Milestone Movies: Out of the Past (1947) and Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

The past may be a far country, but we still live in it

by Gordon Campbell

Small budget mainstream movies used to be Hollywood’s programming bread and butter – but these days, they’re a species that’s all but extinct. Too bad. Hundreds of such films used to be churned out each year by the studio machines, and some of them almost accidentally turned out to be masterpieces.

Out of the Past is a good example. One of the greatest of film noirs, it was put together in a few weeks, ended up with Robert Mitchum as its leading man almost by chance, and got pushed out into the market with no expectations…and yet, it is still a thing of wonder. If you want to make a case that modern audiences have been dumbed down, this film is pretty good evidence for the prosecution. Somehow, the ordinary popcorn audience of the late 1940s was expected to digest a film set up by a 30 minute flashback told by a fatally passive hero Jeff (Mitchum) to his incredibly nice fiancé Ann (Virginia Huston) which mainly goes to illustrate just how much of a sucker he will always, always be for bad girl Kathie, unforgettably played by the very beautiful Jane Greer. The flashback itself contains flashbacks, there’s an extra femme fatale ( Rhonda Fleming) who is lovely to look at but rather cold around the heart and a series of convoluted revenge plots, one of which involves a double cross and then a double double cross over a stolen file of tax returns – and as an aside, there’s probably the only death by fishing rod in the entire history of cinema. All done and dusted inside 97 minutes.

Out of the Past is an apt title, too. Almost every single character is being driven by indelible back stories, and by memories they can’t shake. Even the opening shots prove not to be a beginning, but the end of a search that had begun well beforehand. It transpires that big time gambler Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas in one of his rare, understated performances) had hired Jeff Markham (Mitchum) to find his former girlfriend (Greer) who shot him and stole $40,000. Mitchum not only finds her down in old Mexico but falls in love with her and double crosses Whit and…after that, things get complicated and the bodies begin to pile up. Out of the Past is not like The Big Sleep (which simply doesn’t make sense) but it does require you to concentrate. Fortunately, it is also beautiful to look at : fittingly for a film about memory and desire and bad karma, it makes fantastic, dream-like use of light and shadows. All credit to cinematographer Nicholas Musaraca.

Take the early idyllic scene for instance, that I’ve linked to below, with its leaping shadows, from a scene just before things go off the rails. While the sequence is not sexually explicit (this is 1947 after all) it still conveys the essentials – as Greer and Mitchum clinch and fall out of frame, the storm outside blows the door open. Too bad for the lovers, it will also blow in an associate from Mitchum’s past who wrecks their idyll, with a little assistance from Kathie. Not that Paradise ever had much of a chance in this story. At the conclusion, the only innocent character in the entire film manages to keep her chances for happiness alive, but only thanks to a lie told by a deaf mute.


The script for Out of the Past was by Daniel Mainwaring, who hewed pretty close in the original draft to his own novel, Build My Gallows High. A further draft was done by the celebrated crime writer James M. Cain, also responsible for The Postman Always Rings Twice. Incredibly, in both drafts the Kathie Moffatt character played by Greer was originally called Mumsie and then Maisie McGonigle – and in place of the lovely cool entrée out of the heat that I linked to above, she was originally supposed to meet Jeff on the beach, after he rescued her from a – cue the metaphor – shark. (Jeff Schwager in a 1991 Film Comment article contends that the final draft and much of the film’s highly quotable dialogue was in fact, written by the prolific screenwriter and novelist Frank Fenton.)

Ten years later, Mainwaring also wrote the script for the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers film, directed by Don Siegel. By chance in the late 1990s, I happened to briefly correspond with Mainwaring’s daughter, who now lives in New Zealand, and asked her about her father’s intentions. Did he think he was writing an anti-Communist fable, or an anti – McCarthyist one? She replied :

I can tell you I once asked my father about the anti-McCarthy/anti-Communist debate on Body Snatchers. He said it was a load of rubbish – that there was no message – it was just an adaptation of the Jack Finney short story, and only later did people start ascribing a moral to it. In those days, films were made so quickly there wasn’t always a lot of depth – just keep it pacey seemed to be the answer. I know that Don Siegel did encourage the debate for years after – but the only reason that false beginning and end were added on by the studio was because at one of the preview showings people thought the film was too creepy as it stood, and the studio panicked and put on a feelgood ending to redeem it. Siegel in fact, was a pretty liberal character (before his Dirty Harry days)…Dad and Don worked together for many years, and palled around Europe with [Hardy] Kruger and [Joseph] Losey in the sixties…”

Robert Ryan too, had been a frequent visitor to the family house. “ My parents often hosted pretty lively parties in the fifties – and Ryan would be there, along with a lot of the leftwing contingent. As well as a few neatly dressed FBI men trying to look like they’d been asked.” In her re-telling, it does sound like an enchanted childhood. Even though, such was Mainwaring’s integrity, he steadfastly maintained his close friendships throughout Hollywood’s darkest period with the likes of Alvah Bessie, one of the convicted leftist sympathisers on the Hollywood blacklist. When Mainwaring died in 1977, Bessie wrote a moving letter of sympathy and appreciation to Mainwaring’s widow. Throughout, there were also the lighter moments :

When my father first worked for the studios, one of his first assignments was to do publicity for a little known actor, name of Humphrey Bogart. My father, always a fantasist, tried to beef up Bogart’s publicity profile with little stories in the dailies – about the snake farm Bogart was running, and his hobby of painting flowers on China teacups (all lies} Bogart finally asked the studio to get rid of Mainwaring before he buried his career, Dad and Bogart remained great friends (and chess partners) until Bacall arrived. She swept out the pals who knew the previous wives, so my father had to go…

Back to Out of the Past. The film was directed by the great Jacques Tourneur, who also directed the classic Cat People (1941) and the haunting I Walked With a Zombie (1943). Tourneur’s Westerns are also pretty wonderful – Canyon Passage (1946) in particular is worth checking out. Again, the plot is relatively complex. In an environment of unusual woodland settings, Indians inflamed by a rape and murder seek revenge from settlers who are riven internally by greed and sexual jealousy. Oddly, the forthright hero (played by Dana Andrews, another old drinking buddy of Daniel Mainwaring) is a consistent failure as an entrepreneur throughout the film, and yet remains undaunted to the very end – but hey that’s America, where you can always get up and try again with your best gal by your side, some place else.

Finally the excellent 2011 indie feature Martha Marcy May Marlene serves as a useful companion piece to Out of the Past. This story too, unfolds in flashbacks – but they are told/unleashed by an unreliable narrator, who has been psychologically damaged by the events she has been through. This story too, is about the indelible effect of past actions. Although this time, the cult leader (John Hawkes) of the murderous hippie commune from which Martha/Marcy has just escaped seems more like the similarly genial but equally unstoppable force of evil (“Don’t he ever sleep?”) that Robert Mitchum played in Night of the Hunter, rather than anything to be found in Out of the Past.

Incidentally, Mitchum is treated as a reliable narrator in Out of the Past and his character is passive enough for this version to be taken at face value. It would be interesting to re-make the film with Kathie as the narrator. I’m pretty sure she’d have a different take on things, and we’d really want to believe her.