This column is an experiment in writing about film: what if, instead of freely choosing which parts of the film to address, I select three different, arbitrary time codes (in this case and for future columns, the 10-minute, 40-minute, and 70-minute mark), freeze the frames, and use that as a guide to writing about the film, keeping the commentary as close to possible to the frames themselves? No compromise: the film must be stopped at these time codes. Constraint as a form of freedom. Feel free to pick apart the frames even further in the comments.
Out of the Past (1947, dir. Jacques Tourneur)
Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) has arrived to pick up Ann Miller (Virginia Huston) from her parents’ home. In this shot, she has emerged from the house, and meets him at the weirdly decrepit metal fence at the edge of the front lawn. As she makes her way out of the house we hear — but don’t see — Ann’s mother chiding her father for letting her go with Jeff. “John,” she screams, as Ann runs out the door, “are you letting her out like this? Are you going to stand for it, with a man who won’t even come to the door?”
The strange thing is, the mother is right, even though the film in no way asks us to identify with her: Jeff did not come to the door. He just stands there in the dark (a classic day-for-night sequence) glumly waiting for Ann. He is no hero. He is not even an anti-hero. What is he? He is a blank slate. When Ann reaches the gate, he says to her, “It’s no good, is it?” No number of shiny cars, beautiful women, stiff drinks, elegant cigarettes, or impeccably shot sequences (by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca) can change the truth of his words.
The screen grab itself casts the basic ideology of the film into aesthetic terms: failure. And failure is the fundamental idea of the film. Ann and Jeff and separated by the fence, the truest moment in the film. He carries with him the weight of the past, and in 1947, after the war, this weight is both triumphal and terrible. Ann looks into his eyes, but his are cast down. Throughout most of the movie Jeff’s entire body is covered, as are his secrets. His long coat, his hat, his gloves. His face alone is revealed.
Jeff and Ann parked outside the gate to the mansion of Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas, practically the only person who smiles in the entire movie, and when he does it’s a false smile). Jeff is about to confront his past. On the drive there, Jeff had confessed his sordid past to Ann, and as they arrive at Whit’s, they exchange these words:
Jeff: Well, I told you it wasn’t a nice story.
Ann: And I told you that whatever had happened was done.
Jeff: Yeah, but you should have know about it long ago.
Ann: It’s alright. I understand. And it’s all past.
Jeff: Maybe it isn’t.
The past is never past. That’s part of the reason Jeff rarely looks people directly in the eyes, just as in this shot. The tight framing of their discussion in the car is claustrophobic; the viewer becomes the third character, invisible but present. On the surface, Ann seems weak and naïve, completely enthralled with Jeff and blithely dismissing the real and horrific presence of the past in the present. But, as in this shot, it is more complicated: although her dialogue throughout the film is largely weak and passive, she is one of the few characters to confront Jeff visually.
Kathie (Jane Greer) in fur, her face turned away from the camera in a motion shot, the camera following her as she passes Jeff (Mitchum), casting a weirdly carnivalesque confusion of shadows on the wall behind him. It’s as if, for one fleeting moment, director Jacques Tourneur had been possessed from the future by David Lynch. “Somebody talked,” Jeff says. Two words freighted with menace and huge blank spaces waiting to be filled in by meaning and context. “Did Meta tell you?” Kathie asks. “Nope. Sorry,” replies Jeff. The logic of images competing with dialogue: the great conflict of sound cinema. Which track to follow: audio or visual? The curtains falling along the same patterns as Kathie’s opulent (decadent, compared to Ann’s) coat. The weirdly bright glow from the desk lamp, the supposed source of light in the scene. At this point, the movie quickening in its pace and editing, the long, languid shots of Mitchum giving way to something more aggressive, cold, calculating. The gloss of sentimentality eroded by expressionistic lighting that throws reason off balance.
By the end of the film we realize that it we, not the characters, who have been expelled from the past, into some uncertain future, whose meanings and codes remain as uncertain as the journey from one dark room to another.