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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.

Review: “Out of the Past” (1947)

The men of film noir never can resist doe eyes and a pair of getaway sticks. It’s an unspoken rule that the more mysterious or dangerous a woman is, the more pull she has over the leading man, even if he won’t admit he’s hooked. Former private detective Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum) is no exception. Years gone from the business, he’s carved out an unremarkable existence in nowhere California. He thinks he has moved on. Then his past comes sniffing around, and Jeff realizes everyone, no matter how skilled at hiding, leaves a trail.

This inevitability may be the thing that captivates noir junkies more than the cinematography (Nicholas Musuraca’s is marvelous in “Out of the Past”) or the music (the film’s score, created by Roy Webb, is both foreboding and romantic) or the aforementioned getaway sticks (Jane Greer has a fetching set for sure). There’s something strangely comforting about seeing the plight of an antihero, a good soul for all his cynicism and one-liners and walled-off emotions. Jeff has seen the worst in people, has every reason to become a villain himself, and he doesn’t. He wants happiness, a quiet life, a chance to start over. He wants to be a new man, and still he’s down in the gutter with the rest of us; for that, he commands sympathy. While Mitchum plays this hard case as more glib than most, the flip comments are anything but. Jeff Markham is damaged goods.

Now the owner of a small gas station in Bridgeport, Jeff has settled into his new life. Still, there’s a reluctance about him. Even relaxing lakeside with Ann (Virginia Huston), the local girl he plans to marry, he holds back part of himself. Mitchum communicates this through half-lidded eyes, pocketed hands. His employs cigarettes as shields and weapons alternately. Jeff has learned to be very good at this so he can make people believe what they see is what they get. However, he can’t con Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine), who shows up in Bridgeport to relay a message: Jeff’s last client, well-to-do gambler Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), wants a meeting with him. Accepting his past has found him, Jeff decides not to run; instead, he’ll come clean to Ann about his history. Through flashbacks (a noir staple), Ann learns Jeff purposely botched his job — finding Whit’s dame Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who shot him and ran off with $40,000 — after he fell in love with her. Jeff and Kathie’s story doesn’t end there, and as “Out of the Past” spirals toward a violent, almost poetic conclusion the webs of deceit get stickier and more knotted.

No more needs to be said of where “Out of the Past” goes or how it gets there; in truth, it may not be possible to say more — by the end, even the most astute viewers need a flow chart to keep up with the rotten tricks in the screenplay (adapted from Daniel Mainwaring’s novel). The film employs the sort of snappy dialogue that makes entries in this genre such a treat. Line for line, “Out of the Past” nearly stacks up to “The Maltese Falcon,” no little job considering Bogart’s skill for slinging wisecracks like flapjacks. Mitchum, however, has a slightly different way of delivery: he dials down the bite, leans hard on the sardonic weariness. He knows he’s in for it when Kathie tells him she’s only person left to make deals with: “Build my gallows high, baby.” That’s acceptance tinged with humor, regret and passion. This is where the incessant smoking comes in handy. It acts as a shield — Whit and Jeff use their cigarettes like dueling pistols — and tool for connection. The smoke, shot almost tenderly by Musuraca, which Jeff uses as a barrier, also tells us more about him than he’d want us to know. It tells us he’s hiding himself, and the cracks are starting to show.

In the end, it’s Douglas, menacing as the put-upon lover, gets to the cold point of the film: “My feelings? About 10 years ago, I hid them somewhere and haven’t been able to find them.” Life for Jeff would be so much easier if he could say the same.

Grade: A

10 dastardly movie villains

Little Bill Daggett: a villain unlike any other.

Little Bill Daggett: a villain unlike any other.

I’m a villain girl.

Yes, I know the history of cinema is filled with do-gooder types who rob from the rich, give to the poor, cuff up the bad guys and try, in their kind-hearted ways, to rid the world of wrongdoing. I even know that these men and women usually end up celebrating with pints while the other guys rot in prison cells or asylums or push up daisies. These characters, the good guys with honorable intentions and clean consciences, they have their shining moments.

But the villains? Well, the villains are way more interesting.

Twisty and edgy and scary, they do it for me. Always have. To be fair, though, who doesn’t love a great villain? There’s something about the vicarious thrill of watching the bad eggs do all the things we don’t have the guts to do. And the really crazy ones — the Norman Bates types, the killers and the maniacs — they fascinate us too. The dark side of human nature, the cobweb-covered hidden parts of the psyche, draw us in. 

So how’s about I initiate a little celebration of villainy (the good guys get enough press, if you ask me) with this list of 10 awesomely mean-spirited, wily and just plain evil villains:

1. Little Bill Daggett, “Unforgiven” — “You have never hated anyone in your entire life as much as you hate Gene Hackman in this movie” insists my friend Jason the Comedian, and damn if he isn’t right. There’s no villain more hateful than the amoral, swaggering, ruthless Little Bill Daggett in Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” He is the human embodiment of villainy, evil incarnate, and he eyes everyone he meets the way a lioness sizes up a limping gazelle. Emotions don’t concern him; people mean nothing; murder merits not a second thought. Bill’s stunning lack of humanity solidifies his spot as the meanest bad guy of all-time.

