Saturday, December 28, 2013

Out of the Past

Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 erotic-thriller, “Out of the Past” is highly regarded. The picture presents Robert Mitchum at his most inexpressive and iconic and there is a bevy of hard-boiled dames almost comically enraptured by him. The dialogue is rat-a-tat-tat epigrams, double distilled tough-guy demotic that is poetically concise and expressive. The opening fifteen minutes are brilliant -- a remote, dusty village in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, a mysterious stranger chatting-up a hatchet-faced café waitress and, then, a deaf kid, like the figure of doom in a Fritz Lang silent film, gesturing mysteriously at Mitchum that his bucolic idyll is over and done and that he must, now, depart for the hell of the cities. Similarly, the film’s final ten minutes are impressive, cleverly closing the loop on the narrative in an effective and dramatic fashion; the deaf and dumb kid appears again, there is a killing in a tight little canyon made from granite slabs, and a shoot-out at a barricade on a mountain road in the darkness. This is thrilling and the camera placement, editing, and coolly dispassionate and analytical camera-work are all models of Hollywood craftsmanship. But I have never warmed to this film and, despite critical accolades, don’t much like this picture. Like many proto-film noir pictures, the movie’s plot is too complicated to keep in mind and the serpentine narrative doesn’t make much sense. And Tourneur’s obsession with Mitchum’s rhomboid silhouette, the inverted pyramid of his torso wrapped in a trench-coat and narrowing to his wasp-waist, his hat tilted slightly to one side, results in a curiously static and abstract second, third, and fourth acts in this five-part melodrama. After the first quarter hour, Tourneur clearly loses interest in his convoluted plot with its many betrayals and various rear-projected locations -- the action movies from the high Sierra to New York to Mexico to San Francisco and LA. This part of the film is perfunctory and fantastically repetitious visually: whenever possible, Tourneur shoots Mitchum from the rear and seems fascinated by his gait and stride. More than half of the film seems to consist of shots of Mitchum stalking from one place to another, opening doors, and, then, engaging in conversations, usually shot from behind with the image focusing on the actor’s absurdly broad shoulders, his mask-like and impassive profile, and the trapezoid-like silhouette that he casts as he hustles down dim corridors or hides (implausibly in light of his bulk) behind bushes or doors or on terraces overlooking San Francisco Bay where we always see in the distance the shape of the Golden Gate Bridge. Tourneur’s camera mimics the gaze of his three female leads -- each woman focusing her attention on seducing Mitchum. Mitchum’s torso, indeed, is a splendiferous thing, but, I’m afraid, not sufficiently expressive to compel my attention for a solid hour devoted to its stony charms. But, in the film’s defense, I must admit that we get to hear Mitchum intone these words near the end of the picture: “Build my gallows high, baby,” lighting one of a thousand cigarettes smoked in the film and, then, snapping aside the match with a gesture so beautifully casual that it almost compensates for the tedium.

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