Some things simply aren’t easy to capture. Bigfoot. Blood from a stone. Bones in ice cream. And of course, the proverbial lightning in a bottle many have alluded to throughout the years in an attempt to confuse those cerebrally challenged individuals who would only wonder why anyone would be foolish enough to hold up a glass container in a thunderstorm like a complete and total fool. Nonetheless, certain things are likely in the world of film, particularly when the timing is just right. In the instance of the 1947 RKO film Out of the Past, we are able to bear witness to the work of a masterful director, a top-notch cast, and – most importantly of all – a film noir made during the very height of the subgenre itself. Because what better place is there to capture lightning than at the peak? (Well OK, maybe the beach, but that analogy just wouldn’t hold water, now would it?)
French-born filmmaker Jacques Tourneur is probably better known today for his now-acclaimed horror films such as I Walked with a Zombie and the original Cat People than he is for the majority of his other English-language works, most of which have been buried in-between the more popular ones (and really, who’s going to deny Night of the Demon its very-deserving place in horror history?). But if there’s one thing his earlier work proved prior to his helming of Out of the Past, it was that his very own past had prepared him for such an undertaking as this. Indeed, Out of the Past is one of those movies that you most definitely need to examine every single frame of in order to see even the most subtle of Tourneur’s direction.
Put simply, there are no lens flares to distract viewers from a cast of bad actors present here. Speaking of performers, even one of the world’s most criminally underrated directors sporting one of the greatest eyes for every conceivable kind of cinematic aspect imaginable would be lost were it not for some good ol’ fashioned casting. And while the great Robert Mitchum is an utter delight to behold as our protagonist – whose premature retirement from the evils of the world is disrupted when his old “friends” come-a-callin’ – there is no denying that the real onscreen star of Out of the Past is actress Jane Greer. Cast as the third side of a dangerous triangle Mitchum’s character was once an involuntary party to, with the great Kirk Douglas highlighting the final slant in the whole crooked thing, Greer emerges from Out of the Past as what could very well be the very epitome of a femme fatale in film noir.
Evil, cunning, and the personification of a stereotypical redhead in general (I know all of my ginger friends are going to love that one), Greer easily pushes Veronica Lake, Mary Astor, Lana Turner, Gene Tierney, Rita Hayworth, and Ava Gardner to the side for her performance in Out of the Past alone as film noir’s reigning ice queen. In fact, Ms. Greer would appear in a vastly different remake of the film 37 years later in 1984’s Against All Odds as the mother of her own character from this film. I guess that says something – even if Against All Odds has essentially gone on to be forgotten (and rightfully so) along with a number of other neo-noir flicks from the ’70s and ’80s, along with Mitchum’s remake of the Humphrey Bogart vehicle The Big Sleep. (Interestingly, Bogart wanted to play the lead in Out of the Past had the script been purchased by Warner Bros. as opposed to RKO.)
Story-wise, Out of the Past finds Mitchum as Jeff Bailey, a gas station owner in the small sleepy town of Bridgeport, California, whose simple existence is tossed into turmoil when Joe (Paul Valentine), the number-one henchman of gangster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) pops up one day searching for him. Realizing he has nowhere to run, Jeff calmly tells his girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston) about his past; how he was once a private investigator named Jeff Markham and how a cunning dame named Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) served as a huge monkey wrench to both their lives. But now it’s payback time for Whit, who assigns his old PI-for-hire the dubious task of collecting a few income tax sheets so as to prevent the well-off villain from having to pay-off a blackmailing lawyer named Eels (voice actor Ken Niles) and hide his guilt from the IRS in the process.
But nothing is as easy as that, especially when one has crossed an unforgiving psycho like Whit, and soon Jeff is up to his ears in Eels, hoods, twists, and turns. Rhonda Fleming turns in a delightful supporting role as a secondary femme fatale. Richard Webb is on-hand as a very minor character – that of a Bridgeport cop in a part that really isn’t tapped into all that much. Steve Brodie – who would later be remembered for his work in horror films, though of a much-lesser degree, including several Jerry Warren monstrosities – gets a fine part as Mitchum’s doomed partner. Grown-up child actor Dickie Moore (aka Mr. Jane Powell, aka Taylor Lautner v1.0) steals the show a great bit as Mitchum’s deaf and dumb employee who probably has more common sense than anyone else in the entire photoplay put together (well played, Dickie, well played).
Sadly, despite being praised as one of cinema’s greatest film noirs ever (that’s ever, kids), Out of the Past has managed to not land itself a lavish commercial special edition Blu-ray release. However, the Warner Archive Collection has sought to fill that void in your video library by bringing us this acclaimed classic via a Manufactured on Demand Blu-ray. And while you might think an MOD release would be missing a few things, such as quality, allow me to state that – much like the multiple plot twists of the feature film itself, the Warner Archive has pulled a fast one on us all by delivering an absolutely beautiful 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer of Out of the Past on BD-50 (!). Honestly, I couldn’t believe how marvelous this presentation looked, and this could very well be the paragon of perfection for a film noir that actually succeeded in capturing lightning in a bottle. A DTS-HD MA lossless 2.0 mono soundtrack accompanies and delivers most admirably, and an optional English (SDH) subtitle track is provided.
In addition to the superb quality here (and a modest retail price, to boot), another surprise around the darkened corner of this essential thriller is an audio commentary track for the movie as provided by author/expert James Ursini. Originally recorded for the 2004 Warner Bros. DVD, the track is an informative (if somewhat dry) lesson on the feature film in general as well as that of the now-legendary people who made it all happen.