In the small town of Bridgeport there lives a man named Bailey (Robert Mitchum). He leads a simple life running the town’s gas station with his deaf mute assistant (Dickie Moore), and frequently heads out with the town’s pretty girl-next-door Ann (Virginia Huston). He seems to be fairly well regarded by most people in the town – apart from Ann’s mother – but all this changes when a mysterious stranger named Joe (Paul Valentine) rocks up and takes Bailey away with him. You see, Bailey isn’t just a mild-mannered gas station owner. No, he has a past, and things are about to come out of it. Oh, I get where the title came from now.
This is one of the many films on the 1001 List that I’d never heard of before the disc dropped through my letterbox. I gave it a quick glance over, just to see if it would be suitable for my girlfriend’s viewing, and I caught the word ‘noir’ in the brief synopsis on the sleeve. That one word cemented in my mind exactly what I’d be in store for:
1.A brooding loner detective who, whilst not traditionally handsome, still seems to have every woman he encounters swooning over him.
2. A rogue’s gallery of such stunningly beautiful women, all dressed immaculately.
3. The more beautiful and sophisticated the dame, the less she can be trusted.
4. At some point a man will grab a woman by the arm and draw her closer to him, calling her “kid” in the process.
5. Whip-smart, rapid-fire dialogue from even the smallest of characters, regardless of their profession or education.
6. Copious amounts of drinking and smoking.
7. A scene where someone downs a drink before forcefully throwing the glass to the floor and smashing it, for no reason other than dramatic effect.
8. I will have almost no idea of the plot in the last third of the film.
Every one of these points came true, some more than once, but the film still threw up some surprises along the way, most significantly in a few surprising deaths, performed by generally the least likely person in each scenario.Mitchum is great in the lead role. I’m not overly familiar with his body of work – I’ve only seen Crossfire, The Longest Day and Scrooged – but now I’m very much looking forward to seeing some of his other films, particularly The Night of the Hunter, which I’ve owned on DVD for a long time and never gotten around to. Now I’ve got even more of an excuse to see it. Here, Mitchum imbues Bailey – or Jeff Markham, as he’s really named – with a laconic, almost impassive nature, a man who glides through life, buffeted by the tides and winds and coasting to wherever he ends up. In the film’s third act, when he jumps up a gear and becomes a more proactive figure it comes as a welcome surprise; was he just playing a game all along, or have events unfurled enough to motivate him into action? There’s a cocky gleam under those heavy eyelids that’s just waiting for the chance to prove himself.
On his journey, Jeff handles three very different women. First up is Huston’s Ann, who alas doesn’t get much to do other than listen to Jeff whilst looking concerned. She is the emotional core to the story, but that doesn’t come with much baggage or activity. Rhonda Fleming’s Carson, on the other hand, comes in late in the film but has one of the more interesting dynamics with Jeff. She is so very obviously attempting to set Jeff up for something, it’s clear from the way she so blatantly and unprovokedly flirts with him on their first encounter, but later, once things spiral a little out of her control, she’s suddenly more brittle and erratic, not used to being so powerless. The female lead is Jane Greer, here playing Kathie, the former lover of Jeff’s boss. In flashback we learn that Jeff was sent to find her after she ran out with $40,000 and a smoking gun, only for Jeff to find her in New Mexico and inevitably fall in love with her. He cannot be blamed, for she is pretty damn beautiful, but what did I say earlier? The prettier the dame, the less she should be trusted.If I had to pick a stand out performance from everyone involved though, I’d have to go with Kirk Douglas as Jeff’s immaculately attired employer. At this moment in time I really have to point out that his character’s name is Sterling, Whit. That’s just wonderful. That devastating chin is put to great use on a character who always seems pleased to see you, even as he’s selling you down the river, but he can just as easily turn around and be as ferocious as all hell. I’d never have expected Douglas to appear in this film, especially not as a third-billed character, but this was only his second performance (after 1946’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers), so he had to start somewhere. He gives a commanding, confident turn I couldn’t keep my eyes off, and I feel that had he been a more recognisable name at the time, then he probably would have received some awards recognition.The script is a delight, from the smallest coffee shop exchanges (“What’ll you have?” / “Coffee.” / “Nothing else?” / “Cream.”) to the more profound statements (“If I don’t talk, I think, and I’m too late in life to start thinking.”). There’s an awful lot of great lines and conversations, far too many to list, so that’s reason enough to seek this out. There’s also the bout of fisticuffs played out in silhouette, or the almost unbearable sequence of Sterling coming so very close to discovering Jeff and Kathie’s relationship. My only quibble, and this is a standard one I have with film noirs, is that I lost track of what was happening about three quarters of the way through. The dialogue was coming too thick and fast, and there were too many characters who looked too similar and seemed to wear the same clothes. I’m fairly sure there was only one Trilby in the entire film, and everyone just shared it from scene to scene. On a repeated viewing – which I fully intend to give this film – I’m sure I’ll pick it up a little better, but first time around I found myself swept along in the atmosphere, more eager to find out the resolution than care what would get me there, which ultimately left the conclusion a little cold and unsatisfying. Had I more closely followed the path leading up to it, I’m positive I’d have felt more at peace with the whole thing.Choose film 8/10
I highly recommend Night of the Hunter. Mitchum is chilling in that.
I like Out of the Past quite a bit. It’s among my favorite noirs.
Good to know Chip, thanks. Hopefully I’ll get to Night of the Hunter fairly soon.