Built like a side of roast beef, with sleepy eyes and a cigarette constantly dangling from his lower lip, Robert Mitchum was the kind of tough guy who was tailor-made for film noir. And throughout the late ’40s and early ’50s, he appeared in his fair share of them: Crossfire, The Big Steal, Macao, Angel Face…the list goes on. Usually there was some overly complicated plot involving a double cross, our hero’s need to clear his name before the end credits, and a girl. There was always a girl. But unlike Alan Ladd, Dana Andrews, or even Humphrey Bogart, Mitchum seemed like someone who could throw a punch — and more important, take one, too. Although he looked like he wanted nothing more than to indulge in a nice long siesta with a tumbler of Scotch in his hand, behind those half-mast eyelids was a mind operating three steps ahead of anyone else.
The bespoke pairing between actor and genre wasn’t always an obvious one. At the beginning of his career, Mitchum was typecast as cowboys and GIs. That all changed in 1947 with Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (NR, 1 hr., 37 mins.) — one of the greatest noirs ever made. Now available on a gorgeous new Blu-ray transfer from Warner Archive (warner archive.com), the film can finally be seen just as it looked in its initial release, cloaked in inky black shadows and hauntingly moody atmosphere. If you’ve never seen it, it’s the perfect time to play catch-up now that we find ourselves in the flea-ridden dog days between the peak of summer tentpole season and the imminent arrival of fall’s Oscar hopefuls.
Mitchum stars as Jeff Bailey, a world-weary former private eye who’s gotten out of the snooping business to open a small-town filling station. But the past comes back to haunt him when a former client (a deliciously sinister Kirk Douglas) strong-arms Bailey back into his old life. ”I wish it was nicer to see you,” Mitchum cracks to one of Douglas’ henchmen. The film mostly unspools through a series of flashbacks, and we slowly get to see how Bailey went from a hard-boiled gumshoe to someone who’d rather spend his last days anonymously pumping gas. The explanation is as obvious as it is inevitable. It was a woman. And not just any woman, but Jane Greer’s Kathie Moffat — a mysterious beauty whose lipsticked smile promises oblivion. Or as Bailey puts it, she’s like ”a leaf that blows from one gutter to another.”
Years earlier, Douglas’ Whit Sterling had hired Bailey to head down to Acapulco to find Kathie, who’d shot Whit in the gut and then run off with $40,000 of his money. Not only did Bailey find her sipping Cuba libres south of the border, he fell for her. Hard. So hard that they decided to run off together and leave Whit high and dry. But now Whit has Kathie back. And he tells Bailey that he’ll let bygones be bygones if he does one last job for him — something to do with Whit’s double-dealing accountant who’s trying to extort him. Bailey knows the whole thing’s a frame-up to even the score. But against his better judgment, he takes the job. The look on Mitchum’s face tells us that this is his way of atoning for his sins.
Like most great noirs, Out of the Past is teeming with hairpin twists, corruption, erotic obsession, and a creeping sense of postwar fatalism. What makes Tourneur’s film hold up better than most (it was remade as 1984’s Against All Odds) is Mitchum’s unmatchable air of doomed macho grace and writer Daniel Mainwaring’s snappy pulp dialogue. When the vise is tightening on Bailey and Kathie, she pleads, ”Oh, Jeff, I don’t want to die!” Mitchum’s deadpan response is one for the ages: ”Neither do I, baby. But if I have to, I’m gonna die last.”
Better still is the film’s most famous line, uttered when Bailey realizes that Kathie, the fatale-est of femmes, is even more cold-blooded than he’d ever imagined. She’s gotten rid of everyone who can put the finger on her, and now it’s Bailey’s turn to play the patsy. But he never sweats. Mitchum just looks at her with those sleepy eyes and says, ”You build my gallows high, baby.” Spoken like a man who’s already condemned. A