By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Jacques Tourneur directed one of the all-time greatest film noirs with "Out of the Past," which also gave Robert Mitchum one of his two greatest roles (the other being "The Night of the Hunter").
Mitchum stars as Jeff Bailey, a gas station worker who is dating a local girl, Ann (Rhonda Fleming) and trying to make a go at normal life. But his past catches up with him and he's forced to finish a story begun in a different lifetime. Working for a wealthy, slick gangster (Kirk Douglas), he's sent to South America to find the gangster's errant girlfriend, Kathie (Jane Greer). But instead of bringing her home, he falls for her and they run off together. A murder puts an end to it -- until the gangster finds Jeff again.
Having graduated from the Val Lewton school of filmmaking (Lewton was a legendary B-movie producer for RKO), Tourneur was a master of shadows and darkness, and he was more suited to noir than just about anyone else. The film begins in brightness, but the moment Jeff sinks back into the underworld the shadows begin to encroach on every frame.
Even the edges of rooms, doors and windows conspire against him, closing him in. In one great scene, Kathie watches Jeff fight with an assailant and the shadows flash across her face. In-between flashes, you can just read the sinister joy in her eyes. In another, Jeff meets with Ann for the last time in the woods and the spidery tendrils of branches shadow across their faces, pulling them apart.
Daniel Mainwaring adapted his novel, "Build My Gallows High," under the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes, and it's a zinger of a screenplay, packed with spiky one-liners and exchanges dripping with sexy venom. Mitchum's line "Baby, I don't care," became the title of Lee Server's 2001 Mitchum biography.
The film opened in England under the novel's title, but American distributors changed it to the simpler and less morbid "Out of the Past." Some misguided souls remade it in 1984 as "Against All Odds" with Jeff Bridges, Rachel Ward and James Woods.
Warner Home Video has released this RKO feature on DVD for the first time, and it comes with a commentary track by cinema scholar and film noir expert James Ursini.
**** out of ****
(97m | NR)