Classic film noir (the black-and-white kind) has been inexcusably slow to make its way onto DVD, but a whole freshet of noir titles was released the other day, the greatest of which is Out of the Past. Most buffs regard this 1947 Jacques Tourneur picture as the quintessential film noir, and it definitely has all the expected accoutrements: Robert Mitchum as a hapless anti-hero dragged out of his nine-to-five life by the hand of fate, Jane Greer as the most fatale of all possible femmes, a Daniel Mainwaring script full of convincingly counterfeited Chandlerisms, malevolently dark cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca, an age-of-anxiety score by Roy Webb…what’s not to like? As for Tourneur’s direction, it’s full of atmosphere and self-effacing ingenuity from the opening credits onward. With the possible exception of Canyon Passage, he never made a better film.
Takers of the TCCI will recall that I preferred Out of the Past to Double Indemnity, though not by much. Even if you beg to differ, I can’t imagine failing to find it on the top-five classic noir list of any serious moviegoer, along with In a Lonely Place, Detour, and either Gun Crazy (also newly reissued), Scarlet Street (whose current DVD version was ineptly transferred from a bad print), or Touch of Evil (which is less a film noir than a commentary on the genre, though marvelously overripe and excellent of its kind). Some other favorites of mine are The Big Combo, Raw Deal, Pickup on South Street, The Narrow Margin, On Dangerous Ground, Night and the City, and Pitfall, the last four of which have yet to make it to DVD, though you can often find used VHS copies if you look hard enough.
If Out of the Past tops the list, it’s because Tourneur and his collaborators struck just the right balance between action and fatalism, a combination nicely caught in this crisp exchange between Mitchum and Greer. They’re ostensibly talking about roulette, but of course they mean something completely different:
“That’s not the way to win.”
“Is there a way to win?”
“There’s a way to lose more slowly.”
The DVD is nothing fancy, a clean, well-lighted print and not much else–no trailer, for instance, and James Ursini’s commentary sounds too off-the-cuff to suit me. Still, it’ll do. Film noir, I’m told, is a largely masculine taste, though I had no difficulty in hooking Our Girl (one look at In a Lonely Place and she was a goner). I once called it “the porn of pessimists,” and certainly some folks just aren’t on its bleak wavelength. But if you’re even slightly convertible, Out of the Past will get you there with bullets to spare.