Out of the Past

Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past (dir. Jacques Tourneur, 1947).

Every once in a while I see comments to the effect that Jacques Tourneur had no distinctive directorial style of his own, that his talent lay in adapting to the needs of the material at hand. I don't understand this. For me, Tourneur's handprint is impossible to miss: the sense of shroudedness and immersion in languor, of a world slipping just into or out of a poisonous amnesia. Certainly this quality is most pronounced in the wonderful horror films he did for Val Lewton--Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man--but it's evident as well in his dreamlike Oregon western Canyon Passage, and most definitely in Out of the Past, which many place at the top of their greatest noir list. It's near the top of mine, at any rate, though it almost jumps categories into Casablanca-style romantic melodrama. From another perspective, however, one could as easily argue that Casablanca is an imperfect noir: that precisely what it lacks is noir's impassive dispensation of fatalistic wit, of sympathetic but merciless irony. Tourneur takes these elements and filters them through a layer of elegaic gauze, occasionally letting jarringly realistic stripes of daylight burst through rips in the fabric. There is also a sense in his films that atmospheric incidentals carry more weight than they have any right to: lush mountainous terrain, eerie beachscapes, the momentary gothic strangeness of an iron gate. If this is formalist excess, it's driving me wild.

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