Out Of The Past - Crime Lacking Heart

Quick Thoughts: Out Of The Past

A man escaped to a quiet town has his past come back to haunt him.

This post is a companion piece to the previous on Rififi (link here). In said post I discussed what, as a crime/drama/noir film Rififi does so well. The implication with that post was that I'm not much of a fan of classical American noirs. This is not true across the board. I appreciate their play with style, with dialogue and their confrontation of censorship, but I never really find myself locked into the classical noirs such as this, The Third Man, Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Touch Of Evil, ect. The reason for this lies in the focus on plot and style in these movies that neglects character. Out Of The Past is a great film to demonstrate this as, much like Double Indemnity, it is a film told through a narrative omnipotence. In such, this is a film largely told in flashback or with the protagonist as a narrator. This is a key aspect of crime dramas as they're about living in the perception of a singular character, but this really hurts the tone of these movies. We are not drawn close to them as character. They are just a narrator or writer speaking to us and so there is a disconnect. This works wonders in a book as there isn't such a disconnection, but not so much in cinema. To tell a story cinematically you don't usual rely on just words as images hold an abundance of possibility within them; a thousand words for each 24 frames in a second. This means we don't need to see and hear Jeff's telling of his story to his girlfriend. We only need to see the story. This leans towards a purer cinema. The effect of this in a crime/drama/noir is astounding - one only needs to refer to Rififi to understand why. The majority of Dassin's classic is, in essence, a silent film. The heist sequence is a wondrous example of this. All tension and drama in this set-piece is achieved through imagery working with sound design in a very subtle way. In such, we see the image as the crutch of the narrative. We rely on what we see as to understand and go along with the story. The same cannot be said of films like Out Of The Past and Double Indemnity. Like 12 Angry Men, you could 'watch' these films with your eyes closed due to the explicit narration and expository dialogue. Whilst this works for the confined and simple narrative of 12 Angry Men it doesn't with the larger, more complex noirs for reasons of scope and visuals. Out Of The Past has some strong cinematic segments with The Kid who is deaf and dumb, but this is so often overridden by many other elements of the film. The most prominent is the dialogue itself. It's both poetic and evasive (with the heavy use of double-entendre). This is a crucial staple of noirs and works at times. The key to this is working is having a character worth listening to, who is interesting, not a mere caricature. Again, comparing Out Of The Past to Rififi speaks volumes to this. These films have very similar commentary on the concept of bad guys striving to do good - but that going to waste. In the same way Tony gives up so much in the end of Rififi for, literally, no thanks, so does Jeff. But, there is no substance or emotional punch to Jeff's sacrifice and posthumous misunderstand not his character in general. It is then mainly character work that is the downfall of noirs such as Out Of The Past. They ultimately are unable to put us into the character's world view in an emotional and impactful capacity that makes us want to hear them and see their sombre story though to its fatalistic end.

I'll end here as I ended on Rififi. This is a subjective view point as everyone sees characters differently. But, what do you think? Is there a lack of character in noir? Does this help the film, or does it hurt it?

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Rififi - Crime With Heart

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Die Hard - Technical Screenwriting

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