Out of the Past at 71: A searing, seminal study of the Femme Fatale.
“Build my Gallows High, Baby.”
The femme fatale, and all the men she leaves ruined in her wake, has become a staple of the cultural consciousness largely through film noir. She is the definition of lethal sex appeal: sexy, predatory, ruthlessly amoral; we cannot take our eyes off her, to our infinite trouble.
In studying the machinations of the femme fatale, one invariably touches upon certain pivotal films, high watermarks in the history of the character archetype. Out of the Past (1947), (Build my Gallows High in the UK release), is one such powerful study in her evolution. The film showed on June 4 of last year on Turner Classic Movie’s “Noir Alley” with Film Noir Foundation President Eddie Muller. Noir Alley’s schedule can be found here and Eddie’s talks on the films can be watched here. I highly recommend both links, and also The Film Noir Foundation which does great work preserving these classics.
Out of the Past celebrated its 71st anniversary this year, and alas, 2018 also marked 21 years since the star, the definition of cool for so many, Robert Mitchum, passed away at age 79.
Watching the film in 1080P on my 4k laptop was a great experience. Seeing the laconic, cool, epitome-of-smooth Jeff Bailey (Mitchum) in stunning high-definition monochrome yet not escaping the flicker of the nitrate, alongside the eternal beauty, dream and waif-like presence of Jane Greer’s femme fatale Kathie Moffat in the same high-definition celluloid is such a cool thing for any fan of film noir, and indeed, great cinema as a whole. The movie has aged like a finer version of the bourbon Jeff Bailey drinks as he waits and longs for the ethereal Kathie Moffatt in the Mexican cantina.
The mysterious man with the past neighbors and acquaintances in a small town gossip about, Jeff Bailey is suddenly plucked from the little California town of Bridgeport where he has done all he can to escape his past working for gambler Whit (Kirk Douglas), to track down his girlfriend Kathie Moffatt who absconded to Mexico with $40,000 of Whit’s money after she planted two slugs from the Gambler’s .38 into him.
Jeff finds Kathie south of the border and falls in love. They head to San Francisco and try to make a new life for themselves away from Whit but are presumably found out, as something has to break their revelry to land Jeff in the present day, the story though is not exactly clear on what happened. At any rate, Whit’s goon Joe (Paul Valentine), catches up with Jeff at the gas station he opened in Bridgeport in the present day with a job for Jeff. Jeff, as much as he would like to say “no”, cannot because of the pull of the specter of Kathie Moffat and his undone past (including what he owes Whit), even though he knows this will lead him into Whit framing him for murder.
Jeff remembers the hot, steamy, moonlight-filled nights with her in Acapulco, as he recounts the whole story through a series of flashbacks to his current girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston) as they drive from Bridgeport to Lake Tahoe to see Whit. We see Kathie, dressed in a brilliant white in every Mexico scene she is in to accentuate both her innocence in the eyes of Jeff’s memory and really her waif-like qualities. Jeff, in fact, says in the film: “maybe it was all a dream and we’ll wake up with a hangover at Niagra Falls.” Indeed, he couldn’t really believe what he found in her and perhaps still was unable to in the present day. Director of Photography Nicholas Musuraca also added plenty of soft, dream-like shadow around Kathie in these scenes, eloquently accentuating this characteristic of the vision of her in Jeff’s memory.
The second stage of the evolution of the femme fatale Kathie Moffat is marked by Jeff’s ex-partner, Jeff Fisher (Steve Brodie), finding the couple out somewhere in California. He breaks in and starts a fist-fight with Jeff Bailey over Whit’s missing $40,000 and Kathie fatally shoots him. Jeff tries to explain to her that she didn’t have to do that, but ultimately just buries Fisher and basically covers the crime up. It is during this scene that the memory of Kathie Moffat literally comes into harsher light under Musuraca’s knowing and experienced hand as Director of Photography. He beautifully tightens the darks around her, putting her into a harsher light. Director Jacques Tourneur also again used wardrobe to highlight the development of the femme fatale in the movie’s consciousness that is Jeff Bailey’s memory: the color palette of Kathie’s dress in this scene is a pretty pallid grey.
Kathie’s third stage in her development as femme fatale occurs when the audience finds out for certain that she is an integral part of Whit’s framing of Jeff in the murder of Whit’s tax attorney Leonard Eels (Ken Niles). In this stage, we see Musuraca’s lighting escalate to an even harder show around her, and, in keeping with Tourneur’s clothing motif, Kathie dressed in solid black, which carries on to the epic final confrontation with the police.
Out of the Past stands the test of 71 years as a brilliant, hardboiled, film noir study of the femme fatale. I heartily recommend another viewing of this incredible, scalding-hot classic near the 21st anniversary of the death of Robert Mitchum, an artist forever seared into our collective memory.
Wess A. Haubrich is the contributing editor of the film section of The Nu Romantics and London’s award-winning culture website The 405. He is also a “top writer in movies” on Medium.com. He can be reached on Twitter or via email: email@example.com as he is always looking for cutting edge undiscovered cinema especially and innovative forms of all kinds of art to bring to his readers by probing the minds of their creators in interviews and features.