kathie without being with someone else (the other being when she's finished packing and is leaving her room in the Tahoe home). In this scene, on Telegraph Hill, Kathie calls to make sure the lawyer Leonard Eels is dead and someone has found the body. Contributing to the murder of a man and Jeff's frame to send him to prison, Kathie casually goes to the fridge to get something to drink. Talk about taking care of her animal instincts! Jeff, of course, is in the dark about being framed but then, overhearing Kathie's phone conversations, brings him into the light.
Do Kathie and Jeff deserve each other? When Kathie and Jeff have a final drink together in Whit’s Tahoe home, and Jeff throws the glass into the fireplace, Jeff has “shattered” his own idea about being able to go back to Ann. We’ll see this exact same dilemma repeated in Shane with Alan Ladd in 1953. Yet, there was a lead up to Jeff breaking the glass: when Jeff meets Ann in the woods, the dead branches of the trees casting shadows upon them, showing the cracks and crevices in them better than any dialogue could, because the strain of trying to come out of “the frame” that Whit put on him was cracking Jeff just like the glass he would shatter, and the reports of Jeff killing two men had cracked Ann and her faith in Jeff.
Shadows give us the shadow of a person's true identity, either it can be the "dark side" of a person coming through or the darkness within them emerging, as with Kathie in this scene as she watches Jeff and his old detective partner fight. The shadows are bringing out the bad in her, and Tourneur has her smile while watching the two men fight, letting us clearly know that shes an animal and she's not being forced to do anything as she usually claims to abort her responsibility. There's an even more sinister side to this scene, if possible. It's reminiscent of Jeff and Kathie going to her place in Acapulco, but the man Jeff fights is a psychological projection of his own self that is now having doubts about Kathie (his old partner that he double-crossed makes a nice counter-balance to what Kathie is turning Jeff into). For example, in Acapulco, Jeff didn't like to gamble, but in San Francisco, we see Jeff and Kathie at the horse race when his old partner sees him, which indicates that Jeff has been doing some self-reflection on himself and Kathie; opening Kathie's check book and seeing the $40,000 balance assures us that his doubts were well-founded. Jeff fighting with his double--the part of him doubting his relationship with Kathy--is only a fight, until Kathie kills that part of him and leaves Jeff to bury him. That's just what she did to Whit, but Whit didn't have the "wit" (intelligence) to realize that she had killed a part of him, too, he just wanted her back.
What about Kathie?
Tourneur did a great job with pacing Kathie’s character for us, specifically her clothes. When we first see her, she’s wearing a white dress and hat, the picture of lovely innocence. When Jeff has gone to Telegraph Hill, after finding Eel's dead body, and hears Kathy on the phone, she’s wearing a sleeveless fur coat, the fur for her animal appetites that Whit’s money provides for and the sleeveless coat because she’s hiding her strength from Jeff and Whit (arms symbolize strength) no one being quite sure how Kathie will “play her hand” because her hand is hidden.
Many good critics will describe the "balance of good and evil" presented in this shot by the shadows and Kathie in the background, but that's nearly non-existent for me. Over Jeff's left shoulder is the painting of the Renaissance woman I was describing, and we see Kathie in her oddest outfit (one person even described it as "saintly garb,"); with Whit's dead body on the other side of the couch on the floor, Jeff knows exactly what's coming for him. The saying, behind every strong man is a strong woman could be invoked in this scene, because behind every bad man is a bad woman. The rule of art is that no one dies who shouldn't die, no one dies who isn't all ready dead. We can't say that Jeff Bailey/Jeff Markham is a good hero because he dies, he has committed crimes (maybe not as bad as the others, but he hasn't done anything good, either) and that association with evil and crime is what the tainted man of the film noir is about; it's not that redemption skipped Jeff Bailey/Jeff Markham, it's that Jeff skipped redemption. Gates and boundaries are also used extensively in the film, and the couch separating Jeff from Whit's dead body is just one more example of that.
