Cold-blooded dame and tough guys in ‘Out of the Past’
More than 100 movie buffs gathered at the Avon Theatre in Stamford for a screening of the 1947 film noir classic “Out of the Past,” starring Connecticut native Robert Mitchum.
The event was co-sponsored by Hearst’s Movie & A Martini film club and presided over by Michael Kovner, of Greenwich, who is an expert on the crime thriller genre popular in the years during World War II and the decade that followed.
Kovner’s day job is vice president and managing director of the Brown Harris Stevens real estate firm in New York City, but he has been studying film noir since he saw “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) as a young man.
Although the 1940s and 1950s are thought of as a particularly optimistic time in America, Kovner pointed out that these thrillers about morally dubious men and women — who often double-cross each other — found great favor with audiences.
The Greenwich film historian hatched the idea of a regular series at the Avon five years ago and has developed an audience for these tough-minded, black-and-white melodramas. Films in the genre spanned A-budget major studio releases such as “Double Indemnity” (1944) and B-movie classics like “Gun Crazy” (1949). Kovner said none of these pictures were labeled “film noir” by American critics and moviegoers when they were released. The movies were enjoyed but not revered until French film critics of the 1950s created the genre label.
“They are full of shadows and the stories are very dark,” Kovner told the audience.
“Out of the Past” has become one of the most popular film noir thrillers because it contains a star-making performance by Mitchum as a man who has tried to escape his past by running a gas station in the California town of Bridgeport (a nod to the actor’s Connecticut place of birth). He gets pulled back into the criminal underworld by an old associate — a gang boss played by Kirk Douglas in one of his early film performances.
Douglas wants Mitchum to go to Mexico to bring back a girlfriend (Jane Greer) he says has run off with $40,000 of his money. Mitchum does as he is asked, but falls for the woman, causing grievous complications.
“There’s really not one decent person in the movie. They are all absolutely rotten,” Kovner said, smiling, citing one of the hallmarks of film noir.
“This was Robert Mitchum’s first big role after ‘The Story of G.I. Joe,’” he said of the 1945 drama that contained the actor’s first noticeable role (for which he received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod). Part of the fun of “Out of the Past” is watching Douglas and Mitchum competing as hot young actors for dominance in their scenes together.
Greer never achieved long-lasting movie stardom — she shifted to television in the 1950s — but she helped create a femme fatale mold that would later launch the careers of actresses Kathleen Turner and Sharon Stone in the neo-noir movies “Body Heat” (1981) and “Basic Instinct” (1992).
“Director Jacques Tourneur told her to play the first half as a good girl and the second half as a bad girl. She is a femme fatale, but plays her like a girl next door who shoots people. Forty-thousand dollars is still a lot of money now,” he said of the cash Greer takes from Douglas, “but in today’s dollars, it would be a half-million.”
Kovner said the key role of “The Kid,” who assists Mitchum at the gas station and, later, in his battle with the gangsters, was played by child star Dickie Moore, who would later live in Fairfield County for many years with his movie star wife Jane Powell. Moore died in Wilton in 2015 at the age of 89, one of the last actors who had appeared in silent movies.
Kovner’s said “Out of the Past” is “a perfect storm of cast and dialogue.”
The picture is packed with such juicy gems as “You’re no good and neither am I. That’s why we’re made for each other.”
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