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Out of the Past Wins The Film Noir Decathlon

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 10, 2012 7:20PM

2012_08_10_out_of_the_past.jpg In case you have been vaccinated by some M.D. of Cynicism and are not experiencing the fully expressed symptoms of Olympic Fever, we are here to tell you that yesterday 24-year-old Ashton Eaton won the gold medal for the U.S. in the Decathlon, along with the informal title of "world's greatest athlete." We are definitely not going to dispute that honorific after watching him finish the 1500m race, a grueling tenth event in two days, in fine form.

We did notice that Eaton was able to run away with the medal finishing first in only three of the ten events. He finished as low as 22nd in others. Which just goes to show that true greatness is often found in consistent excellence across a variety of disciplines, an insight that helped us to understand just why we call 1947's Out of the Past the greatest Film Noir when there are so many other candidates said to typify the genre, so many films that are quicker to the lips when others assemble their pantheon. It's so good at so many things, so watchable and balanced, that we never get tired of it. Let's see how it runs through the paces of the Film Noir Decathlon

1. Flashback
Out of the Past hinges on a central, 30-plus minute long flashback—that most beloved narrative device of filmmakers untying the knotty plots favored by in noir. Flashbacks in Film Noir have been said to interrupt traditional storytelling modes to complicate notions of truth and falsehood. That's the story Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), a small town gas station owner, stopped being Jeff Markham, private eye, takes some time to tell. It involves a job for gangster in search of the lover who robbed and shot him, and, of course, falling in love with said lover. 8/10

2. Femme Fatale
If you are going to ruin your life for the sake of l'amour fou, then it had better be with a fatally attractive, morally compromised anti-heroine. Jane Greer's turn as seductive moll Kathie Moffat is irresistible, and her charisma turns out to be key to the story's plot, explaining both why the gangster wants her back and why Robert Mitchum's character falls for her against any common sense. Her introduction is unforgettable. 9/10

3. Style
Director Jacques Tourneur may be most known for RKO horror films whose resonance and quality belied their low budget, most famously 1942's Cat People. Like his other films, Out of the Past is an effortlessly pleasurable visual experience and full of shadowy compositions and dramatic lighting. Perhaps no scene in the film showcases this more than a climactic fistfight that casts shadows over the face of the observing Greer. 9/10

4. Crime
Kirk Douglas, who plays the film's charming antagonist, the gangster Whit Sterling, may be the most optimistic character in the film. Douglas's charm imbues the would-be villain with just enough sympathy. Ostensibly on the other side of the ledger, Private Eye Robert Mitchum is too wearied, compromised and self-deprecating to stand in for the rule of law. It may be only those "Ultimate Babe Death Ray Energies" Mitchum radiated which keep us pulling for him. 8/10

5. Moral Ambiguity
Notions of right and wrong seem to be the only thing that always ends up as gray area in the starkly black and white world of noir. When the good guys and bad guys are this jumbled up, you can go gray trying to identify the film's moral center. Mitchum and Tourneur somehow convey a humanism, fallen though it may be, that keep absolute chaos at bay. It is telling that one of the best lines, delivered in response to Greer's femme fatale's protestations of her own innocence, was plucked to be the title of Mitchum's biography: Baby, I don't care.. 10/10

6. Pessimism
Commonly and casually totted up to Americans' anxiety and suspicion following World War II, the pessimism and fatalism of film noir is one of its most enduring traits. Out of the Past is truly a masterpiece of pessimism, teaching us such comforting lessons as: crime is in our nature, nobody (especially not those we love) is trustworthy and redemption is impossible. 9/10

7. Dialogue
Crackling dialog is essential to victory in the Film Noir Decathlon, and Daniel Mainwaring's script, based on his own novel and some doctoring from, James M. Cain and Frank Fenton, stands up to anything else from the period. There are too many examples to count, but here's a quick exchange between Mitchum's character and the former employer whom he betrayed:

Bailey: "I didn't mean to hurt your feelings." Whit: "My feelings? About ten years ago I hid them somewhere and haven't been able to find them." Bailey: "Where'd you look?" Whit: "In my pocketbook."

Multiple entendres everywhere you want to look? Smooth as silk. 10/10

8. Ending
The only thing we care about not spoiling for you is the unforgettable ending. It may not be quite as unexpected as that of Kiss Me Deadly, say, but it packs quite the punch. Just not the one you would expect. 10/10

9. Voice-over
Out of the Past wouldn't be getting anywhere without Mitchum's syrupy voice-over gluing together the narrative seams. A perfect balance of sing-song and laconic reluctance, no baritone ever did it better. The film only loses a point due to Tourneur's non-reliance on the device when compared to other noir titles. 9/10

10. Intangibles
There are exemplars of genre and then there are the paragons which transcend them. Out of the Past ticks every check-box on your Film Noir scorecard while delivering enduring entertainment with great style. More than once, we have lent a DVD of the film to friends who did not know or believed they did not like classic movies. Nobody has ever come back to us with a negative review. A Film Noir that does everything it is supposed to while still knocking the socks off even those who don't care a bit about score keeping, Out of the Past can't be beaten. 10/10

The final, completely 100 percent scientific score: 92. Sorry Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, and everybody else who tried for gold. Out of the Past is the greatest Film Noir of all.

Out of the Past screens for free at 8 p.m. on Monday August 13 at Transistor, 3819 N. Lincoln Ave. It's also available via Netflix