Metafiction and reflexivity in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past

OUT OF THE PAST / BUILD MY GALLOWS HIGH

Jacques Tourneur was a French-American director best known for three Val Lewton produced horror films made at RKO: Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Leopard Man (1944). He made a successful return to horror in 1957 with an M. R. James adaptation entitled Night of the Demon. Tourneur’s greatest achievement is one of his rare forays into film noir, the 1947 classic Out of the Past

Out of the Past stars Robert Mitchum as Jeff Markham, an ex-P.I. drawn back to his shady past involving an old flame Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) and a viperous mobster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas with permanent rictus grin). The film contains fine examples of several typical elements of noir. There is the expected moral ambiguity (including Greer’s terrific femme fatale), fine chiaroscuro lighting, vehicular homicide, moribund humour (it is the funniest film noir), and a torturous plot and flashback structure. What I find most intriguing about Out of the Past is its metafictional properties. There appear to be several obvious moments of frame breaking or self awareness. I can find no discussion or acknowledgement of these properties anywhere on the internet, so will attempt my own explication of a postmodern technique that is unusual in classic film noir.

This reflexive streak is first signposted by Markham’s trip to Mexico. He stations himself day after day at a table in a bar facing a cinema. His voiceover declaims: ‘The music from the movie next door kept jarring me awake’. The music in question is a jaunty mariachi number that has been playing since the action moved to Mexico. It is originally non-diegetic but appears to become diegetic in this scene (emitting from the cinema). The mixture of naturalistic and un-naturalistic sound, in the presence of the cinema, signposts the reflexive strangeness yet to come.

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Mitchum at the movies

Throughout the film Markham’s dialogue appears at times to be commenting both on the onscreen action, and on noir tropes in general. When receiving a surprise visit from Sterling, Markham’s weary response is to suggest that the two ‘try to impress each other’. Looking at the film as whole, every scene between Markham and Sterling is a game of one-upmanship, or at least a contest to see who can smoke the most cigarettes.

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A confrontation between Markham and his double crossing partner is shot in a typical noir style: low angles and contrasting lighting. The shot is so impressive that despite being held at gun point, Markham cannot help but express his admiration for the photography: ‘Look at all the angles!’.

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The most brazen fourth-wall-breaking moment comes when Markham talks to his driver Petey. The two men are shot head on in a very tight two-shot. Markham fills the left side of the screen, his face against the left and upper edges of the screen.

‘You look like you’re in trouble’ says Petey.

‘I think I’m in a frame’ Markham deadpans.

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‘Don’t sound like you’ says Petey.

‘All I can see is the frame’ replies Markham and looks directly at the frame of the shot.

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‘I’m going in there now to look at the picture’ he continues looking at the frame. Perhaps he is now looking outside the frame at either the film crew or the cinema audience. “Looking at the picture” would involve moving outside the frame to observe the film (picture) from the diametrically opposed position of the viewer.

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Markham’s next scene with Petey reveals that this attempt to transgress the boundaries of the film was a failure due to Markham’s lack of timing. This appears to be an acknowledgement of Mitchum’s detractors, who criticised his seemingly inexpressive style and monotone delivery. He now fills the entire shot, even more “framed” than before.

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There is a callback to the whole frame incident later in the film. Markham remarks that Kathie cannot be framed for the murder of his partner: ‘it’s not a frame. She shot him’. Kathie’s inability to create a proper frame in a shot seems to reflect on the state of Hollywood in the 1940s. The Hays Production Code had severely limited opportunities for female directors. It is Kathie’s gender that hinders her abilities as a prospective murderess/film director.

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Reflexive jokes are not unheard of in film noir. Howard Hawkes’ The Big Sleep (1946) acknowledges its star Humphrey Bogart’s small stature. The line in Raymond Chandler’s novel, ‘Tall aren’t you?’, is changed to ‘Expecting someone taller?’. However, no film that I’ve seen from this period is so saturated in self-reference than Out of the Past.

In trying to trace a lineage of this style I found a dead-end. There is nothing in Tourneur’s horror films that predicts Out of the Past, as their effectiveness relies on their being played straight (although I Walked with a Zombie does pre-empt Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea by 24 years).

Writer Daniel Mainwaring was at least somewhat politically subversive (blacklisted although with seemingly little effect on his career). He wrote Don Siegel’s The Big Steal (1949) which reunited Mitchum and Greer, and Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The former is a short, funny, adventure/chase, whilst the latter is an ideological mirror. It works as a metaphor for virtually anything you want, but is not overtly metafictional. Mainwaring has “story” credit for The Hitch-Hiker (1953), directed by Ida Lupino. Lupino was one of the only female directors working in Hollywood at this time.

Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca didn’t work on such a reflexive film again in his career. He did collaborate with Tourneur on Cat People, as well as shooting The Hitch-Hiker.

This puts Out of the Past in the position of being uniquely reflexive amongst other Hollywood output of the period. Its legacy is that of an exemplary film noir. A significant nod to its metafictional elements come from novellist Paul Auster, who devotes a long passage in his classic postmodern novel The New York Triology (1986).

If you remain unconvinced by this reading I leave you with the fact that one character in Out of the Past is named “Meta”.

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