Wednesday, February 24, 2010

1947: Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur)

1947: Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur)
When I made The Last Lullaby, some people called it film noir, and then others would ask me what exactly that meant.  It's a much debated term, and I try and stay on the side of being simple as much as I can. Noir in French = dark.  Dark here usually speaks of a thematic darkness and a literal, visual darkness. 

Still not sure what I'm talking about?   Take a look at this film.  It's a prototypical film noir, and almost everyone agrees it's one of the best.

I became a fan of noir, probably before any other genre, for a number of reasons.  One of them is I like a good story, and I guess I mean that in the traditional sense of the term -- something with a plot, a conflict, and a vehicle that charges toward some resolution, as ambiguous as that might be.  Many of the noir films fit this description.  They have surprises, they keep you guessing, and they're usually taut and charging forward at a pretty good clip.  Don't get me wrong, some of my (other) favorite films are purely character-driven, but I do really like the feeling of being sucked up into a plot, unsure of how it will all end up.   

Out of the Past has one of these stories.  It also has wonderful characters, two of the greatest noir actors (Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum) in two of their greatest performances, noteworthy composition, fluid camerawork, evocative lighting, and one of the moodiest house locations in the history of cinema (I guess it reminds me a little of James Mason's compound in North by Northwest.)  

Wholly satisfying on every level, this film is one helluva ride.   

Other contenders for 1947: As with other years, there are definitely some things I still need to see.  These include: Delmer Daves' Dark Passage, Alfred Hitchcock's The Paradine Case, Carol Reed's Odd Man Out, Jean Renoir's The Woman on the Beach, Robert Rossen's Body and Soul, and Edmund Goulding's Nightmare Alley.  Although they wouldn't be the closest runners-up, I love Jacques Becker's Antoine and Antoinette, Raoul Walsh's Pursued, and Henry Hathaway's Kiss of Death.  Then, there are two films that pain me a little to not have as top picks, both among my favorite films of all time: Roberto Rossellini's Germany Year Zero and Michael Powell's Black Narcissus.  A really tough year for me to call, I just probably like the Tourneur film a little bit more than everything else.  

3/16/10 I watched Edmond Goulding's Nightmare Alley.  Although it wouldn't contend for my top spot, it's definitely one of the more unhinged, full-fledged noirs I've seen from this period.  I really enjoyed it.  

10/17/10 I watched Alfred Hitchcock's The Paradine Case.  It contains some of Hitch's most expressive and emotional camerawork.  But it's a strange, ultimately very bleak film that didn't grab me near as much as some of his other work.  Worth seeing but certainly not top-tier Hitch.  

10/18/10 I watched Delmer Daves' Dark Passage.  The novelty of the subjective camera is used well, and Bogart/Bacall's chemistry is quite palpable.  But all in all a little too plodding and flaccid for my taste in noir.  

7/25/11 I watched Carol Reed's Odd Man Out.  Beautifully filmed and lushly scored, it's an impressive film.  It feels slightly theatrical to me, though.  I'm not sure if they were really in the streets or most of this is backlot stuff.  But the suspicion of artificiality keeps me from fully embracing it.  

3/15/12 I watched Robert Rossen's Body and Soul.  It's a strong noir, particularly as it drives to its end, and it has that hysterical, abstract quality that makes so many of the noirs so special.  Benefitting considerably from some James Wong Howe masterwork, it's a Scorsese favorite.  For me though, it's simply a very good, not great, noir. 

7/2/12 I watched Raoul Walsh's The Man I Love.  An extremely interesting noir, with a backbone that's as dark as can be, yet devoid of any on-screen shootings, murders, or highly realized violence.  The mood is foggy, and Walsh's great tool here is restraint.  You feel the atmosphere building and at any moment ready to all fall apart.   People are trapped, the outlook somber, and the effect all the more effective as no real catharsis is ever achieved.  

10/12/14 I watched Joseph Mankiewicz's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.  Sometimes one film can make you completely rethink your opinion on a director and make you want to suddenly stop watching everything else and fill in whatever gaps may remain for you of that director's work.  I had one of those experiences today.  I have long been a fan of The Barefoot Contessa but aside from that Mankiewicz I have never had strong feelings about anything else I had ever seen from him and had quite a few films of his I still needed to see.  The Ghost and Mrs. Muir reminds me of all that I have come to love about Contessa.  It is deeply felt and wonderfully balanced in spite of some very unconventional tonal shifts and emotional territories in which it decides to tread.  Tierney is stunning.  Herrmann's score is among the most emotive I have ever heard.  And this is a flat out masterpiece that deserves a significantly larger reputation.   

12/2/17 I watched Robert Montgomery's Ride the Pink Horse.  An effective noir that makes great use of its Mexico locations.  It has that seamy atmosphere of the best films of the genre and exists in a haze and stupor that keeps it in a compelling, elevated state.  Not all of it pops but there are number of great elements, including all of the scenes on the carousel and the final few moments.  

