September 10, 2008 -- I've been watching some film noir movies lately, but some of them have not lived up to expectations. Two exceptions, so far, are Touch of Evil and “Out of the Past.” What makes “Out of the Past” stand out among the film noir classics is that it has better actors, a better screenplay and it doesn't look like it was made on the cheap. It is a classy production with a good director, Jacques Tourneur (“Cat People”) and a good writer, Daniel Mainwaring (“Invasion of the Body Snatchers”). The cast is also solid, with a couple of instantly recognizable stars to anyone who has watched more than a handful of movies made in the 20th Century. The cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca features both sharp location scenery and suitably contrasty dark interiors.
Robert Mitchum, one of the kings of the genre and a Hollywood legend, stars as a former private eye hiding under an assumed identity in a remote California town. He calls himself Jeff Bailey and runs a gas station, but his last name is really Markham and he used to be a gumshoe in L.A. He double-crossed his last client, a gangster named Whit Sterling (played by Kirk Douglas of “Spartacus”). Sterling has now found Markham and he wants Markham to do a little job for him. He figures Markham owes him one. The job turns out to include an unwanted bonus, a frame of Markham for the murder of a man who owes Sterling money. Also mixed up in the whole mess is Sterling's girlfriend, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer of “Man of a Thousand Faces”). It was Kathie that Markham fell for on his last job as a detective. Hired by Sterling to find her, Markham fell in love with Kathie and refused to send her back to Sterling.
There are many twists and turns in the story as Markham tries to avoid one trap after another that Sterling has set for him. This is a story that the viewer must pay close attention to, or be left behind. Also involved in the story are Ann Miller (Virginia Huston), Markham's current small town girlfriend, and Markum's gas station employee and friend, (played by Dickie Moore of “Sgt. York”). He's deaf and mute, but definitely not dumb. What makes this film noir is that all the main characters are flawed and each of them is trying to double cross everyone else. Film noir (black film) is a very influential style of film featuring dark scenes, dark themes and flawed characters from the seamy underbelly of society, crooked cops, murderous bad guys and dangerous dames. The story has a very dark world view and some very evil characters. Markham isn't really a bad guy, but he can't escape his past. This film noir gem rates an A.
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