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Out of the Past (Nov. 13, 1947)

Out of the Past
Out of the Past (1947)
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
RKO Radio Pictures

Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past is the greatest film noir ever made, but no one knew it at the time.

Robert Mitchum even said as much when he told writer Arthur Lyons, “Hell, we didn’t know what film noir was in those days. Cary Grant and all the big stars at RKO got all the lights. We lit our sets with cigarette butts.”

In 1947, French film critics and cinéastes were just beginning to use the term “film noir” (it was first used in 1946 by French film critic Nino Frank) and it would be decades before the term caught on in the United States, long after the end of the “noir cycle.”

All of this is a good thing, of course, since self-consciousness can kill art.

If filmmakers in the ’40s and ’50s had deliberately tried to make films with all the elements that the French were praising, they probably would have produced ham-fisted junk that was as unwatchable as most of the “neo-noir” that littered multiplexes in the ’90s.

On the other hand, this means that a brilliant noir like Out of the Past got lost in the shuffle at the time of its release, and was viewed as just one more “private eye” picture, or just one more “violent melodrama.” The review in the December 15, 1947, issue of Time, for instance, called it “a medium-grade thriller.” (Although they did praise Nicholas Musuraca’s beautiful cinematography.)

In his November 26, 1947, review of Out of the Past, curmudgeonly NY Times critic Bosley Crowther had a lot of good things to say about the film, and praised the dialogue and acting, but admitted that he couldn’t make heads or tails of the plot.

This is a fair criticism, since the plot of Out of the Past still confounds first-time viewers, and most second- and third-time viewers as well. Note, for instance, the number of reviews of the film that claim the story is told mostly in flashback, when the flashback portion of the story actually occupies less than a half hour of running time, and from the 40-minute mark onward, the film takes place entirely in the present.

But time has been kind to Out of the Past, and a perfect understanding of its plot isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying every gorgeously filmed minute of it, since it’s packed with everything that makes a noir a noir. Its male protagonist, Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum), is smart and tough, but ultimately helpless when faced with the seductive charms of the film’s femme fatale, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer). The film contains murders, swindles, frame-ups, crosses, double-crosses, triple-crosses, gambling, a large chunk of stolen money, a tragic ending, and some of the most seductive chiaroscuro cinematography of all time.

Greer and Mitchum

The plot can’t really be summarized in a nutshell, but I’ll try anyway.

While driving through a one-stoplight California town called Bridgeport, which is 79 miles south of Lake Tahoe, Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine) pulls into a service station owned by Jeff Markham, who’s living in Bridgeport under the name “Jeff Bailey” and trying to forget his tawdry old life by going fishing every day with a nice girl named Ann (Virginia Huston), which her boyfriend Jim (Richard Webb) isn’t too happy about.

Joe tells Jeff that Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), his old employer, wants to see him in Lake Tahoe.

So Jeff spills to Ann. His real name is Markham, not Bailey. Three years ago he lived in New York and worked with an oily gentleman named Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie). They were detectives. They got a call to see a big operator, a gambler named Whit. His girl had shot him with his own .38 and taken off with $40,000 of his money, and he wanted her back. The money, too, but mostly her.

Jeff took off on his own, leaving Fisher behind, and followed Kathie’s trail to Acapulco, Mexico. As soon as he saw her, he was hooked like a fish.

In voiceover, Jeff recalls his romance with Kathie in Acapulco.

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. Maybe we thought it was a dream and we’d wake up with a hangover in Niagara Falls. I wired Whit but I didn’t tell him.

“I’m in Acapulco,” I said. “I wish you were here.” And every night I went to meet her. How did I know she’d ever show up? I didn’t. What stopped her from taking a boat to Chile or Guatemala? Nothing. How big a chump can you get to be? I was finding out.

Kathie swore to Jeff that she didn’t take Whit’s money, to which he responded, “Baby, I don’t care,” and kissed her.

Jane Greer

Jeff and Kathie ran off together and headed for San Francisco. Things went swimmingly until he was spotted at the racetrack by his old partner Jack Fisher, who would turn him and Kathie over to Whit in a heartbeat for the payoff.

Despite Jeff’s best efforts to lose the tail, Fisher eventually tracked him and Kathie down. When Jeff and Fisher started trading blows, Kathie coldly shot Fisher, then took off.

Jeff never saw her again. He was left to bury Fisher’s body in the woods. He also found a deposit slip for $40,000 in Kathie’s purse, confirming that she’d lied to him about the money.

The rest of the film takes place in the present. Jeff meets with Whit at his palatial getaway in Lake Tahoe. Kathie has returned to Whit, and he now knows everything about Jeff’s betrayal of him.

Exacting a kind of payback, Whit forces Jeff to go to San Francisco to steal income tax records from the crooked accountant — Leonard Eels (Ken Niles) — who helped him hide his money from Uncle Sam and who’s now demanding $200,000 hush money. Jeff is supposed to get to Eels through his beautiful secretary, Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming).

