Wednesday, July 14, 2004

"Baby, I Don't Care"

I watched the new DVD of Out of the Past last night (also available in the five-disc Film Noir Collection. The last time I saw it was when I was in high school, and while I remembered it fondly, I didn't actually remember much about it except the basic plot setup, the fact that Robert Mitchum smoked a lot of cigarettes, and a generally fatalistic, doom-laden atmosphere. That's what stays with you in a good film noir -- not so much the plot, which is often impossible to follow, but the atmosphere, the feeling that we're all going to die and get double-crossed, not necessarily in that order. That and the cigarette smoking.

A long review of Out of the Past can be found here, part of a page devoted to the work of the director, Jacques Tourneur. I just want to make a few semi-random obvservations about the film:

- You might notice that the rules of the Production Code (tm) do not apply as strongly to this film as we've come to expect. The Jane Greer character gets to live in sin with not one but two men in the course of the picture. The reason, of course, is that she's the Bad Girl, and the Bad Girl was allowed to do things the heroines weren't. Another example is Miriam in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train: she's a married woman who's pregnant with another man's child. You could get this by the Production Code because she's, again, the Bad Girl, and she's going to pay for her transgressions. The Production Code, by the '40s, wasn't so much an instrument of moralism as a defensive mechanism for making sure that movies wouldn't offend anybody anywhere (as I've said before, the Production Code collapsed once it was no longer possible to make a movie that appealed to everyone everywhere, which in turn meant it was no longer necessary to make sure that it wouldn't offend anyone's sensibilities). The popularity of the film noir was in part, I think, a way of increasing sex and violence in movies -- sex implied rather than shown, of course -- without violating the rule that movies had to be moral and uplifting. A film noir shows or implies all kinds of debauchery, but then adds that all the debauched people get punished in the end. (Or in the case of The Big Sleep, gets the audience so confused that they can't tell who committed which act of debauchery.) It's the equivalent of those early Cecil B. DeMille movies where two hours of orgies are followed by five minutes of spiritual uplift.

- Out of the Past's equivalent of the DeMille "spiritual uplift" moment is its positive portrayal of life in the small town where Mitchum is hiding out. It's not portrayed in an idealized way -- Ann's parents are narrow-minded prigs -- but with their beautiful location shooting, much of it done in the daytime to look like the antithesis of noir, these scenes leave no doubt that this is a good place to be, compared to the nasty, violent world of the Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas characters. It almost seems like Out of the Past is a cousin to all those Westerns about the old violent ways that have to die out so the West can be civilized; Mitchum is like John Wayne in The Searchers, wanting to be part of the new postwar world but unable to do so. I think that Out of the Past definitely comes off as an attempt to synthesize the two types of post-WWII movie, the bleak despairing noir and the optimistic film about postwar lives. It's not exactly a synthesis, of course, because nobody really cares about the small town or the infuriatingly understanding Ann or whether she'll end up with that guy who's loved her "since I fixed her roller skates." It's all about the dark side. But the fact that Out of the Past has that "good" side in it makes it a bit different from some later noirs, which apply that noir cynicism universally.

- One other thing about Out of the Past is that it packs so much plot into such a short running time: 97 minutes. When it was remade in 1984 as Against All Odds, it was 128 minutes; now it would probably run something like two and a half hours. The difference, I think, is that moviemakers today feel a need to be more sensible and explain everything. Out of the Past glides over a lot of plot details or leaves them unexplained; it keeps the scenes short and the dialogue clipped, even if it means giving short shrift to the exposition. Today's dialogue scenes tend to be a lot longer and heavier on the exposition (this applies even to moviemakers like Quentin Tarantino, who use complicated storytelling techniques but usually feel a need to let the characters explain what's going on within the scene itself). Out of the Past doesn't really feel a need to explain why Mitchum falls for Greer: he sees her, he likes what he sees, and that's about it. Movies of the era used a kind of movie shorthand, playing on our prior knowledge of the conventions: you didn't need to show how the leading man falls for the leading lady, because we just automatically accept that he will; it's part of the rules. Movies today are often accused of being slaves to convention, but sometimes the problem is that they don't trust the conventions enough, and rely on extra dialogue to convey the things that we could easily accept without explanation, as long as we're enjoying ourselves. And part of the reason there can't be a movie this cool nowadays is that to be as cool as Robert Mitchum, you have to say very little and smoke a lot. Today's stars get lots of dialogue and they don't smoke, so what can you do?

- Finally, note how often Mitchum has his back to the camera in this picture. A lot of the shots (and there are quite a few long takes in this picture) show Greer on one side of the screen talking to Mitchum with his face turned toward her, away from the camera; his face is partly obscured by shadows, her face is fully lit. I can't say much about Mitchum's coolness that hasn't been said already, but it takes someone really cool to dominate a scene when his face is deliberately obscured.

No comments: