“I’m not sure exactly how I got here. Time and life got all mixed up into an amalgam of events that put me on this path. Sometimes I hate who I’m with, sometimes I don’t. I do get tired of running, though. Just when I think I can stop, I can’t…and I don’t care much for the options given to me by the guy who just slapped my face.
They think they’ve trapped me, but they haven’t. I’ve thought of a way out. I always do.
One thing I know for sure is that I prove fatal to anyone who tries to hold me for too long.
I am calling the shots now.
I am Kathie Moffat, and I will not be defined by anyone or anything from out of the past.”
That’s how I imagine the interior dialogue for one of my favorite femme fatales, Kathie Moffat (played by Jane Greer) from “Out of the Past.”
For me, the success or failure of a film noir flick depends on a great femme fatale character being the counterpoint to the anti-hero detective role. She is a powerful catalyst that sets the hero on his journey. She puts her foot on the gas pedal, propelling him into the brick wall of his future. No apologies. No hope.
Directed by Jacques Tourneur, “Out of the Past” tells the story of mysterious gas station owner, Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) who finds he can’t escape his own private detective past of corruption, double crosses, and one particularly dangerous dame, even though he’s trying to reinvent himself in a small town. While planning a quiet future with his current sweet and innocent girlfriend, he is summoned by shady businessman, Whit Sterling, (Kirk Douglas) for one last job to set things straight between the two of them. Jeff realizes he must tell his current trusting girlfriend, Ann Miller (Virginia Huston) of his former life, and do the job for Whit in an effort to put the past to rest so they can start their new lives together with a clean slate. However, things are not so easily dismissed and past and present collide when his former lover, femme fatale Kathie Moffat, (Jane Greer) turns up again.
Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer’s performances make this dark storyline extremely watchable. Mitchum’s face was designed for noir with uplit angles and skeptical looks. It’s a face that has been sculpted by cynicism, smoking, and the strange desire for redemption. This anti-hero with a talent for self preservation is mirrored in Greer’s femme fatale character. Her Kathie matches Mitchum’s level of “cool” with every calculating glance she gives. She’s a survivor who does what she needs to do, regardless of other’s well-being. Kathie can’t match Jeff’s brute force, but her strength is in her mind and the willingness to play against society’s morals.
When they first meet, they are attracted to one another’s physical presence, yet show a vulnerable side when they decide to buy into the illusion of love and run off together for a brief time. Events end up destroying that illusion, yet I couldn’t help but feel some sympathy for Kathie when she seems to want a little redemption of her own by returning to the place where she felt the illusion of happiness the strongest in the end. This vulnerability and predatory side to the character are what makes Kathie such a great femme fatale to me and ultimately, she’s the realist in the film when she reasons that she’s no good and Jeff isn’t either, and that’s why they deserve each other.
Kirk Douglas as Whit Sterling is foxlike and cunning in the role. Whit has a sense of humor on the surface that hides his darker self and knocks his opponents off balance so he can understand them better through their weaknesses.
And look out for Rhonda Fleming’s side role as Meta Carson. She’s a scene stealer as a player in the framing of Mitchum’s Jeff.
As in all great film noir, the main characters are headed for a collision. The audience just hopes that Jeff will walk away from it. After all, don’t we all have things in our past we’d like to change? If Jeff can redeem himself, then maybe there’s hope for all of us to escape from something from out of the past.