Each week in Eat Your Vegetables, Jonathan Sircy shares the benefit and appeal of some of the culture’s more inaccessible or intimidating artifacts.
Cultural Vegetable of the Week: Out of the Past (1947)
Vegetable Equivalent: Any vegetable that looks good in the chiaroscuro-lighting of film noir
Nutritional Value: Actions have consequences
Recommended Serving Size: In one sitting on a rainy evening, preferably with a trench-coat and fedora handy
Kathie: “Is there a way to win?”
Jeff: “Well, there’s a way to lose more slowly.”
Every film noir has its unofficial motto. The above exchange works for Out of the Past, Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 detective flick. In film noir, you never win; you just try to stave off losing.
The film contrasts city and country life, the corruption that comes with the urban environment and the absolution offered by nature. But once you go to the city, you never really leave it. And this movie gives you plenty of reasons to leave it.
Tourneur opens the film with gorgeous panoramic shots of the Western mountains. Tahoe and other bodies of water shimmer against expansive landscapes and endless sky, all in glorious black and white. The film lends these locales further reality by shooting them on location, providing a stark contrast to the urban scenes that are all shot in dingy interiors, places that are even phonier because they’re compartments on an RKO set.
Robert Mitchum’s Jeff is one of noir’s best protagonists. He smokes like a chimney, “stays inside himself,” and manages to be the most interesting man in whatever room he’s in. He’s self-aware. His cool, laconic style contrasts sharply with the firebrand energy of Kirk Douglas, appearing here in only his second film. Douglas’s Whit, a big-time gambler, is the past that Jeff can’t keep away. In the noir universe, you don’t get mulligans for your mistakes.
But the men are only one half of the film’s equation. The film’s two women, the femme fatale and femme bonne, are featured prominently on its poster. The woman adorned with a skimpy negligee and dangling pistol is Kathie, the dangerous woman from Jeff’s past. We can read the effects of her threatening appeal in Mitchum’s disembodied head, his face looking as though it has been exposed to the sun, melted slightly, and then congealed. At the bottom of the poster we see a shot of Jeff with Ann, a blonde-haired country girl who loves the mysterious Jeff without knowing anything about his past. That relationship’s fate? Let’s just say there’s a reason it’s been relegated to the bottom of the poster.
Leonard Eels, an attorney who like Jeff has crossed Whit, says, “Women are the 8th wonder of the world because they all reduce men to the obvious.” In this film, women reduce men to their little eels. Every prominent male character is in love with a woman beyond reason. Eels falls for his duplicitous secretary. Whit and Jeff both fell for Kathie, a woman who stole $40,000 right after she put bullets in her beau. And Jeff and Jim, a local law enforcement agent, are dueling over Ann, who Jim says he’s loved since he fixed her roller skates.
There’s some sort of primordial past that keeps calling to these characters — not just the histories of specific individuals, but some sort of ur-narrative that lingers over or lies beneath the noir universe. We could call it the Fall, a sort of intuitive recognition that paradise, somehow and someway, has been lost. Confronted with a bleak post-war world, the best these characters can hope for is to lose more slowly. The best noirs come up with inventive ways to postpone the inevitable. Out of the Past is one of them.