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Out of the Past


Out of the Past isn’t just a movie. It’s the archetype of film noir. At TCM.com, Felicia Feaster and John M. Miller break down the drama’s key draws: “Bitter, cynical, fatalistic and peppered with some of the best tough-guy dialogue in the genre, Out of the Past is a consummate example” of the hard-boiled flicks that flooded theaters in the 1940s and ‘50s.

If you’re looking to launch your noir-ducation, it’s hard to top this on-brand fact I found at IMDB.com: Out of the Past “got off to a rocky start with a near-fatal plane accident…The pilot, accompanied by Robert Mitchum, a studio accountant and an assistant…realized his brakes didn't work when they touched down, causing the plane to crash through a fence, over a ditch, and through an outhouse before coming to a stop...two men in the back seat were knocked unconscious, [but] typical of Mitchum's nonchalant attitude, he quickly crawled out of the wreckage, dusted off his clothes and thumbed a ride into town to begin filming.”

That indelible Mitchum persona – a tough guy unfazed by anything – began with this 1947 classic. Critic James Agee nailed the actor’s “curious languor, which suggests Bing Crosby supersaturated with barbiturates.” Mitchum’s performance was only his second top-billed role, following an Oscar-nominated turn in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945). Rarely does a newcomer burst out of the gate with an instantly iconic brand, especially one who never studied acting. (Or as Mitchum told the Los Angeles Times, “Training to be an actor is like going to school to learn to be tall.”)


Mitchum plays Jeff Bailey, a former private eye who’s hired to find Kathie Moffatt (Jane Greer), the ex-lover of gangster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas in his third pic). Naturally, femme fatale Kathie lures Jeff into her sexy web. TCM’s Feaster and Miller peg Kathie as “a woman with the face of an angel and the impulses of a viper.” (By the way, Greer’s enigmatic look was actually the result of a facial palsy attack in her teens.)


Needless to say, complications follow – do they ever! The script packs such noir staples as snappy lines, big-money payoffs, flying bullets, fedoras, trench coats, and enough stone-cold betrayals to make a hit man weep into his beer. And let’s not forget the moody lighting. As Mitchum joked, “The high-priced actors like Cary Grant back at the studios got all the lights, so our set was lit with cigarettes.”

New York Times critic Bosley Crowther captures the plot’s twists and vibe: “There have been double- and triple-crosses in many of these tough detective films,” he writes. “But the sum of deceitful complications that occur in Out of the Past must be reckoned by logarithmic tables, so numerous and involved do they become...Mitchum is magnificently cheeky and self-assured…consuming an astronomical number of cigarettes in displaying his nonchalance.”


Years later, Jane Greer fondly dished the dirt about her earthy co-star, recalling that “Bob would never be ‘caught’ acting"; that he had to wipe tobacco juice off his lips before their first screen kiss. Mitchum was also protective of the 23-year-old actress, insisting that her wardrobe – which darkens from white to black as her character’s crimes pile up – be painstakingly tailored to flatter Greer’s figure.

Two final tidbits: In 1984, Greer played Rachel Ward’s mother in Against All Odds (an Out of the Past reboot); three years later, Greer and Mitchum reunited for a Saturday Night Live spoof entitled “Out of Gas,” directed by Mitchum’s daughter Trina.

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