OUT OF THE PAST (1947, Dir. Jacques Tourneur)

Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past is one of the most representative of all noir films. It contains some of film noir’s most famous cinematography (courtesy of Nicholas Musuraca), stars one of its most important actors (Robert Mitchum), and features one of its most seductive and dangerous femmes fatales (played by Jane Greer). Its narrative structure, which involves a series of intrusions of the past into the present, is a classic device of noir storytelling. And its central theme, as the title indicates, involves a classic noir message: the difficulty of escaping the mistakes of the past—though in this case there is an extra wrinkle involving a larger historical vision.

In Out of the Past, private investigator Jeff Markham (Mitchum) is hired by gambler/gangster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to find his runaway girlfriend, Kathie Moffat (Greer). Markham finds Greer hiding out in Mexico, but then falls in love with her himself and decides to try to have a life with her without Sterling’s knowledge. This decision initiates a web of deceit with disastrous consequences for almost everyone involved. The plot, however, is much more complicated. For example, in keeping with the frequent nonlinear narrative style of film noir, Out of the Past begins late in the story, as Markham (now calling himself Jeff Bailey and having parted ways with Moffat) is attempting to live a quiet life running his own gas station in the California mountain town of Bridgeport, enjoying the peaceful natural surroundings and having at last apparently found a good woman to love. This woman, Ann Miller (Virginia Huston) thus serves as a symbolic counterpart to Moffat’s femme fatale, though the two never come into direct contact. The opposition between Moffat and Miller is thus a relatively small part of the film, serving as only one of many stark contrasts in the film. For example, the setting in Bridgeport (and especially of the surrounding area, with its idyllic mountain lake) stands in sharp opposition to big-city corruption of the kind that prevails in New York, Sterling’s home base at the beginning of the film, forming a version of the nature vs. culture opposition that is often found in noir films. In addition, Bailey’s deaf-mute employee—generally referred to simply as “The Kid,” though played by twenty-two-year-old Dickie Moore, an actor who had been appearing in films since the age of two—is presented as a paragon of innocence and virtue, standing in sharp contrast to the fallen condition of most of the older characters. Such contrasts help to highlight the central theme, suggesting that, once one enters the corrupt world of culture, it is impossible to escape back into the purity of nature.

Bailey’s plan to settle down is immediately disrupted when Whit’s lieutenant Joe Stefanos (Paul Valentine) happens into town and discovers Markham, who subsequently realizes that he has not escaped his past, after all. Stefanos informs Markham that Sterling wants to see him at the gangster’s new home in Lake Tahoe, only a short drive away. Under the circumstances, Jeff decides he had better tell Miller about his past. The majority of the first half of the film is then an extended flashback that dramatizes the story he tells her, showing how (roughly three years earlier) he tracks Moffat to Acapulco, where he immediately realizes that he wants her for himself. The two strike up a relationship, living in a sort of dream world that allows them to avoid dealing with the difficult situation in which they find themselves. In this sense, Mexico serves, as it often does in film noir (and in Golden Age Hollywood film in general) as a sort of alternative to modern American civilization, a pastoral land where life is slow and easy, free of the bothers of the competitive world of modern capitalism.

Kathie herself is figured as such an escape for Jeff. When he sees her coming toward him on the beach in Acapulco, it gives him a feeling “like school was out,” making clear the sense in which she provides for him an escape from the chores and responsibilities of everyday life and into a world of adventure and romance.[1] He will, in fact, show a tendency to imagine women as solutions to his particular problems throughout Out of the Past. In this case, bored with the routine of the workaday world, he sees Kathie as a key to a more exciting life. Later, having discovered that this exciting life brings only disaster, he sees Ann Miller as a respite from adventure and as the key to a more stable and secure domestic existence.

Markham’s first view of Kathie Moffat.

This tendency to see women, not as people in their own right, but as resources to help men achieve their desires, is typical of patriarchal thought, of course, but it is also typical of precisely the same traditional attitude toward gender roles that was very much under pressure in the postwar years, representing one of the key elements of the generalized social crisis that provided so much energy to film noir in the first place. Out of the Past is a film, in fact, that consists essentially of a series of crises. Jeff couldn’t, of course, be more wrong about Kathie being the solution to his problems, and, in retrospect, it is no surprise that Sterling and Stefanos soon arrive in Acapulco, dragging with them the corruptions of the modern world. Jeff and Kathie escape to San Francisco, where he supports the two of them by running his own shabby, “bottom-of-the-barrel” detective agency, which he is willing to do in order to be with Kathie. In this film, however, the past is inescapable. Jeff’s smarmy former partner from New York, Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie), shows up in San Francisco and spots them, forcing the couple to split up: Jeff heads for Los Angeles, making sure that it is easy for Fisher to follow him, thus throwing him off the trail of Kathie.

Few film noir characters are as peripatetic as those in Out of the Past, who are constantly moving about from one location to another via various forms of modern transportation. And these locations are highly significant, generally associated not only with a specific geographic location but also with a specific sense of time. In one of the most spirited attempts to characterize film noir as a phenomenon, Vivian Sobchack argues that film noir can be seen to respond to the crisis of the wartime and the flux of the postwar years through an emphasis on particular kinds of settings, such as “the hotel or boardinghouse room, the cocktail lounge, the nightclub, the diner or roadhouse cafe, the bar and the roadhouse, the cheap motel” (148). In such settings, she argues, “the intimacy and security of home and the integrity and solidity of the home front are lost to wartime and postwar America and to those films we associate at both the core and periphery of that cinematic grouping we circumscribe as noir” (146). The films thus closely echo what is going on in postwar America at large.

Jeff Markham in San Francisco. Place is of crucial importance in “Out of the Past.”

