Seven Shadows – Day Five: OUT OF THE PAST
Today, Seven Shadows looks at one of the most awesome of awesome films noirs: Out of the Past. (For Andrew’s review of this classic, skip on over to his site, 1001 Movies I [Apparently] MUST See Before I Die.) It’s no secret that I think highly of this feature – I selected it as my April TCM film noir pick of the month, it was the subject of the first annual “GIANT” Dark Pages issue in December 2010, and I’ve seen it so many times that I long ago lost count. No matter how often I view it, though, it never fails to enthrall me with its spate of great performances, crackling dialogue, and twisty-turny-what’s-going-on plot.
It was hard to decide what to write on about this film, but I finally hit upon one of the many aspects I love about it: Whit Sterling, played by the great Kirk Douglas. I’d thought at first that I would offer a comparison between Whit and Robert Mitchum’s character, Jeff Bailey, but it’s Whit Sterling who, for me, is the focus of every scene in which he appears, and who, despite his second male lead status, is arguably the more fascinating of the two. Here, then, I shine the spotlight on Whit Sterling – one of the baddest bad-asses you’d ever want to meet. (Or that you’d never want to meet, as the case may be).
Like the film’s feature femme, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), we hear about Whit – described as a gambler, “a big operator” – before we meet him. He initially comes up in a conversation between Jeff Bailey and Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine) – Joe says that Whit “used to look at me, shake his head, and wish I had brains like you.” He goes on to inform Jeff that Whit wants to see him, telling him in a way that certainly sets off alarms for us, if not Jeff: “Maybe he’s got something nice for you.” Later, when we finally do make our acquaintance with Whit, we realize that those alarms were not false.
In one of the film’s many flashbacks, Whit makes his first appearance when he hires private dick Jeff to find his girl, Kathie, who shot Whit and made off – allegedly – with 40 grand in cash. At first glance, Whit comes off as a pleasant, almost unassuming sort – frequently smiling, never raising his carefully modulated voice, praising Jeff for his intelligence and honesty. He manages to convey, nonetheless, that he’s not to be trifled with – that, perhaps, his trolley travels a little bit left of center, if you know what I mean. This impression is not given through obvious pronouncements but, instead, in minor, barely perceptible ways. For example, when Jeff’s partner, Al (Steve Brodie) opines that a “dame with a rod is like a guy with a knitting needle,” Whit gestures toward Al with his unlit ciggie. “What’s he doing here?” he asks Jeff. “I called you.” It’s a small moment, but one that makes me glad I’m not Al. Later, Jeff asks Whit, “Should I ask why you didn’t call the law?” And Whit, ever-economical with the patter, responds, “Should you?” That’s it. No explanation, not even a real answer. But Jeff gets the message.
We next see Whit in another flashback, after Jeff has tracked Kathie to Mexico and fallen for her. Jeff’s in the process of packing his duds so he and Kathie can run away together when he gets a knock at the door. Standing there, with his oh-so-often-present smile, is Whit. Throughout the next couple of scenes, Whit never states that he’s there to check up on Jeff, or that he suspects Jeff of running afoul of their agreement, or that he believes that Jeff knows more about Kathie’s whereabouts than he’s revealing. But like Jeff, we are practically holding our collective breath, not knowing what Whit’s smile and jovial manner are masking – but knowing that there’s more to his sudden appearance than meets the eye.
When Whit returns to the screen later in the film, we’re back in the present day, after Jeff arrives at Whit’s sprawling Lake Tahoe estate. Whit seems genuinely pleased to see Jeff – we practically expect him to give him a hug – despite the fact that he knows full well what happened between Jeff and Kathie. (Well, knowing Kathie, he may not have known “full” well, but he certainly knew they weren’t playing tiddlywinks in the sand.) With his characteristic amiable demeanor, Whit outlines an income tax dilemma he’s experiencing, and divulges how he wants – expects – Jeff to assist him. As Jeff goes from flatly refusing the job to reluctantly realizing he has no choice but to accept, Whit maintains his jovial countenance, even as he is making cutting, snarky comments that are fairly exploding with double meaning. Soon after Whit reveals that Kathie has returned to him, he details the job that he wants Jeff to undertake, interspersing his explanation with references to Jeff’s involvement with Kathie. In one instance, Whit tells Jeff that he will meet with a woma named Meta Carson: “You’ll find her charming. She may even find you charming,” Whit says pleasantly. “I understand that women have.” And later, peering devilishly over the top of his coffee cup, he says to Jeff, “You know San Francisco, don’t you?” – knowing (again, “full well,”) that Jeff and Kathie lived in San Francisco after they fled from Mexico. It’s as if Whit is playing a game of cat and mouse – and he sure ain’t the mouse.
Whit doesn’t shed his air of good humor until his final scene. It’s then that he realizes, for the first time, what kind of person Kathie really is – all the lies she has told, all the wrong she has done. And boy, does he let her have it, delivering one of the best (if not THE best) slaps I’ve ever seen in a movie. What makes it so good is that there’s no warning – for us or for Kathie – that it’s coming. Whit quietly orders Jeff from the room and softly closes the door behind him. He then turns and, without breaking his stride, walks up to Kathie with a completely expressionless face and smacks her so hard that it nearly knocks her off her feet. For the first time, we see a Whit whose emotions are not so carefully and neatly restrained, as he calls Kathie a “dirty little phony.” It’s interesting that the one act that has made him lose his cool is the realization that he’s been made a fool of: “I took you back when you were whimpering and crawling. I should have kicked your teeth in.” At this, Kathie actually takes a step back, but Whit assures her that he has dispensed of the physical punishment and plans to move on to some far more damaging: “We’ll let the law push you around. You’re going to take the rap and play along. You’re gonna make every exact move I tell you. If you don’t, I’ll kill you. And I promise you one thing – it won’t be quick. I’ll break you first. You won’t be able to answer a telephone or open a door without thinking, ‘This is it.’ And when it comes, it still won’t be quick. And it won’t be pretty. You can take your choice.” Best. Threat. Ever. Unfortunately for Whit, he didn’t get the opportunity to carry it out – he apparently underestimated Kathie, one final, fatal time.
The next time you watch Out of the Past, by all means, enjoy the Roy Webb score, appreciate the cinematography by Director of Photography Nicholas Murasca, and have fun trying to keep up with the labyrinthine plot developments. But whatever you do, take some time to pay close attention to Kirk Douglas’s Whit Sterling.
You only owe it to yourself.
Tune in tomorrow for Day Six of Seven Shadows, when our movie of the day will be Gun Crazy, starring Peggy Cummins and John Dall. Andrew D of 1001 Movies I (Apparently) MUST See Before I Die will have a guest review here at Shadows and Satin, and I will have a guest post at his site. New posts will be up starting at 12 noon!
And don’t forget to enter my giveaway for a copy of Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen by Foster Hirsch. To enter, just leave a comment after any of my Seven Shadows posts, or retweet any announcement I make about the event on Twitter. Giveaway winners will be randomly selected from all entrants and announced on May 8th. KH