The femme fatale is probably the best known film noir character type. She is a paragon of beauty, amorality, predatory instinct, and fatalism.We know she is bad news, yet we cannot take our eyes off her. We are transfixed.
Jacques Tourneur’s seminal film noir Out of the Past (1947), titled Build My Gallows High in the UK release, is a searing study of the femme fatale in the character Kathie Moffatt (Jane Greer). We get to witness the character’s moral degeneration and final morphing into the fatal woman of the story through three separate events in her history with Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum). The marking of these stages is accomplished brilliantly through the deftly balanced cinematography of Director of Photography Nicholas Musuraca, the symbolic wardrobe motifs of director Jacques Tourneur, and the incredible performances of the players.
Out of the Past is celebrating its seventieth anniversary this year, which is a great time to evaluate its impact again on us, the audience. Watching it in 1080P on my 4k laptop was a great experience. Seeing the laconic, cool, epitome-of-smooth Robert Mitchum in stunning high-definition monochrome, yet not escaping the flicker of the nitrate, alongside the eternal beauty, dream, and waif-like presence of Jane Greer’s femme fatale Kathie Moffatt in the same high-definition celluloid is such a cool thing for any fan of film noir, and indeed, great cinema as a whole. The movie has aged like a finer version of the bourbon Jeff Bailey drinks as he waits and longs for the ethereal Kathie Moffatt in the Mexican cantina.
Out of the Past
The mysterious man with the past neighbors and acquaintances in a small town gossip about, Jeff Bailey is suddenly plucked from the little California town of Bridgeport. He has done all he can to escape his past working for gambler Whit (Kirk Douglas) to track down his girlfriend Kathie Moffatt. She absconded to Mexico with $40,000 of Whit’s money after she planted two slugs from the Gambler’s .38 into him.
Jeff finds Kathie south of the border and falls in love. They head to San Francisco and try to make a new life for themselves away from Whit but are presumably found out, as something has to break their revelry to land Jeff in the present day. The story, though, is not exactly clear on what happened. At any rate, Whit’s goon Joe (Paul Valentine), catches up with Jeff at the gas station he opened in Bridgeport in the present day with a job for Jeff. Jeff, as much as he would like to say “no”, cannot, because of the pull of the specter of Kathie Moffatt and his undone past, even though he knows this will lead him into Whit framing him for murder.
The Evolution of Kathie Moffatt as a Femme Fatale
The first stage of the evolution of Kathie Moffatt as the story’s femme fatale is rooted in Jeff’s memories of her. Jeff remembers the hot, steamy, moon-light filled nights with her in Acapulco, as he recounts the whole story through a series of flashbacks to his current girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston) as they drive from Bridgeport to Lake Tahoe to see Whit. We see her, dressed in a brilliant white to accentuate both her innocence in the eyes of Jeff’s memory and, really, her waif-like qualities. Jeff even says in the film: “maybe it was all a dream and we’ll wake up with a hangover at Niagara Falls.”
Indeed, he couldn’t really believe what he found in her and perhaps still was unable to in the present day. Director of Photography Nicholas Musuraca also added plenty of soft, dream-like shadow around Kathie in these scenes, eloquently accentuating this characteristic of the vision of her in Jeff’s memory.
The second stage of the evolution of Kathie Moffatt is marked by Jeff’s ex-partner, Jeff Fisher (Steve Brodie), finding the couple out somewhere in California. He breaks in and starts a fist-fight with Jeff over Whit’s missing $40,000 and Kathie fatally shoots him. Jeff tries to explain to her that she didn’t have to do that, but ultimately just buries Fisher and covers the crime up.
This is what marks Kathie’s second stage: moral ambiguity. Was it indeed right to kill Fisher? It is during this scene that the memory of Kathie Moffatt literally comes into harsher light under Musuraca’s knowing and experienced hand as Director of Photography. He beautifully tightens the darks around her which puts her into a harsher light.
Tourneur also again used wardrobe to highlight the development of the femme fatale in the movie’s consciousness that is Jeff Bailey’s memory: the color palette of Kathie’s dress in this scene is a pretty pallid grey.
Kathie’s third stage in her development as femme fatale occurs when the audience finds out for certain that she is an integral part of Whit’s framing of Jeff in the murder of Whit’s tax attorney Leonard Eels (Ken Niles). In this stage, we see Musuraca’s lighting escalate to an even harder show around her, and, in keeping with Tourneur’s clothing motif, Kathie dressed in solid black, which carries to the epic final confrontation with the police.
Out of the Past stands the test of seventy years as a pioneering look at the femme fatale in all her amoral glory. She is pure fatal, predatory beauty and like the hapless men she bewitches, we cannot take our eyes off her. Her evolution from innocent to a more morally ambiguous woman is underscored beautifully by the cinematography and costuming, and is a seminal example of the femme fatale in film noir.
Humphrey Bogart was allegedly a top choice for, and eager to play the part of, Jeff Bailey because of the characters obvious similarities to both Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946), but had to drop out. What would the film have looked like with Bogart as the lead?