Col. Landa speaks softly, but he carries a big pipe.

Col. Landa speaks softly, but he carries a big pipe.

2. Colonel Hans Landa, “Inglourious Basterds” — In the process of writing, directing and producing one of the best films of 2009, that brainy sicko genius Quentin Tarantino created Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a smooth-talking Jew hunter possessed of probing intellect, unbelievable cunning and lacerating wit. This wily chap, who treats everything as a social experiment, takes such pure delight in seeking out and devouring weakness it’s impossible not to laugh along with him. Just don’t lie to him. Ever.

3. Max Cady, “Cape Fear” — What makes Max Cady (Robert Mitchum in ’62, DeNiro in ’91) such an iconic villain is his pure, unyielding relentlessness. Single-minded to the point of murder, he refuses to stop his mission to rain down a vengeance storm upon the lawyer who put him in prison. His determination — which leads to a most unsettling, nightmare-inducing car trip — makes him practically invincible. And everyone knows that there’s nothing scarier than evil you just can’t kill.

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Disrespect Chigurh's bob at your own peril...

4. Anton Chigurh, “No Country for Old Men” — Before the Coen brothers’ eerily calm, otherworldly assassin Anton Chigurh strolled into our lives, we never had any reason to fear cattle guns, Buster Brown coiffures or coin tosses. Now we can’t pick stray pennies off the ground without shuddering. Writer Cormac McCarthy created this iconic figurehead of evil, but Javier Bardem brings him to wicked, freaky life in Oscar-worthy ways. Chigurh’s the kind of baddie you won’t soon forget.

5. The Joker (Heath Ledger), “The Dark Knight” — If it’s true there’s nothing scarier than a bad guy who refuses to die, it’s also true that nothing inspires a mean case of the wiggins like a villain who has no logical reason for anything he does. In his role as The Joker, the late Ledger went to dank, unsavory depths to create a character so raving mad he lights mountainous heaps of cash on fire and drives pencils in the craniums of hardened goodfellas. The Joker’s beyond reason, and that makes him one seriously terrifying mischief-maker.

6. Annie Wilkes, “Misery” — For some reason, the really frightening movie villains always seem to be male, or non-human, or both. Not so with Kathy Bates’ startling turn as disturbed psycho fan Annie, a character so creepy she probably lurks in the mind of every writer who hits the NY Times best-seller list. Bates makes us feel (figuratively and literally) the hammer blows of Annie’s rage. Then, in a flash, she turns sweet, accomodating and gentle … and that’s when the real chills come calling.

7. Keyser Soze, “The Usual Suspects” — Something tells me Bryan Singer had no idea the mysterious bad guy who wielded immeasurable power in 1995’s film noir hit would become such a pop-culture icon. After all, how can we fear a villain who has no face? It has everything to do with the “things you don’t see are scarier than the things you do” principle. The fact we don’t see him only heightens the anxiety. There’s not much more horrifying than a bad guy who’s everywhere and nowhere all at once. 

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When Hopkins is done with you, you'll never drink Chianti again.

8. Dr. Hannibal Lecter, “The Silence of the Lambs” — No list of iconic evildoers would be complete without the name “Hannibal Lecter” on it, but that’s not why he merits inclusion. Lecter’s scare power, as played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, comes from his uncanny ability to read people’s darkest secrets and use them to get exactly what he wants (there’s a bit of Lecter in Col. Landa, it seems). That he’s also a cannibalistic serial killer is almost beside the point — he rips into human frailty like a plate of fava beans. How tasty and terrifying.

9. Casanova Frankenstein, “Mystery Men” — Sometimes villains don’t have to be scary to make a big impression on us. Nobody knows that better than Geoffrey Rush, who makes being bad look so effortlessly cool as Casanova Frankenstein, the glib, supersmart supervillain (he invented a cholorform-deploying portable enticement snare!) out for the blood of the dim Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear). He’s witty, charming and deliciously mean-spirited. Who needs murder and mayhem, again?

10. Joan Crawford, “Mommie Dearest” — Moms, according to our collective human consciousness, are supposed to be kind, warm and comforting. So when a movie mom goes off the grid — in the all-noble way Faye Dunaway does in “Mommie Dearest” — it’s the stuff of paralyzing night terrors. Also, there’s a very good reason wire hangers have fallen out of fashion. Watch this movie if you’re screaming to know why.

Honorable mentions: Loren Visser (“Blood Simple”); Norman Bates (“Psycho”); Lester Long (“Clay Pigeons”); Commodus (“Gladiator”)