Saturday, June 17, 2006

'Out of the Past' (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)

The dark, the light. The night time drive during which gas station manager Jeff Bailey brings his small town love Ann up to speed with his past life as a PI; the sunlit scenes by lakes and rivers, and in the dusty town itself. Out in Mexico, the dark of the bars, the light of the hotel at breakfast. Perhaps it's not so surprising: there are twenty four hours in a day, and Robert Mitchum seems to suit all of them. Whit Sterling, a big bad 'businessman', has Jeff hunt down his girl Kathie, who's run out on him taking $40,000 with her for company. 'What'll you do when I find her?' 'I won't touch her' - this is the lip service they pay to propriety, but it's clear from Whit's aggressive manner that he's not to be believed. Whit also says he's hiring Jeff because he trusts him, a claim he repeats several times in the film, and each time it's more ludicrous. Jeff's not to be trusted, and Whit knows it. He's a law unto himself, neither on the side of good nor evil, but nonetheless with an unpredictable integrity all his own. So he finds Kathie, falls in love, takes her for himself. Or is it she who takes him? And would that be because she wants to stay out of Whit's reach, or because she falls in love back?

Kathie doesn't have a program, is just as unpredictable as Jeff, but entirely lacks his integrity. As the film progresses she kills nearly every major character in an attempt to a) ward off the authorities and b) get Jeff back (and b) often seems like a convenient way to consolidate a).) She's ruthless, but without direction. She draws Jeff back to her when Whit brings him back into the fray (he'll be useful as a fall guy), and clings on to him until she's destroyed them both. Ann, the good woman who loves him, doesn't stand a chance, and the first time we see them together (romantic, lakeside, carefree) is the last time we see them together and happy. He eventually dies trying to hand Kathie over to the police, and afterwards we see Ann talking to Jimmy, Jeff's deaf mute garage assistant, who tells her that Jeff was running away with Kathie. It's not true, but it releases Ann from the clutches of his memory, clutches which are Kathie's by proxy.

By proxy is how femme fatales operate, of course: they can do nothing without the adoration of men who should know better, or men (like Jeff) who do know better and get sucked in anyway. I saw the film not as a crime caper (though there are plenty of dirty deeds) but as almost an allegory, about the dangers of falling in love with someone you shouldn't have. 'Almost' because this actually does happen to Jeff in the film, but for most of us this kind of bad choice doesn't result in intrigue, murder, fleeing the law. The mood it conjures up by its noir devices (of tension, despair, fleeting hope dashed, nerves frayed but alive) is equivalent to the kind of thing one might go through, being besotted in the wrong direction, with a tender object who is just interested enough to keep one dangling.

This is what the film does so well: it shows the power of a woman's beauty, and the incapacity of either the woman herself or the entranced man to deal with it. It shows the moral choices which emerge under such circumstances. For her: how far to exploit her power, how far can she even see past her reflected glory to judge the extent of any real reciprocated feeling? For him: how far to let himself be exploited, how far to let his love eclipse the world? Such choices are so contingent on circumstances beyond the control of the (dis-)interested parties (like Whit's calling in of Jeff after ten years, itself dependent on the large sign over Jeff's gas station which bears his name and gets spotted by one of Whit's henchmen) that they barely amount to choices at all. All they can do is wipe themselves out.

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