Out of the Past a Masterful Film Noir




Out of the Past (1947)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur

RKO Radio Pictures, 97 minutes, Not-rated



It's not exactly classified information that I’m a film noir fan. Somehow, though, I managed to overlook Out of the Past. Having now seen it, I wonder how it escaped previous notice. It's not merely good; it's one of the best film noir classics ever made–providing you let you let yourself roll with 1940s gender assumptions.


We come in on a small gas station in Bridgeport, California, a real hamlet south of Lake Tahoe near the Nevada border. Joe Stefanos (Paul Valentine) stops and asks if owner Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is around. He doesn't get much information from the attendant (Dickie Moore) for the simple reason that he is suspicious, plus he’s deaf and mute. Jeff is actually fishing in a Sierra Nevada-fed river with his new squeeze Ann Miller (Virginia Houston). Her folks don't trust Jeff, but she's crazy about him, though he's a guy who doesn't say much about his past.


That past is about to catch up with him. When Stefanos finally locates Jeff he delivers the message that Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) wants to see him immediately. On the way to Whit’s spectacular cliff compound, Jeff spills the beans to Ann about his pre-Bridgeport life. Given that we are watching film noir, you know there a woman was involved. And how!


We learn that several years earlier Whit hired Jeff, whose real surname is Markham, to locate his girlfriend. Jeff is a private detective in partnership with another gumshoe named Jack Fisher (Steve Brody), but this time Jeff is going solo. Whit, a wealthy gambler–read a crooked one­–wants Jeff to locate Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer).


Jeff finds her in Acapulco and understands immediately why Whit wants her back even though she shot him four times and absconded with $40,000 of his money. Jeff violates rule number one of the private detective business, which is don’t fall for the dame you’re hired to find! Of course, it’s almost de rigueur he will in such films. Kathie is a va-va-voom knockout with a sob story that Jeff swallows like a hungry brook trout. Can you say femme fatale? Better say it twice as Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming), the secretary for corrupt lawyer Leonard Eels (Ken Niles), spins yarns of woe and entrapment just as well as Kathie.


Out of the Past takes convoluted twists involving tax fraud, murder, an affidavit, and a veritable Russian roulette of who's playing whom. Can a hard broiled ex-P.I. redeem himself in a small town and in the arms of a wholesome lass that's everything Kathie isn't? I will reveal only that this well-scripted screenplay came from Daniel Mainwaring. He uses stock characters but builds a plot filled with surprises that make it much more than a schmaltzy vamp versus good girl saga. At one point there's an unusual line uttered by Jeff. Rather than saying he's caught between a rock and a hard place, he says, “Build my gallows high.” That's a wink and a nod to Mainwaring whose book of that title was adapted for Out of the Past.


The film is very well acted. The blocky Mitchum spends a lot of time filling out a trench coat that could have been rented from central casting. We see Mitchum hatted, wearing his belted calf-length coat, and through a haze of cigarette smoke that suggests he’s not telling us everything. Kirk Douglas is so oily we expect droplets to cascade from his dimple. Jane Greer and Rhonda Fleming wear exactly what you'd expect sexy glam gals to wear, whereas Virginia Huston is more the plaid shirt and overalls type. But don't get hung up on externals as each delivers compelling performances, even though Huston’s part is a bit underwritten.


Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca masters darkness, as one would expect in a noir film, but check out what he does with backlighting. This is especially the case of Greer as she floats in and out of dark Mexican bars and of Mitchum, who is often filmed from behind with his trench coat absorbing ambient light.


Post when you've seen it. I'd like to know what you think of the ending.


Rob Weir


Cleo from 5 to 7 Dated, but Has Virtues



Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

Directed by Agnès Varda

Athos Films, 90 minutes, Not-rated

In French with subtitles, Black and white



In its day, this Agnès Varda film was considered so pathbreaking that it was considered one of the greatest films ever made by a female director. Key phrase: in its day. It hasn’t weathered very well in all regards, though it still has its virtues.


This was Varda’s first full-length film and established her cred with the French New Wave movement. Like others of that genre it broke with traditional narratives, interjected social issues, and dealt more with the inner lives of its subjects. Cléo from 5 to 7 has the additional break from “movies” in that it is cinéma vérité, meaning in this case that it has the feel of a documentary. This is understandable as Varda had previously been a photojournalist.


The title has nothing to do with a young girl. The film looks at two hours in the life of Cléo Victoire (Corrine Marchand). She is a famous pop singer who keeps a boudoir to which men flock as if she were a high-class madam. Cléo is suffering from ennui for reasons her lover and hangers-on cannot cure. First of all, there is a possibility that she has stomach cancer–an eventuality made all-too-conceivable by a visit to a tarot card reader in which her cards pop up in succession as The Hangman and Death. Second, she is tired of being a commodity and has come to doubt her own identity. When she changes from her lounge clothing, takes off her wig, and scrubs her face a fresh-looking and beautiful young woman emerges, yet when she goes into a café and plays her own record on the juke box, no one recognizes her.


