Out of the Past

Inchoately reaching into heartfelt darkness has to do with searching, not finding. It has to do with that land of Un—uncertainty, unfathomability, unknowing—which, turns out, is where writers live most of the time.
— Maud Casey, The Art of Mystery

And then, most important of all: to remember who I am. To remember who I am supposed to be. I do not think this is a game. On the other hand, nothing is clear. For example: who are you? And if you think you know, why do you keep lying about it? I have no answer.
— Paul Auster, ‘City of Glass’

When we want everything and give back nothing
the otherworld will be unlocked, and our whole world taken away.
— Robin Robertson, The Long Take

For more than twenty-five years, in a variety of different rooms and properties, a framed black-and-white movie still has hung near my desk. On the left of the photograph, stands an elegantly dressed women, clutching a revolver in her right hand. Looming over her, projected on to a curtain in a nod to the cinematic medium itself, are the shadows of two men fighting. This represents a key moment in the classic film noir Out of the Past (1947), when the masks come off and the protagonists see one another in their true light. The still freezes that singular moment immediately before revelation and unalterable change.

The proximity of the photo to me over the years has served as a constant reminder. First, of a particular period in my life between 1992 and 1996 when I dedicated myself to postgraduate research and the writing of a book on the evolution of film noir and the emergence of neo-noir. Second, of one of my favourite films, which always feels like a treat whenever I watch it, rewarding me with new insights and a sense of enjoyment that extends well beyond the 97 minutes of its duration. There are certain films – A Matter of Life and Death (1946), The Apartment (1960), The Awful Truth (1937), Chinatown (1974) and Out of the Past are among them – that I can never tire of, that are always a source of both pleasure and intellectual stimulation.

Out of the Past still

While my academic days are long behind me, I have harboured for many years a desire to reengage with film noir, watching the classic films again, reading about them and the people who made them, possibly even writing about them. There is nothing particularly intentional about this, and I have no clear objective in mind. The Covid-19 pandemic, however, has provided a perfect opportunity to scratch this particular itch. Woven into my daily lockdown routine for now is the early morning screening of an old film, most often a film noir from the classic period of 1941-58.

Over the past few weeks I have watched The Maltese Falcon (1941), This Gun for Hire (1942), The Glass Key (1942), Phantom Lady (1944), Murder, My Sweet (1944), Double Indemnity (1944), The Woman in the Window (1944), The Blue Dahlia (1946), Gilda (1946), The Killers (1946), Crossfire (1947), They Live by Night (1948), Force of Evil (1948), Gun Crazy (1950), Night and the City (1950), In a Lonely Place (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), Pickup on South Street (1953), Killer’s Kiss (1955), The Big Knife (1955), The Night of the Hunter (1955), The Killing (1956), Touch of Evil (1958) and, of course, Out of the Past. There are many others I intend to watch again over the coming weeks, too, including Laura (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Big Combo (1955), Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957).

This immersion in noir has reaffirmed my admiration for the writers, cinematographers, designers, directors and actors associated with these edgy films. Access to restored versions of the classic films noirs, and to HD or 4K transfers online and on blu-ray, has enabled me to see and hear detail in these films that I had not noticed before. As director and film historian Martin Scorsese argues in his documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995), these filmmakers were smugglers, transforming routine material into personal expression, bypassing the censors and the strictures of the Production Code where they could. They were stylistically and thematically innovative, bringing a B-film sensibility even to bigger budget projects. Often made under financial and temporal constraints, theirs are highly creative films, making extraordinary use of lighting effects, on-the-street photography and camera movement – from cars or even, in the case of They Live by Night, from a helicopter.

It is, though, the stories, narrative patterns and thematic motifs associated with noir that have the most enduring appeal for me. Returning to these films out of my own past, I detect synergies and connections with much else that I have written about and reflected upon in the intervening years. Indeed, there is a universal appeal about noir films that renders them modern myths or fairy tales. There is the comfort of familiarity even in their nightmare visions. They take us to dark places, show us the underside of humanity, and, despite the occasional glimmer of hope, do not usually end well. They are also difficult to categorise, the noir label having been applied to them retrospectively, prompting decades of debate among critics and academics about whether noir should be considered a movement, a style or a genre.

In many respects, noir always has been a hybrid beast, adding to this notion of universality. In look and feel and plot and setting and dialogue, noir has borrowed variously from hardboiled fiction, crime photography, Edward Hopper’s paintings, the gangster film, melodrama, the horror film, screwball comedy, the road movie and, on occasion, the musical, western and documentary. It presents a world out of balance, suggested by tilted camera angles, long shadows and edgeland settings such as city waterfronts, small-town gas stations, funfairs and border towns. This is a world populated by archetypal figures – such as the private investigator, the gangster, the grifter, the femme fatale, the man on the run, the war veteran, the corrupt official, the redemptive woman – in which the capitalist project and the American Dream of individual agency has turned sour.

