The femme fatale, and all the men she leaves ruined in her wake, has become a staple of the cultural consciousness largely through film noir. She is the definition of lethal sex appeal: sexy, predatory, ruthlessly amoral; we cannot take our eyes off her, to our infinite trouble.

In studying the machinations of the femme fatale, one invariably touches upon certain pivotal films, high watermarks in the history of the character archetype. Out of the Past (1947), (Build my Gallows High in the UK release), is one such powerful study in her evolution. The film showed on June 4 on Turner Classic Movie's "Noir Alley" with Film Noir Foundation President Eddie Muller. Noir Alley's schedule can be found here and Eddie's talks on the films can be watched here. I highly recommend both links, and also The Film Noir Foundation which does great work preserving these classics.

Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) opposite Kathie Moffatt (Jane Greer)


Out of the Past is celebrating its seventieth anniversary this year, and alas, this year also marks twenty years since the star, the definition of cool for so many, Robert Mitchum, passed away at age 79. Watching the film 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 (Robert Mitchum) drinks as he waits and longs for the ethereal Kathie Moffatt in the Mexican cantina.

The mysterious man with the past neighbors and acquaintances in a small town gossip about, Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is suddenly plucked from the little California town of Bridgeport where he has done all he can to escape his past working for gambler Whit (Kirk Douglas), to track down his girlfriend Kathie Moffatt (Jane Greer) who 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 (including what he owes Whit), even though he knows this will lead him into Whit framing him for murder.

Kathie Moffatt at stage 1 of her development as femme fatale: the stage of innocence. The white wardrobe motif is obvious, but notice Musuraca's soft shadow around her as well. This accentuates her dream or waif-like qualities.


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 in every Mexico scene she is in to accentuate both her innocence in the eyes of Jeff's memory and really her waif-like qualities. Jeff, in fact, says in the film: "maybe it was all a dream and we'll wake up with a hangover at Niagra 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 the femme fatale 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 Bailey 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 basically covers the crime up. 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 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 at her second stage of development as femme fatale, marked by moral ambiguity. Notice the pallid grey in the wardrobe motif, still being carried forward. Also notice the harsher shadows, accentuating the disintegration of the vision of her purity.


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.

The final stage of Kathie's development as femme fatale: marked by evil. The black wardrobe motif is front and center, and Musuraca's hard shadows around her amplify her moral descent.


Out of the Past stands the test of seventy years as a brilliant, hardboiled, film noir study of the femme fatale. I heartily recommend another viewing of this incredible, searing classic on its 70th anniversary, and on the 20th anniversary of the death of Robert Mitchum, an artist forever scalded into our collective memory.

Did you know: Humphrey Bogart was allegedly pushing to get the part of Jeff Bailey because of the characters similarities to his roles of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon ('41) and Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep ('46) but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts? How might Out of the Past looked with Bogie as Jeff Bailey?