12/9/17 I watched Otto Preminger's Daisy Kenyon.  Armed with a powerhouse trio of actors (Crawford, Fond and Andrews), Preminger creates one of his most effective films.  It is dark, unpredictable and tackles subject matter (extramarital relationships) that had to be far out of step with his time.  The most impressive aspect of the film is the way that Preminger is able to able to place the viewer, at different times, into the unique perspective of each of the three characters.  It is a complex, uncomfortable look at marriage with a resolution that, like Preminger, leaves you a bit perplexed.

3/21/20 I watched Allan Dwan's Driftwood.  What a great surprise this was.  From seeing Natalie Wood as a child actor to the overall feeling Dwan gives the whole film.  Reminds me of Walsh's Strawberry Blonde in its depiction of the wonderful community aspect that can come out in small towns.  I know Dwan has a big reputation.  If this any indication, I certainly need to seek out more of his work.  

9/25/22 I watched Henri-Georges Clouzot's Quai des Orfevres.  One of the earliest, most thorough procedurals I can remember seeing on screen.  Once Jouvet is on screen, it takes on some of the intensity and focus of a film like Le Trou but I found myself less invested in the characters than in other, similar works.  

8/20/22 I watched George Cukor's A Double Life.  Most impressive is the darkness Cukor sustains from nearly the beginning to the end.  It is almost fully lacking in the lightness we have come to expect from most Cukor work.  But it is also a trudge.  In my favorite noir there is enjoyment in trying to see how it all ends up.  I found myself not invested enough to care.  


  1. This year is not even close for me and we are in 100% agreement. There are some other solid noirs this year and Black Narcissus is also excellent, but there's no question that I go with Tourneur's Out of the Past. It might be the greatest noir ever made.

  2. We’re on the same page here Jeffrey! One of the greatest noirs of all time, Jane Greer’s character has to be listed as one of the most dangerous women on celluloid. Mitchum and Douglas are great. The cinematography by Musuraca is perfect.

    #1 Out of the Past

    Odd Man Out
    Monsieur Verdoux
    Body and Soul
    Nighmare Alley
    Miracle on 34th Street
    Brute Force
    Kiss of Death

    The Brit noir They Made Me a Fugitive is also nicely done though not quite in the same class as the above.

  3. Well Jeffrey, I certainly agree with this choice, as OUT OF THE PAST is one of the greatest noirs of all time, bringing together every component to set the bar for all noir before and after. There's been enough analytical treatment at so many sites, and I know Dave is a huge fan too, as well he should be. But you say it all here, and yes that moody house location is incomparable. However, it's an excellent year, and is real close to call as a good number in the runners-up list push real close.

    My Own #1 Film of 1947:

    Out of the Past (Tourneur)


    Black Narcissus (Powell & Pressburger)
    Odd Man Out (Reed)
    La Silence de la Mer (Melville)
    Brighton Rock (Boulting)
    Monsieur Verdoux (Chaplin)
    The Spring River Flows East (Junli)
    Jour de Fete (Tati)
    Somewhere in Europe (Von Radvanyi)
    Germany After Zero (Rossellini)
    Nightmare Alley (Goulding)
    Miracle on 34th Street (Seaton)

  4. Dave, we couldn't agree more! I'm loving your noir countdown, by the way. Made me pull out Schrader's "Notes on Film Noir" and want to read it again. I also bought this excellent French book last time I was in France, entitled "Le film noir americain", and I've been looking at that, as well.

    Thanks, Dave!

  5. John, great stuff! It's really getting into these years where the noir films may be my favorite thing around, or there are many at least that push damn close. I should have mentioned Greer in my post. But, yes, she's another think I really love about this.

  6. Sam, great comments! I agree that this year was a very close call. But, I feel comfortable giving it to Tourneur, and it seems all of you would probably do the same. I'm glad to hear that you also respond strongly to that house. It's quite a powerful image for me.

    I have JOUR DE FETE on 1949 so I will revisit that one.

    Thanks so much, Sam! Always wonderful to hear from you.

  7. It doesn't get any better than Black Narcissus in my book, but there's no arguing with this choice, either. Tourneur's film is a true masterpiece of fatalistic noir, one of those films where the protagonist seems doomed no matter what he does. It's fantastic.

    Oddly enough, when I pulled up my feed reader this morning, yours was one of two posts in a row about this same film: David Cairns was also moved to write about this film this morning.

  8. Ed, great to hear from you! I love BLACK NARCISSUS, too, and it was a really close call for me.

    Thanks for sharing David Cairns' piece. It's a great one and was fun to read, right after thinking about by own take on this one.

    Thanks as always, Ed, for the wonderful perspective!

  9. After CAPE FEAR this is probably my fave performance by Robert Mitchum. He conveys a kind of melancholy of a man who knows that he's doomed which is so tangible and incredible to see play out.

  10. J.D., so well put, and I couldn't agree more! Other Mitchum performances I really love include THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, PURSUED, THE LUSTY MEN, RIVER OF NO RETURN, MACAO, and EL DORADO.

    Always great to hear from you here. Thanks, J.D.!