Cléo cannot deal with the very idea of having cancer. She seeks out her friend Dorothée, a nude model at an art studio, who tries to divert Cléo by driving through Paris–she’s a new driver, so that’s a thrill in itself–and by taking her to see a silly silent movie, one in which of all people, Jean-Luc Godard appears. Her friend tells her that all will be well, but Cléo sinks further into her anxieties and vows to kill herself if she has cancer.


A funny thing happens on the way to the clinic to get her test results. She wanders into a park and encounters a young man named Antoine who has no idea who she is and doesn’t care. He is on leave from the Algerian War, a very traumatic event in French history that collapsed the French Fourth Republic and led to Algerian independence the year Cléo from 5 to 7 came out. The irony of this would not have been lost on French viewers of the day, nor would the 30,000 French war dead be far from anyone’s mind. (Algerian casualties were approximately 10 times higher.)


In essence, both Cléo and Antoine have a profound sense they might be living on borrowed time. She has worked herself into a frenzy over the idea, but he is stoic and determined to enjoy the short time before he must report back to duty. Varda’s film takes on a sheen of a one-hour affair, but an intellectual and emotional one, not a sexual tryst. Amazingly, there is something very sensual about a joyful streetcar ride and walking together across the hospital grounds.


 Cléo from 5 to 7 is a mannered film, not an action movie. Varda would have dismissed the very thought of making the latter as banal. The more one ponders the film, the more it becomes subtly profound. It’s a macabre game we’ve all probably played at some point in our lives. If you knew you had two hours before a death sentence was announced, how would you spend them? Varda gives it a more profound twist in that neither principal knows if the Hangman is coming.


It must be said that today’s viewers will have trouble relating to 1962 gender dynamics. All I can say to that is different time/different values. But kudos to a bit of Varda sneakiness. She employs a documentary approach to Cléo’s two hours in a tidy 90 minutes!


Rob Weir


Are You Ready to Travel to... Medieval England?



How to Survive in Medieval England (2021)

By Toni Mount

Pen & Swords Books, 144 pages + end matter



I first encountered Toni Mount via an Ashland Public Library online talk. I enjoyed it so much that I read her book How to Survive in Medieval England. Dr. Who fans know about his TARDIS phone booth/time machine. What if we had such a device and could travel back to medieval England? What would we need to know to survive? Where would we live? What would we wear? What would we eat? What other small things do we need to know lest we get in serious trouble? The TARDIS is a hokey hook, but it works because Mount has such fascinating tidbits to impart.


First of all, brush up on Middle English and local dialects. If you are learned or of noble blood (both of which are unlikely) you’ll need Latin and maybe some Old French. Learn the proper terms for things. Ask for the “bill  (of fayre) when you arrive and the “reckoning” to pay. Have the proper money—silver pence and marks mostly–because modern money is no good there and for sure your credit isn’t either. Make sure you are dressed properly for a person of your station. Do not wear blue or purple unless you can prove your elite status or are ready to relinquish liberty or life. Wear a proper cap and be prepared to doff it, lower your eyes, and bend you knees early and often. If you’re not sure if you must, do it anyhow; you can’t be too careful. Don’t expect friendly locals to help you; they are suspicious of all strangers and you will surely be considered as such. Do not say, “I swear...” as you are in danger of being blasphemous.


You will be expected to be a good Christian; there is no such thing as opting out of religion. Assuming you are accepted into a community you can rest assured you will be noticed if you skip services. You will probably be poor so be prepared to live in a one-room hovel with an open fire and a hole in the roof through which some of the smoke escapes. You will sleep on a sack stuffed with something soft if you’re lucky, but it will probably be husks. You will share your hovel with various insects and, in cold weather, livestock. That’s not too bad, as their dung will help fertilize your garden. Know your plants; some will help toothaches and cuts; some will poison you. 


Keep up with fashion, as it changes. Ladies will be surprised to find that, in addition to outward layers, you will also wear bras and panties. You need layers by the way, because the only garments you will wash with regularity are those worn closest to the skin. Lots of women wear aprons to protect clothing from pills, dirt, and splashes. You will wash your hands, face, and neck regularly but you will stink. You’ll get used to it because everyone else, including nobles, are rank as well.


Have you worked up an appetite? Bread and ale will be your staples. Your bread will certainly be burnt on the bottom, but you’ll eat it. Only the “upper crust” get unburnt bread. You will likely take your turn brewing ale for the village, as it only lasts for a fortnight. It will be weak. That’s a good thing as you’ll drink a lot of it; water is untreated and can make your sick. You will also consume a lot of pottage, basically a grain gruel with some salt and whatever vegetables and pulses you can throw in. You’d be surprised at how yummy properly done stinging nettles can be. You’ll probably keep a pig for some protein and perhaps get some rabbits, fowl, and fish. Be sure they’re not from some lord’s land or you won’t need to worry about your diet. Use everything, including the blood from your pig. And, no, there’s no place to plug in your microwave or digital devices.


Get the picture? Mount’s book is both informative and cheekily written, which makes it a joy to read. I could have done without her over-the-top faux interviews, but this is a rare book that will educate you without making you aware your mind is being filled. Plus, you can always jump into your TARDIS and come home.


Rob Weir