The French didn’t so much invent film noir as identify and elevate it. They took genre more seriously than the American film industry, which saw golden financial returns for movies that were cheaply made. The studios were all about the almighty dollar. When Hitler was on the rise, Hollywood was reticent about taking a stand for an uncomfortably long time, dollars were being collected at the showing of U.S. films in Germany. I wonder if the studio heads were struck by the significance that some of the greatest noir titles were directed and shot by men from countries that had suffered under the rise of Naziism: Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Steve Sekely, John Alton.
The French saw the distinctive style that linked so many crime dramas of the 1940’s together. I think some of what they saw helped inspire the French New Wave of the ‘50’s. And I think that it’s only fitting that a French auteur named Jacques Tourneur directed one of the best films noirs of all time.
Tourneur’s father Maurice joined the French film industry in its infancy and quickly became an innovative and successful film director. When his son was ten, Maurice took Jacques with him to America, and by high school the boy was working as an extra and script clerk while his dad directed. Although his family returned to France in 1925, Jacques’ film training never stopped, and he directed his first movie in 1931 when he was 27. He returned to Hollywood and a contract with MGM in 1934; however, like so many before and after him, Tourneur’s significant career did not begin until after MGM dropped him.
Previously, Tourneur had met Val Lewton, the soon-to-be fabled RKO producer who, at the time, was in the MGM writing stable. (Lewton wrote my favorite moment in Gone with the Wind, the scene at the Atlanta depot where Scarlett O’Hara is looking for a doctor to tend to her frenemy, Melanie Wilkes, who has gone into labor. As Scarlett searches through the streets, the camera pulls back to reveal thousands of soldiers, dead or dying, strewn across the landscape.) When Tourneur was let go from MGM, Lewton, who had just been made the head of RKO’s horror unit, scooped him up and asked him to direct the first production, Cat People. Tourneur would go on to helm several more horror movies for RKO (including today’s bonus film), but his idea of horror was so distinctive that these cheaply budgeted films attained cult status that has lasted right up to today.
RKO was certainly a prestige studio, making household names out of stars like Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, as well as directors like Orson Welles. But it also had perhaps the strongest “B” unit of any of the “Big 5” studios and produced classy westerns, horror movies and some of the best films noirs. “B” movies have a way of not being recognized for their greatness until time has passed, and we’ve already noted how long it took for noir to get its due. The first film we watched in this class, Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) was made at RKO and is now recognized as one of the first films in this new genre. Its cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca, gave noir its distinctive look over his thirty-five-plus years with the studio. He worked on Cat People with Tourneur and then went on to film The 7th Victim, The Curse of the Cat People, The Spiral Staircase and Deadline at Dawn, among other films, before reuniting with Tourneur in 1947.
The war was over, and the studio decided to make a “B” film with an “A” budget. They selected a novel by Geoffrey Homes called Build My Gallows High, hired Daniel Mainwaring (Homes’ real name) to write the screenplay, and reteamed Tourneur and Musuraca. As often happens, the first couple of actors offered the role , John Garfield and Dick Powell, turned it down, (I feel like I’ve seen a lot of movies lately that Garfield was supposed to star in . . . ), which is why Robert Mitchum, who had a mostly second-string resume until the previous year’s Cross Fire, was perfectly cast as Jeff Bailey, the leading character. As his antagonist, charming gangster Whit Sterling, RKO took a chance on a young man who had just debuted successfully in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers as a good guy: Kirk Douglas. And in the iconic role of is-she-good-or-evil Kathie Moffat, they cast Jane Greer. With an incredible secondary cast including Rhonda Fleming, Virginia Huston and Dickie Moore, the stage was set to deliver an iconic noir masterpiece: Out of the Past.
The plot of Past is deliciously complicated – not tangled to the point of myopia like The Big Sleep, but increasingly layered as characters shed one surface after another to reveal their true selves. Every aspect of the film contributes to its non-stop tension, even the early sections that take place in Bridgeport, a bucolic California town where Jeff Bailey owns a gas station, fishes in the idyllic streams that run nearby, and dates the town’s prettiest girl. Our entrance into that town – and into the film – is a jittery one, sitting in the back seat of a convertible driven by a city fellow named Joe Stefanos (Paul Valentine).
We learn all about Jeff through Stefanos’ search for him, first at the gas station where he meets The Kid (Moore), a deaf-mute teenager who works for Jeff, then at the local diner where he eats every morning. Being an excellent judge of character, The Kid rushes to the fishing stream where Jeff is passing the time with his girl Ann (Huston) to warn his boss about Stefanos. In just a few minutes of screen time, we’ve seen what a nice life Jeff has built for himself, and we can already sense how fragile it is.
Jeff’s meeting with the visitor turns out to be a reunion: Stefanos works for a guy named Whit, and he wants to see Jeff right away. We don’t know anything about Whit except how consequential he is to Jeff because there’s never any question that he will answer Whit’s summons. Jeff asks Ann to drive with him up to Whit’s place in Lake Tahoe, and in return he promises to answer the questions about his past that, up to now, he has asked Ann to set aside until the right time.
The flashback that unfolds on the drive up north weaves an expert noir web between Jeff, Whit and Kathie. There’s no question that all three of these people have done bad things; the significance lies in the motivation and the degree. Bailey – whose real name turns out to be Jeff Markham – isn’t blameless here: he has betrayed the man who hired him and stolen that man’s girl. And yet, we know that Jeff is a good man. We know this from the blunt honesty of Mitchum’s performance (if you’re not a fan of the actor, you haven’t seen this film) and from the total acceptance we see in both Ann’s – and more important, The Kid’s – eyes. Many things unfold in the story Jeff tells Ann, with the upshot that he builds himself a new life far from the city, Whit or Kathie, and hopes for the best. Unfortunately, out of the past of a noirhero, one can be pretty sure that “the best” will not follow.