In essence, noir is concerned with alienation, regret and identity. As noir academic Imogen Sara Smith has argued, the phrases ‘in a lonely place’ and ‘out of the past’ would apply equally well to just about any film noir, not just to the two films that bear these titles. The noir protagonist is often attempting to flee some past mistake, hiding their true selves, as with the Swede (Burt Lancaster) in The Killers, closing themselves off from broader society. Or, in the case of the detective, insurance agent and journalist, they are trying to make sense of what occurred in the past, building a story from the clues they find and the interactions they have with others. In either case, on one level, noir is about storytelling and narration, self-reflexively showing how a story is atomised then put together, through voiceover, flashback, interrogation, foreshadowing, even dreams, all of it filtered through a subjective point of view that rarely can be trusted in full. For film noir is imbued with both memory and desire, and while the former is subject to poetic licence and ‘re-writing’, the latter tends to distort the way we see and engage with the world.

In several key films noirs, such as Double Indemnity and Out of the Past, this cocktail of memory and desire colours the protagonist’s recollections of the femme fatale and her actions. Events leading up to the time of narration are presented from the protagonist’s perspective, justifying their existential angst and fatalist resignation, while preparing us for what will follow. In Out of the Past, gas station owner Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) recounts his former life as New York-based private investigator Jeff Markham to his Bridgeport, California, love interest Ann Miller (Virginia Huston). He narrates his involvement in the case of Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who shot Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) and absconded with $40,000 of his money. Jeff describes his own entanglement in Kathie’s web, their love story played out against a background of fishing nets on Acapulco’s beachfront.

In fact, Jeff is a willing catch, exclaiming ‘Baby, I don’t care’, when Kathie talks of her violent departure from Whit. Meanwhile, fishing is a recurrent motif in the film. Jeff’s former investigative partner, whom he fights in the movie still hanging on my wall and who is killed by Kathie in the moments that follow that frozen image is called Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie). A subsequent victim of Whit’s and Kathie’s scheming is called Leonard Eels (Ken Miles), whose death they intend to use to frame Jeff. Whit’s henchman, Joe Stefanos (Paul Valentine), falls to his death when Jeff’s employee, The Kid (Dickie Moore), hooks him with a fishing rod before he can shoot Jeff. Even Jeff and Ann are first introduced while fishing on a lake near Bridgeport. Everyone is caught up in a giant net that they cannot see, reinforcing Jeff’s fatalism in the second half of the film. The film’s narrative, moving forward linearly but also jumping back and forth in time, weaves its own intricate web, too.

After Jeff has told Ann his story and she has dropped him off at Whit’s property next to Lake Tahoe – later the site of another underworld businessman’s home in The Godfather, Part II (1974) – we see him and Kathie reunited, getting back into character and resuming their old roles under Whit’s watchful eye. As they are sent on their assignment to San Francisco, accompanied by Joe, and working with Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming), they assume the costume and badinage of the hardboiled investigator and femme fatale, respectively. Kathie’s performance even elicits Jeff’s sarcastic observation, ‘Oh, you’re wonderful, Kathie. You’re magnificent. You change sides so smoothly.’ Identities are fluid, changed as easily as coats or hats. Faces are impassive, masks that give little away.

For all that Jeff attempts to portray Kathie as evil incarnate and himself as foolish victim, everything is not as black and white as it seems. Screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring, adapting his own novel, Build My Gallows High, published under the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes, together with uncredited input from Frank Fenton and hardboiled novelist James M. Cain, worked many contrasts and oppositions into the film. These include city/country, American/other, society/underworld, high/low, mountains/beach, east/west, north/south, rootedness/restlessness, naturalness/artifice, trust/deception, passivity/action and good/evil. These polarities are reinforced by Nicholas Musuraca’s atmospheric black-and-white cinematography. Nevertheless, director Jacques Tourneur and the cast of actors tease out the nuanced gaps between these poles. Noir, despite its name, is an examination of the many shades of grey that describe the human experience.

Like Oedipus before him, Jeff is an example of the detective as a flawed man and tragic hero, neither wholly good nor completely evil, given to errors of judgement and reconciled to the consequences. Ultimately, he sacrifices himself and protects those who have the opportunity for a better life, such as Ann and The Kid. Kathie may or may not be willing to flee with him and start over in Mexico, following her murder of Whit, but instead Jeff engineers their mutual destruction bringing their own convoluted story to a close.

Inevitably, noir leaves us with more questions than answers. There may appear to be closure at the end of the film, in this case with The Kid freeing Ann to pursue a life without regret with Jim (Richard Webb). In the days of Hollywood’s Production Code, transgression always had to be addressed, disruption seemingly contained and the established order preserved. This might be achieved through marriage, as in screwball comedy, or, more often in the case of film noir, through imprisonment or death. In the modern era of neo-noir, this no longer holds, and we occasionally see the transgressor getting away with their crimes and the faults of the socio-political order laid bare, as in Chinatown, The Last Seduction (1994) and the TV series Killing Eve (2018- ).

For all that, however, there is something powerful and distinctly unsettling about the classic films noirs. The happy ending does not usually fit with all that has gone before. It prompts further reflection and doubt. As a result of the way films like Out of the Past play with temporal structure and narrative devices like voiceover and flashbacks, they entangle us with the narrator’s point of view, even as we question it. Yet, if we cannot trust the narrator, why should we trust any aspect of the story? What was truth and what was fiction? We keep questioning, conjuring with the film’s epistemological games, unpicking its story, jumping from one character’s perspective to another. The existential angst that affected the film’s characters is transferred to the viewer, and we, too, flounder in the net.

Noir bookshelf