Jacques Tourneur is one of the greatest film directors all of time whose name most people don’t know. He directed three classic horror/thriller films in a row for legendary producer Val Lewton: Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man. Aside from producer and director the only thing those three movies have in common is that each contains a scene in which Tourneur creates almost unbearable suspense simply from having one or two women walking alone at night. Tourneur’s proven ability to transform even the most mundane aspects of life into an experience endowed with dread and anxiety simply by having it occur at night made him a natural to direct Out of the Past.
Most of the film takes place at night which clearly played to the director’s strengths. The darkness of night does just make for unlimited opportunity to engage all the cinematic techniques conventionally associated with film noir, it eventually becomes an active player in the narrative by serving as a metaphor for the darkness that permeates the story. If you would to deliberately set out to construct a film based on all the conventional attributes attached to the general consensus of what makes a film noir, the film you’d end up with would probably look an awful like Out of the Past. And that’s just starting with the starkly defined shadows and low camera angles of the silvery black and white cinematography.
You want your sap led down the road to ruin by your femme fatale? Check. You want a morally ambiguous world haunted by criminal elements? Check. You want a huge mess of tangled relationships governed by the randomness of fate? Check. A pervasive atmosphere of dread and anxiety informed by the inability to ever completely trust anyone? Check. Murder over money? Check. Betrayal? The framing of an innocent person? A guy to take the fall? Check, check and, oh yes, check. Pretty much any element you can find anywhere that someone claims must be included in a movie to make it an authentic example of film noir is present in Out of the Past.
And as if all that weren’t enough, you’ve Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum, two actors who definitely known their way around the morally questionable habitat of noir’s criminal low-lifes. And on top of that is the story behind the story in which the original screenplay for the film was written by the literary godfather of film noir: James M. Cain, author of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Which would make for a terrifically appropriate ending to the story of the background of Out of the Past were it not for the fact that his screenplay was rejected and a completely new version commissioned by Daniel Mainwaring…from his own novel published as Build My Gallows High published under the name Geoffrey Homes. In 1984, a remake titled Against All Odds was released with actress Jane Greer playing the mother of the character she originated in Out of the Past.