Once he’s in Tahoe, at Whit’s gorgeous home, Jeff finds himself snared again (or, as Whit puts it, “back in the fold.”) Worse than that, Kathie has returned as well, and Jeff is sent to perform a simple job for Whit in San Francisco, a job he knows is a trap out of which he must extricate himself. He sees through Whit’s charming façade and forgiving nature, and he knows instinctively that Kathie exists to help herself. The question is, do Kathie’s plans spell Jeff’s salvation or his doom? The answer is as complicated as the trap and offers wonderful surprises till the very end.
All too many noir heroes tend to be shlubs or petty crooks who find themselves helplessly mired in circumstances that, whether of their own making or not, lead inexorably to their doom, no matter what they do. Jeff, however, is not helpless, and we derive much pleasure seeing him outwit and outlast so many of his adversaries. Trapped between a nest of psychopaths in Tahoe and a haven for angels in Bridgeport, Jeff is the real thing: a hero who fights his fatalistic end with every muscle and brain cell. Being a noir, the odds that things will end well for Jeff are slim, but in the end we admire and sympathize with this good man, and that goes a long way toward mitigating any sense of hopelessness we might feel as the odds are increasingly stacked against him.
Out of the Past is beautifully filmed, with the rural scenes depicting the world as an Eden-like refuge from the shadowy nightmare of the city. I’m a San Franciscan, born and bred, but the last thing I would like to do is spend a few hours in the dank depiction of “Frisco” we see here, where every apartment building seems to house a dead body. Meanwhile, Whit’s house in Tahoe is another example of that tension I mentioned above: this glorious modern palace stands perched atop a hill with beautiful views of the mountains. It should be a refuge from the city’s violence, but Whit, Kathie and their goons turn it into a house of death.
Yes, I’ve been more than usually taciturn about the plot details of Out of the Past, despite the fact that I figure both of you reading this have probably seen the film a dozen times. My advice? Watch it again. This is one of those movies that grows more memorable with each viewing.
*. *. *. *. *. *
Our instructor Elliot Lavine wanted to give us another taste of Tourneur, so he turned to that string of horror films made for Val Lewton and selected one I had never seen. The reason Elliot picked The Leopard Man (1943) was because it was based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich called Black Alibi. What we get here is as much about a man who turns into a leopard as Curse of the Cat People is about a woman who turns into a cat. Well, in truth, the latter film is a psychological fantasy, while The Leopard Man is a snappy little thriller about a serial killer in a small Mexican town that packs more chills in its sixty-six minute running time than many an “A”-list film.
The cinematographer, Robert De Grasse, shot some of my favorite RKO movies, including Alice Adams and Stage Door, lots of films starring Ginger Rogers, and some great mysteries in a career that spanned over 100 films before spilling over to TV. (De Grasse shot episodes of my favorite sitcom ever, The Dick Van Dyke Show.) Here he works with Tourneur to create some genuinely scary set pieces. Honestly, 1940’s thrillers often feel too dated to really frighten most of us, but in the hands of a De Grasse or a Musuraca (especially with The Spiral Staircase), you feel chills.
The basic plot, compared to Out of the Past, is simple: in order to provide extra publicity for his performing girlfriend Kiki Walker (Jean Brooks, maybe the worst actress I’ve encountered in this class), nightclub owner Jerry Manning (Dennis O’Keefe) makes her enter the nightclub with a black leopard on a leash. The entrance disrupts the performance of rival dancer Clo-Clo (Margo) who retaliates by brandishing her castanets at the beast, causing it to slip its leash and escape. This results in the death of a young girl. As other women die, a guilt-stricken Manning starts to suspect that the latest victims have been murdered by somebody more human than catlike.
First, the bad news: if you can’t figure out who the Leopard Man is at his first entrance, then you clearly haven’t watched enough mystery films of the 1930’s and 40’s. (I mean it: the actors who play killers in these films really have “that look” about them!) Plus, any doubts you may entertain fly out the window after watching the films we watched in our third class, where we all got a sense of how Hollywood tended to adapt Woolrich. The same type of character plays the killer in every one of them!
The good news is that it doesn’t matter because everything else about this film is so damn good. (Well, not Jean Brooks, but what can you do??) Each murder is expertly shot to wring out the maximum amount of terror and pathos. More interestingly, each is filmed like a mini-drama: we are given an extended introduction to the victim – often for the first and only time – and spend enough time with them to take them to our hearts so that, as we watch the killer “cat” play with his “mouse” and ultimately take her life, we are more emotionally invested than usual. Unlike many films about serial killers, then, the victims are not merely anonymous bodies to be killed and forgotten; Tourneur makes us fully aware of the toll the Leopard Man takes on the citizens of this village.
And then, once the good guys, who clearly haven’t watched enough of these movies, stumble onto the identity of the killer, they lay a trap that is as beautifully filmed as the murders and ends with a burst of violence that is as surprising as it is inevitable. Don’t be fooled by critics’ dismissal of The Leopard Man as just another horror film; it is, instead, another notch on the belt of Jacques Tourneur, a master of noir.
*. *. *. *. *. *
Next week: a film starring three guys named Robert shows us that, like the best of movies, film noir can instruct and edify its audiences. Plus, a heartbreaker from Nicholas Ray.