Sunday, February 8, 2009

Don't Make a Scene: Out of the Past

The Set-Up: "And then I saw her..."

That's when a lot of "noir" stories start to get interesting.

"And then I saw her...," followed by the customary description, either good* or bad.** Either way, trouble's coming through that doorway.

""Out of the Past"
says the words and the pictures simultaneously. We've only been hearing about Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer, in a career-making role***) up to this point and this is the first look we get of her walking in out of the sun, and stepping into the shadow, where Jeff Markham (nee Bailey) makes his living. He knows what he's in for: he knows she shot her lover, his client—Whit (a very young turk named Kirk Douglas) to get away from him (conveniently taking $40,000 as well), and it's why he's here now after tracking her from California to Mexico. She knows how to use a gun and she won't flinch when using it, as Whit's arm-in-a-sling and seething ego are proof.

So, now that Jeff's found her, what's he gonna do with her?

Director Jacques Tourneur didn't do too many big budget movies, but his low budget ones (including "Cat People," "I Walked with a Zombie," and "Days of Glory") became hits, probably because Tourneur could make something wierdly lyrical about them. Tourneur shot black and white worlds with things hidden in the black shadows. His action sequences were tough and inelegant and could surprise you. And he knew how to milk suspense by keeping information away, suggesting more danger in a quiet silence than with an orchestra with large sections of sturm-and-drang pounding away in the background. After his contract with RKO, he went freelance, staying primarily in the B-section of movies, shepherding projects for Rory Calhoun and Dana Andrews, turgid little genre pictures that if he weren't making them so breathlessly efficient, maximizing their potential, there'd be nothing to say about them. A quick and frugal director, he moved into television quickly, ending his career making two pretty good Vincent Price movies for AIP "The Comedy of Terrors," and "The City Under the Sea," and, in 1964, directed one of the sparest of "Twilight Zone" episodes "Night Call," written by his "Comedy of Terrors" scribe, Richard Matheson.

But here, "Out of the Past," he's not playing with light as much as shadow. It's a classic scene of film noir and Tourneur shoots it the way it should always be shot. Tight on her, laid-back on him. The way Greer plays it, is chest up, Mitchum throws his whole body into it, but the eyes are what's moving the most. And in this "meets-cute" scene with José Rodriguez as unwitting go-between, sparks are subtly struck.

It needs to be subtle. You don't want too much light, disrupting those shadows.

The Scene: Small town gas station owner Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) has received an unwanted customer with unfinished business: a gun-man for Mr. Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), who dabbles in activities that aren't too legal and doesn't like to take "no" for an answer. Witt's come after Jeff for skipping out on a private eye job a few months and another life ago, back in the day when Jeff was private investigator Jeff Markham. Now, before he goes back to tidy up affairs, Jeff tells his sweetheart, a good kid who deserves better, the whole story. Of how he took a job for Witt, tracking down the girl-friend who shot him. Of how he re-traced her get-away steps and followed her. And he won't hold anything back because he wants to tell her the truth, something that was in short supply in the whole sordid affair.


Jeff Markham (voice-over): You don’t get vaccinated for Florida. But you do for Mexico. So, I just followed that 90 pounds of excess baggage to Mexico City. She’d been at the Reforma and then gone. I took the bus South like she did. It was hot in Tosco. You say to yourself, “How hot can it get?” Then in Acapulco, you find out. I knew she had to wind up here because if you want to go South, here’s where you get the boat. All I had to do was wait. Near the plaza was a little café called “La Mar Azul,” next to a movie house. I sat there in the afternoons and drank beer. I used to sit there half-asleep with the beer and the darkness. Only that music from the movie next door kept jarring me awake. And then I saw her.

Jeff (voice-over): Coming out of the sun. And I knew why Whit didn’t care about that 40 grand.

Kathie Moffat: Cuba libre please,
Waiter: Si, siñorita.

Jeff stands, drops change as a pretext.

Rodriguez: Siñorita. Senor? May I speak some words? You will be seated, señor, huh? Yes?
Jeff: With pleasure, señor.

Rodriguez: I am José Rodriguez, a guide. A most excellent guide.
Kathie: Indeed.
Rodriguez: You ask them. They can tell you José Rodriguez knows Acapulco as no one else! Each little street…

Kathie: I don’t want a guide.

Jeff: Very difficult girl.

Rodriguez: Ha ha. Is there one not so, señor? Perhaps a lottery ticket...
Jeff: No.
Rodriguez: I have here, rolled by steel hands, a ring.
Jeff: No.

Rodriguez: And ear-rings of jade and pure silver.
Jeff: These.

Rodriguez: Gracias, señor. Gracias.

Kathie: I never wear them.
Jeff: Nor I. Please.
Kathie: No, thank you.

Jeff: My name is Jeff Markham and I haven’t talked to anyone who hasn’t tried to sell me something for ten days...

Jeff:...If I don’t talk, I think. It’s too late in life for me to start thinking...

Jeff:...I could go down and look at the cliff like a good tourist, but it’s no good unless there’s someone you can turn to and say, “Nice view, huh?”

Jeff:...It’s the same with the churches, the relics, the moonlight or the cuba libre....

Jeff:...Nothing in the world is any good unless you can share it.

Kathie: Maybe you oughta go home.

Jeff: Maybe that’s why I’m here.
Kathie: Is it?

He smiles. She smiles

Kathie: Well, there’s always José Rodriguez.

Kathie: If it gets too lonely there’s a little cantina down the street called Pablo’s. It’s nice and quiet.

Kathie: (There's a) Man there that plays American music for a dollar. Sip bourbon and shut your eyes. It’s like a little place on 56th street.

Jeff: I’ll wear my earrings.

Kathie: I sometimes go there…

"Out of the Past"

Words by Daniel Mainwaring (writing as Geoffrey Homes) and Frank Fenton and James M. Cain

Pictures by Nicholas Musuraca and Jacques Tourneur.

"Out of the Past" is available on DVD from Warners Home Video.

* "She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight." ---The Little Sister (Chapter 12)

** "From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away."--The High Window (Chapter 5)

*** Greer played the scheming mother of this character in the inferior 80's remake "Against All Odds," in which, again, she dominated the other performers--and we're talking Jeff Bridges and James Woods here!

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