But it quickly becomes clear to Jeff that he’s being set up as a patsy, and that Whit’s people are going to kill Eels and make it look as if Jeff did it.

Ann, the good girl in Jeff’s life, can’t believe that Kathie is as awful as he makes her out to be. “She can’t be all bad, no one is,” Ann says. “Well, she comes the closest,” Jeff responds.

And he’s right. Kathie is a murderer, a thief, and a liar. She’s completely and utterly faithless, but Jeff keeps falling for her. Every time she calls, he comes running. He can’t help it. He hates himself for it, but he can’t stop.

I first saw Out of the Past when I was 17, and I’ve seen it many times since then. It took me several viewings before I got a handle on exactly what was going on in the film, but I always felt that its byzantine plot was part of its appeal.

Even if you can’t figure out exactly what’s going on or who’s doing what to whom (or why), Out of the Past is still a seductive and brilliant film. It’s the Platonic ideal of a film noir.

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The Spiral Staircase (Feb. 6, 1946)

Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase was made in 1945, and released into some theaters in December. The earliest confirmed day of release I could find, however, was February 6, 1946, in New York City, so I’m reviewing it here.

Based on Ethel Lina White’s 1933 novel Some Must Watch, The Spiral Staircase is a slick, good-looking thriller with some striking visual choices. White’s novel took place in contemporary England, but the film is set in early 20th century Massachusetts. Some sources I’ve found claim it takes place circa 1916, but the silent film an audience in a movie house is watching in the first scene of the film is D.W. Griffith’s 1912 short The Sands of Dee, and one of the characters has just returned from Paris, about which he waxes rhapsodic, speaking wistfully of all the beautiful women. So it seems to me that the action of the film must take place before the First World War.

The Spiral Staircase doesn’t take long to deliver its terrifying goods. In one of the rooms above the silent movie house, we see a young woman (Myrna Dell) getting undressed. She walks with a slight limp. When the camera moves into her closet as she hangs up her dress, there is a pause, then the camera moves into the thicket of hanging clothes. They part slightly, and suddenly we see an enormous, maniacal eye fill the screen. We then see the girl reflected in the eye, her lower half blurred (why this is will be explained later).

Alfred Hitchcock used a closeup of Anthony Perkin’s eye to great effect in Psycho (1960). And one of the earliest indelible images in the history of cinema was an eyeball being slit open by a straight razor in Luis Buñuel’s short film Un chien andalou (1929). But a close shot of an eye used in the same way as a violin stab on the soundtrack, or a shadow quickly passing across the frame, to make the audience jump out of their seats, is relatively rare. I thought Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) was the first film to do this — when the killer is shockingly revealed as an eyeball peering out from between an open door and a door jamb — but apparently it wasn’t.

Among the patrons of the movie house, none of whom is questioned by the incompetent local constable (James Bell) after the murder, is a mute woman named Helen Capel (Dorothy McGuire). Her friend, the handsome young Dr. Parry (Kent Smith), gives her a ride home, and tells her that he believes her muteness can be overcome. She silently demurs, and goes home to the creepy old mansion where she is employed as a servant to the bedridden but mentally sharp Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). Also present in the house are the other domestics, Mr. and Mrs. Oates (Rhys Williams and Elsa Lanchester, who looks a lot frumpier than when she played The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935), Mrs. Warren’s two stepsons, Prof. Albert Warren (George Brent) and ne’er-do-well Steve Warren (Gordon Oliver), the professor’s pretty assistant Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), and Mrs. Warren’s crotchety old nurse (Sarah Allgood).

Once the action settles down and focuses on the Warren estate, The Spiral Staircase becomes a more predictable game of whodunnit, as well as a frustrating game of “when will she find the strength to scream for help, already?”

The film is never boring, however, due in no small part to the brilliant cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca. The Spiral Staircase is all shadows and gaslight, which — along with one of the longest thunderstorms on film — hearkens back to spooky haunted house pictures like James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932).

The Spiral Staircase is not quite a masterpiece, and it never aspires to be more than a pulse-quickening thriller, but it is exceptionally well-made entertainment.

Spellbound (Dec. 28, 1945)

Spellbound
Spellbound (1945)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
United Artists

Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound gets knocked around for its basis in Freudian theory. Many reviews of the film written in the past 20 years use words like “dated,” “implausible,” and “preposterous.” A lot of these same reviews also praise the dream sequence, which was designed by Salvador Dalí, as the most memorable part of the film.

Freud has been knocked around, criticized, and discredited since the turn of the century, so to dismiss a film’s plot and ideas merely because they are “Freudian” seems like picking low-hanging fruit. Granted, Freud had a lot of wild ideas, but he was a brilliant thinker, and should be viewed as a philosopher and a humanist as much as a doctor or scientist. Also, many people who dismiss Freud out of hand haven’t actually read any of his writing, and cannot discuss his ideas beyond the fact that they’ve heard that they’re loony.

