OutofthePastcoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
1947, 97 min., black and white
Warner Bros.
Not rated (would be PG-13 for some violence, drinking and smoking)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA Mono
Bonus features: C-

Like many parents, my wife and I have tried to help our children to develop an appreciation for a broad range of things, whether it’s expanding their palette at home or their sense of the world via travel. It would be nice, too, if that appreciation extended to film—though this generation seems more resistant to black-and-white movies made in the old Academy ratio (1.33:1) instead of widescreen, and put off by films that are dialogue and plot rich, rather than action-filled visual blockbusters.

So this was an experiment. I told them the 20-minute rule was in effect—give Out of the Past a chance, and if they hated it after 20 minutes I’d put on something else. Film noir is so important a style that I wanted them at least to be able to recognize the traits: the emphasis on shady characters with shady pasts, the frequent flashbacks, the manipulation of shadow and light to create stylized effects, the rough-talking hero who often narrates his own story, and the femme fatale he’s drawn to, even though she’s bad for him and could get him killed.

Film noir is most often associated with crime dramas from the ‘40s and ‘50s, and I knew that Out of the Past was considered among the top 10 on just about everybody’s list. Warner Bros. released it on Blu-ray this week, available only through their archive program, so why not give it a try? As it turned out, both of our kids said they’d keep watching after 20 minutes.  

When I asked what they thought of the film halfway through it, our teenage son said he’d give it the equivalent of a B+ or A-, while our ‘tween daughter was less enthusiastic. “C to B-,” she said. In a way, that didn’t surprise me. These films carry the values of the times, and that means they’re often sexist (“You know, a dame with a rod is like a guy with a knitting needle”) and the rapid-fire dialogue incorporates plenty of period slang that can be difficult for a younger child to grasp.

In Out of the Past, a very young Robert Mitchum plays a former private investigator that got out of the business and is running a gas station in the middle of nowhere. He’s dating a local woman named Ann (Virginia Huston) and one day, when a tough guy from his past walks into his life, he’s forced to tell her his real name and why he’s kind of hiding out.

OutofthePastscreenJeff (Mitchum) had been hired by a dangerous gambler named Whit (a VERY young looking Kirk Douglas) to track down the girlfriend who shot him and ran off with $40,000 of his money. He and his partner take the job, but down in Acapulco he finds himself so drawn to her that he forgets about his job and tries to put one over on Whit and his henchman. Back in the present time he’s told that Whit wants to see him, and though his gut feeling tells him it’s a trap, he knows he has to go anyway. Through multiple flashbacks we see exactly what happened, and the story resolves itself in a present-day showdown.

“How big a chump can you get to be? I was finding out.”

If you have a cerebral teenager who appreciates good writing or can find humor in the huge gap between values of the past and what’s now considered politically correct, like my son he’s going to find plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in this film.

“I’m sorry he didn’t die,” Whit’s girlfriend tells Jeff.
“Give him time,” Jeff says, deadpanned, because of course everyone dies in time.

“You’re like a leaf that blows from one gutter to the other,” one of the small-time crooks says to the femme fatale.

Then there are the deep thoughts that are buried in surface dialogue, like Jeff’s appraisal that “Nothing in the world is any good unless you can share it.” A line like that can sound awfully corny if it wasn’t delivered in the middle of all that tough-guy narration.

Compared to today’s films, the violence is tame, and mostly comes near the end. People smoke and drink, but there’s no sex or sexual situations, and snappy patter replaces profanities as the language of choice. Is it a candidate for family movie night? If you have teens who appreciate clever writing, quite possibly Out of the Past or that other noir classic, The Maltese Falcon, might be provide a little period contrast to all those contemporary films you’ve been watching. Out of the Past is a great example of film noir that features solid performances, sharp writing, and a twist ending.