It took us most of the month, but we finally got it together and acknowledged Noirvember (or “Noir November” as Annemarie says when she doesn’t know where the togetherness begins) with a screening of one of the most iconic films in the genre: Out of the Past. You, Dear Reader, won’t see this until December, but we did the thing. Back in 1947, Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer teamed in this story of a private eye who simply can’t outrun his past or the one who got away, literally.
AM, start us off.
A: Well, you know how it goes with noir. It’s the oldest story in history. DEEP BREATH. Man loves woman, woman shoots man, man sends second man to find woman, woman and second man fall in love (SECOND DEEP BREATH) woman double crosses second man, second man and second woman fall in love, second man and first woman are reunited but it’s a scam because first man and first woman are actually back together and then everyone dies except second woman. WHEW. I’m sure I missed several key plot points, but that pretty much sums up how I felt watching this. It’s fascinating but in that old movie way of over-explaining the plot and yet I still got a bit confused.
I have one random qualm. Our femme fatale’s name is Kathie. I can’t get behind this. Femme fatales should be named something that reflects their seductive nature. I don’t know what would be more seductive, but I can tell you “Kathie” doesn’t scream it for me. Am I being weird and possibly sexist here? Or is there any validation for my qualm?
Brooke, please help me sort out this story, and please tell me why this one rose to the top of the list. Then I’ll get back to whether I liked it or not.
B: Okay, okay, you got the high points, but what you’re missing is what’s actually interesting about Film Noir. The rules. Just like characters in a horror picture are really facing the plot, the characters in noir films are fighting against the Production Code. Noir functions the way it does as a result of — and in spite of — the Code. You see, the Code says that people who do bad things have to be punished. But we all know saints and cinema don’t really mix because most saints are boring. And so you get stories about gumshoes and the girls next door who turn them around and the dangerous (read: independent) women who get them wrapped up in mischief and the bad people who employ them. Noir is a genre that’s entirely of its era. It’s rife with sexual frustration and questions about social norms and meditations on paranoia and desperation — basically, it’s the most uniquely American genre.
Noir is a rebellion against the system in which it exists. It was dismissed as a B genre in its own time, but it went over big in Europe, and in later years scholars would come to consider it a hallmark of American cinema. These film nuts were the first to identify the tropes of the genre and read them against the environment in which they were created. Which brings us to Out of the Past. Out of the Past is arguably the most Noir, Noir — only Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity can really rival it as a pure genre picture. We have the former flatfoot with his own moral code. We have the femme fatale. We have the girl next door. We have the greasy gangster boss. We have the non-linear timeline. We have the deliberately confusing plot. We have the low-key lighting and darkness. We have the hard-boiled voiceover, even the chain-smoking. We have it all.
And that’s why I chose it for our Noirvember entry. That, and I absolutely adore Jeff and Kathie’s time in Acapulco. It’s one of my favorite old Hollywood romances. Why? Because she’s calling the shots, and he’s man enough to admit it. Which brings us to your question about Kathie as the name of a femme fatale. I think you’re right, Kathie Moffat sounds much more like a doll than a murderess. Put that name up against Phyllis Deitrichson and it’s no contest. But Kathie isn’t really like Phyllis. Yes, she kills. But she doesn’t do it in cold blood. Nor for personal gain. She does it out of desperation, as a means of escape. And yes, I think she really does love Jeff. How could she not love someone like him after getting away from an abusive relationship with Whit?
Alright, I’ve spouted a lot of historical context. Let’s hear your take.
A: You mention the Film Code a lot, and I always forget how critical it was to the formation of the industry at the time, especially the part about “bad guys” getting punished. I always tend to think of it more in the context of the awkward non-moving kisses and the twin beds. But the morality at the heart of the code is the same for all of it, and yes, I can see how that would influence the story as well as the characters.
I get a lot of what you said about the Noir tendencies, but why the confusing, non-linear timeline? Is that a way to mask the evil tendencies of characters? Sort of hide it from a casual observer?
I do like Kathie quite a bit. She’s a survivor, a knockout who knows how to use her brain and does the things she has to do in order to stay alive. I concur that she truly loved Jeff, but I think she loved herself more. Which is totally and completely fair for her, but ultimately what winds up killing them both. #spoileralert
Speaking of the ending, I have to say I wasn’t the biggest fan of both Jeff and Kathie biting it. I know I like my endings happier than what anyone can expect of a genre like Noir, but still. Wouldn’t it be more heart-wrenching for her to live with the guilt? As it stands, everyone dies and the Girl Next Door is free to be pursued by her hometown sweetheart (who I dubbed Ham Sandwich because he was about as forgettable as the single-slice white-bread sandwich made for him toward the beginning — you’ll see him in the background below) after being “told” by the mute kid that Jeff was running off with Kathie. Which I believe to be true. Do you agree?
Brooke, your thoughts on my above questions.
B: The non-linear timeline is straight out of the pulpy, hard-boiled detective novels that were so popular during that era, and I expect, it was maintained (or perhaps even played up) to keep the suspense in the story. When these movies were first being made, they didn’t expect the twists and the reveals the way we do now, viewers just weren’t conditioned to them at that point. So, all of the non-linear pizazz is all about embracing a hot new style of storytelling that keeps everyone guessing. People always ask me where a film degree comes in handy, or a critical lens, and this is the moment. You almost have to watch Noir as someone would have at the time — I made the same argument when we watched Halloween. Yes, now we all expect the babysitter who bangs her boyfriend instead of watching the kids to get murdered, but they didn’t back then. Nor was it necessarily a given that everyone in this movie would double-cross everyone else.
