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Groovers and Mobsters Present: Detective Noir

(Groovers and Mobsters Present, a column tackling the best each genre has to offer, is back! This time a number of bloggers — including this one — have made our picks for the best of detective noir. To read the entire list, visit this post on the Movie Mobsters’ website, or click the graphic above.)

“Out of the Past” (1947)

“Build my gallows high, baby.”
~~Jeff Bailey

Wherever there lurks a femme fatale with a hidden agenda and a dynamite pair of getaway sticks, a cynical gumshoe is never far behind. Think of it as The Law of Detective Noir; one cannot exist without the other. They feed each other – the femme fatale delights in escaping, and the detective cannot resist the chase. Somewhere in the chase, genuine emotions get involved. And emotions, in detective noir, are the great undoing. They have a way of making sure the past doesn’t stay where it should.

In “Out of the Past,” private eye Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) sees this coming. “How big a chump can you get to be?” he muses, finding himself besotted with Kathie (Jane Greer), the woman he was hired to find. “I was finding out.” Jeff purposely botched the job, hoodwinked his client Whit (Kirk Douglas), Kathie’s spurned ex-lover, and fell hard for the doe-eyed dame. But that’s not where Jacques Tourneur’s film begins. Actually, it’s the dirty past that blindsides Jeff, now the unassuming owner of a small Bridgeport gas station who’s engaged to a pretty local girl (Virginia Huston) completely unaware of his history. This intermingling, and then brutal collision, of past and present – told in flashbacks narrated laconically by Mitchum – marks “Out of the Past” as one of the standouts of detective noir.

There is more to “Out of the Past” than flashbacks and wisecracks, though. Noir doesn’t come more classic than Tourneur’s iconic film, which boasts shadowy cinematography that’s by turns romantic and sinister, revealing and furtive. There’s a protagonist who is not at all what he seems, who is deeply conflicted and frozen, who can’t go back but can’t quite move forward, either. There’s a woman of many faces, all of them bewitching. Most important, there’s a pervading sense of resignation, the ultimate acceptance of fate’s cruel inevitability. Jeff, in the end, accepts that his past has decided his future. But his decision to go down doing what’s right is something of an inspiration. For that’s what the best detective noir does: shows us that even if our fate is sealed, that does not mean we cannot rage against it.

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