Upon revisiting the film, I found the much-praised dream sequence by Dalí overly gimmicky, adding little to the narrative beyond a “gee whiz” moment. (Hitchcock had almost nothing to do with its production. Dalí worked with a production unit from the Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures on the sequence.) There’s nothing wrong with “gee whiz” moments, but Spellbound is an underappreciated film in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, and it bears rewatching as a complete work of art, not just as a showcase for pop surrealism or “dated” notions of neuroses and the unconscious.

In 1942, after winning back-to-back Academy Awards for best picture (then called “outstanding production”) for Victor Fleming’s Gone With the Wind (1939) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), producer David O. Selznick was morose. He took time off and sought treatment. His experience with the “talking cure” was so positive that he decided to produce a picture with psychoanalysis as its subject. In 1943, Hitchcock mentioned to Selznick that he owned the screen rights to the 1927 novel The House of Dr. Edwardes, written by Hilary St. George Saunders and John Palmer under the pseudonym “Francis Beeding.” The Gothic potboiler was about a homicidal lunatic who kidnaps a doctor named Murchison and impersonates him, taking over his position as head of a mental institution. A female doctor named Constance Sedgwick uncovers the impostor’s ruse and eventually marries the real Dr. Murchison.

In early 1944, Hitchcock and his friend Angus MacPhail crafted a preliminary screenplay in which Dr. Murchison was the outgoing head of the institution and Dr. Edwardes was his successor. They also created a romance between Constance and Dr. Edwardes, as well as the downhill skiing set piece that cures Edwardes of his amnesia. In March 1944, Selznick offered Hitchcock the talents of Ben Hecht, and Hitchcock and Hecht worked together for months to refine the screenplay. They even visited mental institutions, and preliminary versions of Spellbound featured more semi-documentary material than the final product does.

The final product may be, as Hitchcock told François Truffaut, “just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis.” But with Hitchcock behind the camera, even the most pedestrian manhunt story can become something dazzling. Hitchcock considered Spellbound one of his minor works, but part of his underestimation of the picture could have been due to all the clashes he had with Selznick, who was known for meddling with his productions. Selznick even hired his own therapist, Dr. May E. Romm, as a technical advisor for the film. There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, that when Dr. Romm told Hitchcock that an aspect of psychoanalysis in Spellbound was presented inaccurately, Hitchcock responded, “It’s only a movie.”

In Spellbound, Ingrid Bergman plays Dr. Constance Petersen, a psychoanalyst at Green Manors, a Vermont mental hospital. Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), the director of Green Manors, is being forced into retirement shortly after returning to work following a nervous breakdown. His replacement is the young, handsome Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck). “My age hasn’t caught up with me,” Dr. Edwardes responds when someone mentions how young he appears. But this isn’t the case, of course. He is actually an amnesiac who has no idea who he is or how he arrived at Green Manors. His state of confusion is such that he initially believed he was Dr. Edwardes, and is now playing the role because he doesn’t know what else to do. Dr. Petersen uncovers the truth, but she has already fallen instantly, madly in love with him. When the rest of the world learns the truth about Dr. Edwardes, he flees Green Manors. He still has amnesia, but he knows that his real initials are “J.B.” He heads for New York, and tells Dr. Petersen not to follow him. Does she follow his advice? Of course she doesn’t.

The romance is a high point of the film. The presentation of Dr. Petersen’s initial “frigidity” is certainly dated, but it leads to one of Hitchcock’s wildest sequences. When Bergman first kisses Peck, a shot of her forehead dissolves into a shot of a door. The door opens, revealing another door, which also opens, revealing another door, and so on.

Bergman’s performance is pitch perfect in every scene. Peck’s performance is less natural, but it works, since he is playing a man who literally doesn’t know who he is. (Apparently Peck craved more direction from Hitchcock, but Hitchcock just kept telling him things like “drain your face of all emotion.” Hitchcock had little patience for method acting.) Also, you would be hard-pressed to find two actors in 1945 who were more physically attractive than Bergman or Peck.

The cinematography by George Barnes is another high point. Each shot in Spellbound is beautifully constructed, and gives off a silvery glow. There are a number of choices that are still shocking, such as a flashback to an accidental death, or the penultimate sequence in the film, in which a P.O.V. shot shows a revolver being turned directly on the audience. When the trigger is pulled, there is a splash of red, the only instance of color in the film. It’s an assault on the audience par excellence from a man who spent his entire career assaulting his audience while almost never alienating them, which is not an easy thing to do.

Miklós Rózsa’s score for the film incorporates a haunting theremin melody, as did his score for The Lost Weekend, released around the same time. Rózsa won an Academy Award for best score for his work on Spellbound. Hitchcock was disappointed in the music, however, since it emphasized the romantic aspects of the film, and was more to Selznick’s liking than his own.

Sometimes creative dissonance leads to great creations, however. Spellbound is a great movie, whether or not its producer and director ever saw eye to eye.