Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Out of the Past


There have been many attempts to define the genre known as film noir, but none that are really satisfactory. Damon Knight once said that science fiction was whatever he was pointing at when he said science fiction. A Supreme Count justice once defined pornography by saying he knew it when he saw it. Either of those suit me fine when it come to noir. I know what it looks like, and boy, is this film noir, through and through. The main element is the B&W photography (though there have been a few color films that qualify), the use of shadows and light, camera angles that emphasize the starkness of the settings. Film noir never happens in mansions—unless it is Philip Marlowe visiting a wealthy client in The Big Sleep—they happen on the streets, in dives and waterfronts and back alleys. Women are usually unreliable, though there is often a good woman as well. And smoke. There’s always smoke. Just about every scene in this movie begins with one or more characters lighting a cigarette. I’d almost be tempted to actually count the number of cigarettes smoked in this film. Everybody smokes. Which worries me a little. I mean, Disney photoshopped a short film called “Pecos Bill” such that he no longer rolled his own, and film ratings these days warn of smoking along with sex and violence. I’m not defending smoking, but with the Orwellian re-writers so hard at work, how long will it be before films like that are banned? That, or CGIed such that Rick sitting in his café in Casablanca no longer has a butt smoldering in the ashtray?

Okay, enough of that. The stars are Kirk Douglas as the bad guy, and Robert Mitchum as the retired P.I. forced to go back to work for him. The plot is confusing, but who cares? There will never be another actor who fits so splendidly into film noir as Mitchum. Those sleepy eyes, the stony face, that voice … he was the greatest. I think his performance in Farewell, My Lovely was the best he ever did, but this one comes close.