I agree with you, it would be devastating for Kathie to watch Jeff die in her arms and know that she ruined his life, her life and Girl Next Door’s life. And I think she would have felt that pain (unlike many a more exaggerated femme fatale), but the Code doesn’t care for nuance. The Code is all about what’s black-and-white, which is why it’s a bit thrilling to watch our heroes live in the grey area. Though it does mean our ladies — who are almost universally the best and most interesting characters — get the short end of the stick.
The question of whether or not Jeff really was running off with Kathie is an interesting one. On the one hand, Kathie loves Jeff, and he’s a sucker for her, but he also gets mad at her for acting in his defense and has written her off as malicious, so I’m not 100% that he wouldn’t have double-crossed her in the end. But, ultimately, it doesn’t matter if he was or wasn’t, we’re meant to forgive him because we know the mute kid tells the Girl Next Door that was the case so she can let Jeff die and move on with her life. It’s the kinder thing, whether or not it’s the truth. I like the idea that Jeff was doing as Batman would do and taking the rap to do something for someone else, so his death isn’t a total waste, but perhaps that’s too poetic.
Alright, big question time, which character in this picture would you fall for? Which period of the story do you like the most? And what’s your favorite quote?
A: I mean, Jeff. Obviously. He’s the hero, albeit flawed, but I’m there for it. He’s got the handsome thing working for him, but he’s also the most interesting-without-being-evil character. Kirk Douglas as of this writing is probably the only one of the cast who is still alive and kicking at 101, but that still doesn’t change my answer from Jeff.
I love the flashback, even though I think it might have benefitted from a bit more back-and-forth. It does feel like a whole separate story because the sequence is so long, but here I go, judging and critiquing what the fine Noir filmmakers had to work with. I like that Kathie goes to Mexico to hide out and like we’ve discussed before, it would be really interesting to visit those familiar locales at a different time in history. Sort of like Marty does in Back to the Future. Put me down for a time-travel experience to hang with Kathie.
Favorite quote? I know yours, but mine is this exchange between Ann and Jeff about Kathie:
Ann: She can’t be all bad. No one is.
Jeff: Well, she comes the closest.
I love how salty that line is, which makes it all the more interesting when Kathie comes back into Jeff’s life and he just CANNOT help himself.
Brooke, same questions back at you, plus: Are you an Ann or a Kathie?
B: As the fellas go, it really is no contest. Jeff Bailey is handsome, even with his ill-fitting clothes, and he’s not a creep (like Whit) or a bore (like Ham Sandwich). I already rhapsodized about how much I love the sequences of Jeff and Kathie in Acapulco, so I won’t get into it again, but suffice it to say, I was fully there for that flashback too.
I love quite a number of lines in this movie, but if I have to pick a single favorite, it would be this observation from Jeff:
I went to Pablo’s that night. I knew I’d go every night until she showed up. And I knew she knew it.
I love that Jeff is acutely aware that he’s falling under the same spell that made Whit not care about losing 40 grand, but he lets it happen anyway. I also love when Jeff adds self-deprecating commentary to his story. He says things like, “How big a chump can you get to be? I was finding out.” and “It was the bottom of the barrel, and I was scraping it.” And for some reason, I find that incredibly charming.
Almost as charming as the way he talks about Kathie even when he claims to hate her and think her evil.
I never saw her in the daytime. We seemed to live by night. What was left of the day went away like a pack of cigarettes you smoked. I didn’t know where she lived. I never followed her. All I ever had to go on was a place and time to see her again. I don’t know what we were waiting for. Maybe we thought the world would end.
And speaking of Kathie, I’d like to fancy myself a Kathie, and maybe I am. I don’t think I’d be cool with Ann’s plan of sitting around her parents’ house until someone married me, but I also like to think I’d manage not to get gunned down by the cops.
Alright, same question back to you — and did you correctly guess my favorite quote?
A: Yes, I did correctly guess your fave quote, but you made it easy and literally spelled it out with fridge magnets. Too easy. I too also like the lines where Jeff is fully aware of the power Kathie has over him, wryly telling Ann and self-monologuing all the times where he’s conscious he’s doing a dumb thing but doing it anyway.
I don’t think either one of us really even comes close to a femme fatale, but we’re also not the type to sit around for Ham Sandwiches, so does that make us the diner owner instead of either Kathie or Ann? She’s got gumption, she owns a business (presumably), and while she’s obviously a secondary character, she owns her life. I think that’s pretty spot-on.
Any final thoughts, final lessons in Noir before we end?
B: That logic makes sense to me. Also, she loves hot goss — Two things I can smell inside a hundred feet: a burnin’ hamburger and a romance, she declares, and we can support that. But let’s agree on one thing, if we own a diner, our sandwiches can’t be sad. They need to be delicious af and loud with cheese. Cool?
As for final Noir lessons, poor doomed Leonard Eels sums up the wisdom of the genre pretty well:
All women are wonders because they reduce all men to the obvious.
And because we just couldn’t help ourselves, we watched Floribama Shore. We have thoughts. We’ll share them. Next time on Required Viewing.