It ends with a lie that might lead to a bright tomorrow. But before that, Out of the Past (1947; named to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry in 1991) is memorably dark.
Shadows bathe Robert Mitchum's face as the ex-private investigator he plays with star-making assurance tries to figure out the multi-layered misdeeds in which he's become entangled. Light and the absence of light play across his expressive features because of Nicholas Musuraca's artful cinematography, which reflects the malign influences of the woman who embroils Mitchum in more than he thought he'd have to handle.
She's played perfectly with reckless selfishness by Jane Greer. When Mitchum first meets her, she's stepping from sunlight into a shady bar. The next time, she's walking in from out of the moonlight. Her always leaving light behind is exquisitely subtle foreshadowing.
The snappy writing is as rich as the photography. Mitchum and Greer, along with Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming and Paul Valentine, mine the words expertly. Almost everything they say has a meaning below it, and often there is yet another layer underneath that. Banter that seems flirtatious can be menacing also. Writer Daniel Mainwaring, adapting Geoffrey Homes' novel Build My Gallows High, deftly makes clear a story that could have been confusing.
It starts with a flashback as Mitchum explains to the woman he loves how his past might delay their happy future together, or even prevent it. Greer had shot Douglas and taken $40,000 from him. Douglas hires Mitchum to find her, which he does in Mexico. As soon as he sees her, he believes Douglas' claim that he doesn't care about the money.
Greer and Mitchum are together briefly. At one point, they are in a casino where Mitchum doesn't want to bet. She asks, "Don't you like to gamble?" He answers, "Not against a wheel." The way he looks at her makes it clear he knows he's taking a risk, and lets her know that he knows it.
There's a double-cross, and then another, and then another and then things get complicated. The stakes had been a woman and $40,000. Now at stake are two dead bodies and a million dollars in tax fraud. The twists could have been too disorienting but they are not because director Jacques Tourneur guides us through them all wonderfully well.
Into the thick of things steps a woman as dangerously complex as the one played by Greer, except she doesn't get as much screen time. Fleming exudes sultry, sneaky sophistication that makes every moment count.
Valentine is impressive as Douglas' hired muscle, a man smart enough to recognize how smart he is not. Douglas is masterful as the mastermind. His too-tight grin and soft tones make powerful each of the deceptively pleasant lines he delivers with threatening understatement. He and Mitchum commandingly match each other's tough-guy authority.
These stars orbit Greer, who brings to Out of the Past its grim gravity. She's dead-on as the deadly manipulator of men and the truth. One character says of her, "She can't be all bad. No one is." Another knows her better: "She comes the closest."