When Jeff goes into Whit’s Tahoe home at the end, and finds Whit’s dead body on the floor, on the wall behind Jeff is the beautiful portrait of a woman who appears to be in Renaissance-era clothes. The painting is a fabulous “plant” because it reminds us that Jeff still thinks of Kathie has being like that woman in the painting, in spite of everything, until finding Whit's dead body, anyway: a woman of beauty and grace, yet Jeff knows it was Kathie who killed Whit. And then Kathie comes wearing that odd last outfit, the strange dark color and the odd, Renaissance style hat, absolutely contradicting the graceful woman in the portrait. The painting gives us a portrait of a true lady, whereas Kathie has "dressed up" her murder of Whit in the "noble" concept that she did it for them, when we know the threats that Whit had made against her for taking the rap for the murders and his threatening to have her killed. But no matter how Kathie dresses up her motive, it's murder.
Jeff picking up Ann at her parents' house, she standing on one side of the gate and he on the other. There is also the scene when Jeff stands outside the gates of Whit's Tahoe home and other, minor moments that contribute to boundaries and trespasses.
The structure of opposition is well played in the film. When we first see Ann and Jeff, there is a threat of rain, but they aren’t going to go in; with Jeff and Kathie, there is rain and they do go in; Ann and Jeff are fishing for fish, but Jeff and Kathie are “fishing” for each other. Ann lights Jeff’s cigarette for him, whereas Jeff lights his own cigarette when he’s with Kathie. Jeff hides with Kathie in a city, San Francisco, to avoid the thug Whit, but hides in the woods with Ann to avoid the law and the agent Jim. Both Kathie and Ann have other men interested in them and Jeff is just the middle guy, not as bad as Whit but not as good as Jim. Jeff has the “deaf and dumb” boy to help him, and Whit has Joe who is his own brand of deaf and dumb.  We could go on, but we don’t need to, the attraction of opposites is perfectly structured to weave the viewer into a claustrophic narrative.
Is Ann really going behind Jim's back to see Jeff? It might be that it's only a one-sided affair, Jim's side, but there does seem to be them sneaking around with each other, from Marny's dialogue about them (in the cafe), and that, too, would mirror Jeff and Kathie sneaking around behind Whit's back. There's another interesting aspect of  "fishing" used in Out of the Past:  Whit's thug, Joe, follows the boy from Tahoe to the river and, seeing Jeff, Joe pulls out his gun to shoot, with the boy using his fishing line to "reel Joe into" the water (rocks) below and save Jeff. This is a great trick by the director, because we are meant to identify with the boy, and our pulling for Jeff (because he's the main character and hence, the one we identify with) is what saves him in this scene because Joe's shot should have plugged him.
What about Ann?
Jim saying he grew up with Ann and fell in love with her when he fixed her roller skates is a clear symbol construction for Ann as the America of our hearts, the America before World War II. Jim, being a police officer, is what Jeff himself should have been, but got turned and ended up with Kathie.  Is it a good ending? Yes and no, but it’s not a satisfying ending. It’s not that Kathie and Jeff deserve each other, but they deserve justice, and the failure of the hero being redeemed is the unsatisfactory aspect of the ending, but one that would be employed continuously throughout the next ten years or more. Ann going off with Jim is justice, he’s a good man who loves her.
This is my favorite part of the film, Jeff has gotten back into Bridgeport to see Ann for the last time, and the branches are casting shadows over them in a "puzzle" effect that really shows how fragmented the strain of Jeff's past has created on them. It can be argued that both characters are defying what I said earlier, that two characters are never really present together, but Jeff knows how bad he is, and that's all he's really thinking about, and all Ann can think about is Kathie and how Kathie is coming between them, even in this, their last moment together.
Jeff does, at the end, make the phone call to set-up Kathie and try to bring her to justice; does that redeem him? No, by the film's own standards, because he should have made that phone call years ago, and if he had then redemption could have been his and he and Ann could have been married and he could have had that lakeside cottage. But that's not how it all played out, because the whole time, Jeff was playing his own hand, just like Kathie.
The last shot of the film with the small church in the background.
It can be argued, and I will, that I made a mistake; we do go to Bishop, or at least we have the option of going. In the last shot, when "the boy" is walking away from the camera, he walks towards an old church in the distant background, perhaps one that has been abandoned for years. Are we going to go the direction of Jeff Bailey/Jeff Markham, or will we go the way of the boy, the role we have been given in the film by the director. Out of the Past shows us the consequences of what was happening to the country and the people in the country and it leaves us with that choice that we have to make.