(Preamble: I thought it might be nice - as a newcomer to this podcast and Noir - to look over the earlier pod casts in this series. No doubt if you have just discovered this series you will be going through the back catalogue from the beginning to get a grounding in Noir, so I thought I would create a chance for anyone to go over the earlier episodes...)
Out of the Past
Clute and Edward's pod cast analysis of the opening scenes stresses the use of uncharacteristic conventions - the very brightly light country scenes - that seem to contradict the Noir model. With my novice ideas of what Noir was I did ask myself 'is this Noir'?
"Without contrast light shines in darkness, but does not register on consciousness." JJ Dewey
The pod cast's attension to this very obvious dichotomy highlighted my ignorant preconception that Noir was all about brooding city nights and rain coated gumshoes lighting cigarettes under street lights. It is a clever play by the director and is perhaps one of the primary effects that lifts this film from the norm.
I found it interesting that the pod cast - when describing these early uncharacteristically light and pastoral scenes – thought that this opening was 'dreamy' or invocative of dreams, because it struck me that in a way Bailey was living the dream. I do slightly disagree with the podcast's interpretation that Bailey's romance with Ann was the 'real thing' and his dalliance with Kathie was somehow a passing whim and so a fantasy...
I actually think that the character of Bailey understood that his seedy relationship and past was the reality and his attempt to break with this past and live the dream was the real fantasy, one living on borrowed time.
Continuing on this theme of light and dark it was interesting that they chose a blonde to represent the 'wholesome' aspect of Bailey's life while his dark past was represented by a brunette. The fact that Ann was an obvious stereotype of the ‘girl next door’ ideal is perhaps another hint that Bailey was simply indulging a castle in the air.
- In a way Out of the Past had echoes of Alice through the Looking Glass, where Alice remarks how the alternative reality of the mirror somehow looked more 'real' that did her perceived reality. Likewise, we – teh audience – are led to believe that Bailey’s life with Ann is the reality and that his past was just dream, but actually both Bailey and the audience come to the realisation that the opposite is the truth – and this is, I think, very Noir (that in reality we daydream to get away from the sordid lives we lead).
Bailey is trying so hard to make the dream work, but is being inextricably pulled back to the reality that the dark world of Kathie is his reality. But – and again I slightly disagree with the pod cast – I do not entirely think that the Bailey character was trapped by his past.
The key moment which is highlighted in the pod cast analysis is when Bailey and Kathie come clean with each other during the moonlit beach sequence – here the metaphors, such as the back drop of the fishing net – do give the impression of a trap, both in terms of the seduction by Kathy and the acquiescence of Bailey. The catalyst of this change is Bailey’s response to Kathie’s plea ‘Don’t you believe me?’, when he says ‘Baby, I don’t care’.
Now – the pod cast points to this statement as Bailey giving in and surrendering to Kathie – and so the trap is closed – but I read this in a slightly different and even darker way. I truly believe that Bailey meant what he said – he didn’t care, thereby casting a slightly darker interpretation of his character than we might expect.
Thus far the indication or implications are that Jeff Bailey is a good man trying to do good who is trapped into a web of deceit by the spider that is Kathie Moffet (Little Miss Muffet – get it?). But what if Jeff really didn’t care, he is actually less trapped than just giving in to his nature – he is actually a bad man, and he knows it. (This dichotomy is revisited in the ‘did he didn’t he’ ending. I will say no more as I don’t want to spoil the climax.)
I have one final observation in this vein of duality – or rather the ‘other side of the same coin’ theme. It is interesting to watch the character of the henchman – Joe Stephanos - as in many ways he could be the other side of the coin that is Bailey.
From the beginning we are moved to believe that Joe is a ‘bad man’ (his throwing the match at ‘The Kid’ establishes this concept), but rather in the same way that the opening impressions are shown to be a ruse the character of Joe morphs into someone that isn’t quite the mindless thug you think he is.
For a start there is little arrogance about him, he concedes that Jeff is a smarter man and in a later scene he acknowledges that in going up against Jeff he fears he would come out worse. But Joe might be seen to be what Jeff might have become had he shown less stubbornness.
Joe is quite a dandy compared to the dishevelled Jeff, but whereas – at least in my interpretation – Jeff could be read as a bad man playing at being a good man that eventually relents to his nature, Joe could possibly be a good guy who is playing at being a bad guy and is as equally bad at being a bad guy as Jeff is at being a good one!
Overall I think Out of the Past was a superb way to start my interest in Noir cinema. It certainly has a lot to make you think and rises head and shoulders above the heritage of pulp fiction. Michum is fantastic and well cast – I certainly couldn’t conceive Ladd or Bogart as being really bad, but Michum is just edgy enough to plant the seeds of doubt in your mind.
Jane Greer is delicious as the femme fatale! But her attraction for men is that of the moth to the flame and she is clearly more desirable to any red blooded male than the pallid ideal of the Ann character.
Kirk Douglas is well placed – and a sort of joker in the pack. His wit (if you will forgive the play on names but it isn’t my play) underscores his menace, but he successfully underplays his place as the ‘bad guy’ in deference to the real ‘baddy’ in this movie, which is Kathie Moffet.
And finally, talking about plays on names, it will not escape you that the lawyer in the movie is called Eels – but it is a clever play as we instantly expect someone who is ‘slippery’, but who in fact turns out – as even Jeff concedes – to be a good guy.
The writers and director certainly keeps us on our toes!
"There are two kinds of light - the glow that illumines, and the glare that obscures." ~James Thurber
I hope nobody minds my ramblings!