A woman and a man sit on a moonlit beach. She's a mobster's girlfriend, who shot him and absconded with $40,000. He's the private eye sent to bring her back. He's found her here, in Acapulco, and fallen for her. They kiss, and she pleads with him not to take her back: "I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know anything except how much I hated him. But I didn't take anything." She moves closer: "Don't you believe me?" "Baby," he responds, plummeting into another kiss, "I don't care."
Is there a moment in film noir that better captures a hero's fall from grace? The woman who is no good, the man who can't help himself, the existential choice that seals both their fates--it's all there on the luminous sand. The film is Jacques Tourneur's masterpiece Out of the Past, made in 1947 and at last released on DVD by Warner along with four other classic noirs. (See the Home Movies List, below.) The film that made Robert Mitchum a star, Out of the Past is often described as the quintessential noir. It's true that the film contains a near-encyclopedic array of the genre's devices--the private eye, the femme fatale, the labyrinthine plot, the tough, smart dialogue, the story told in flashback and voiceover, the cinematic interplay of shadow and light. But Out of the Past is more than just an exemplary noir. It exceeds its genre even as it typifies it.
After the private eye (Mitchum) finds the girlfriend (Jane Greer at her most poutily seductive) in Mexico, the two of them run away to San Francisco together. But the mobster who originally hired Mitchum (an impossibly sleek and handsome young Kirk Douglas) sends Mitchum's old partner to find them. When he does, Greer shocks Mitchum by killing the partner and vanishing into the night. But all of this--the mobster, the girl, the killing--is told in flashback: This is the past out of which Mitchum's destiny will come calling for him.
The movie actually opens a few years later in Bridgeport, California, a small town tucked away in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where Mitchum now owns a gas station. He is once again in love, this time with a good woman (Virginia Huston) who knows nothing of his past--until Douglas tracks him down and sends for him. On the long drive to Douglas's Lake Tahoe mansion, Mitchum relates his story to Huston and, by extension, to us. From here the film develops in the present tense, with Douglas offering Mitchum an assignment he can't refuse. The task sounds simple enough: He's to go to San Francisco and steal some tax documents. But there, in the dark city night, Mitchum will find murder, frame-ups, and in the middle of it all, Greer.
If this latter portion of the film follows the noir formula to the letter--the night, the city, the convoluted plot full of double and triple crosses--it only underscores the ways in which Out of the Past has already left the formula behind. Rather than allow the urban nightscape to suggest the ubiquitous decay and inescapable corruption of the modern world, Tourneur has by now shown us other places, alternative realities. The most obvious is Bridgeport, where the film opens and closes, a bucolic paradise of sunshine, mountain vistas, and tender, uncomplicated love. (Imagine Jim Thompson in Walden Pond.) But there is also Acapulco, where the early encounters between Mitchum and Greer capture nighttime at its most seductive: the tropical rain shower that catches the new lovers outside; the bungalow set among jungle foliage and lit by "one little light"; the glowing beach, where the two ensnare one another against a backdrop of fishing nets. Both visions--the mountains at daytime, the ocean at night--may turn out to be nothing more than dreams for Mitchum, but their very existence as dreams lends Out of the Past a wistful air, a sense of loss absent from most hard-boiled noir.
Mitchum's voiceover is used to similar effect. It begins as a common enough noir device: By having the protagonist recount events that have already taken place, Tourneur conveys a sense of inevitability, of fate waiting to be fulfilled. But the narration ends midway through the film, as soon as Mitchum finishes recounting his past to Huston. The result is that the film is suddenly open to new possibilities--will Mitchum die? will he find happiness with Huston, or passion with Greer?--even as the cold feeling of predestination lingers. This, too, heightens the emotional stakes of the film and enables it to transcend the ironic detachment that generally characterizes the genre.