Sobchack emphasizes the significance of these settings by evoking Bakhtin’s key theoretical concept of the “chronotope”—literally the sense of time and space (and their relation) that informs a literary work. Like all of Bakhtin’s key terms, the chronotope is not merely a formal literary device but a reflection of deep-seated attitudes in the society at large. For Bakhtin the most fundamental characteristic of a society is the way it thinks about space and time, and this characteristic is inevitably reflected in one way or another in that society’s literature.  Moreover, Bakhtin’s emphasis on the chronotope is closely related to his emphasis on genre: “The chronotope in literature has an intrinsic generic significance. It can even be said that it is precisely the chronotope that defines genre and generic distinctions” (84-5). In particular, Bakhtin notes that the chronotope is of obvious importance to narrative structure. Chronotopes are, he argues, “the organizing centers for the fundamental narrative events of the novel. The chronotope is the place where the knots of narrative are tied and untied” (250).

Sobchack, unfortunately, focuses mostly on delineating the importance of the settings she sees as representative of film noir and never really explains how the concept of time comes into play, other than clearly wanting to suggest and air of tension, crisis, and instability that resides in these settings. Meanwhile, another problem with Sobchack’s analysis is that it is so narrow. Noir films, in fact, take place in a far wider collection of locations than she indicates. And Out of the Past—which freely bounces from one setting to another (and one chronotope to another)—is one of the films that best indicates this fact.The first “location” we see in this film is the interior of Stefanos’ convertible as he drives into Bridgeport. Noir films start surprisingly often with shots of moving automobiles, often moving in a mode of crisis—as when Walter Neff speeds unsteadily through city streets at the beginning of Double Indemnity, trying to reach the Pacific All-Risk building before he leaks too much blood to remain conscious. Here, there is no such crisis as Stefanos cruises into town, but there is a conflict. Bridgeport itself is also a location—and one whose chronotope conflicts dramatically with that of Stefanos’ car. The automobile represents movement, modernity, and life on the road, outside the domestic sphere. Bridgeport, on the other hand, is a quiet town with almost no traffic (at this point, Stefanos’ is the only car driving on the road, though a few are parked along the side). Bridgeport represents the stability and comfort of a traditional home. Interestingly enough, then, the arrival of Stefanos represents not only the intrusion of Jeff’s past into his present, but also of America’s present (and future) into its past. This equation is then complicated further when Stefanos immediately pulls into Jeff Bailey’s gas station (having spotted Jeff there earlier), itself something of an emblem of modernity. Indeed, Bailey, despite his attempts to fit in, is viewed with suspicion by many of the locals as an intruder from a more modern (and less stable) outside world. As Stefanos begins to ask The Kid about Bailey, we see an old-fashioned wooden church building in the background, emphasizing the function of Bridgeport as a bastion of old-fashioned values, as does a subsequent shot of their conversation from a different angle, showing an American flag flying in the background. Learning that Baily is not in, Stefanos then walks across the street to Marny’s Café, another rather old-fashioned establishment, one that clearly caters to regulars rather than to travelers like Stefanos. Thus, though it might at first glance seem to be in the same family as the “diner or roadhouse cafe” mentioned by Sobchack, it is not. Those establishments are places of mobility and impermanence, stopping off points for weary travelers such as Al Roberts in Detour. The cafe run by the loquacious Marny is a sort of home away from home, featuring countrified items of décor such as deer’s heads on the wall and offering services to local fishermen such as freezing their fish for them (apparently a standard item, as another café in town is later shown advertising the same service).

The film then cuts immediately from Marny’s to an idyllic mountain lake, where The Kid has just arrived in a convertible, while Jeff and Ann (accompanied by romantic musical cues) are doing some fishing, but are clearly more interested in each other than in the fish. Small-town girl that she is, Ann hasn’t been a lot of places and she sometimes dreams of what other places might be like. “You’ve been a lot of places, haven’t you?” she asks Jeff. “One too many,” says Jeff, cryptically. He then assures her that Bridgeport is his favorite place and that he would like nothing better than to marry her and settle down there forever. Once again, we see a chronotopic conflict: Jeff has lived a life of flux and uncertainty; he now wants nothing more than to ease into the comforts of home; Ann has known nothing but those comforts; she is perfectly willing to marry Jeff and stay in Bridgeport, but exploring the wider world also seems appealing to her. Clearly, in fact, rumors of Jeff’s adventurous past (he is the subject of many rumors in the town) are one of the things about him that appeals to her.

When Stefanos’ visit spurs Jeff to take the drive to Lake Tahoe, the trip marks a major shift in the narrative (marked by Jeff’s return to his private detective uniform of trench coat and fedora), which will remain in the present tense from the end of this car trip forward. Meanwhile, it is significant that the main narration of the flashback portion of the film takes place in a car on the road, reinforcing this film’s emphasis on movement and travel. The action itself becomes even more frantic from this point forward, with one plot twist after another driving the narrative, which remains from this point onward largely within the “lounge time” chronotope delineated by Sobchack. Jeff struggles to survive amid a sea of corruption; all hope of settling into a calm, pastoral existence is forever lost by the return of Sterling (and, as it turns out, Kathie) into his life.

The flashback portion of the film begins in Sterling’s apartment in New York, shifting us suddenly from small-town Bridgeport to the ultimate big American city. Sterling’s apartment itself is a gaudy exercise in ostentatious opulence, decorated at considerable expense but with little taste, bursting at the scenes with artwork and lamps and candelabras, and furnishings. Sterling explains that Kathie shot him and made off with $40,000 of his money, but that he badly wants her back. When he promises not to hurt her, Markham, accompanied by Fisher, agrees to take the case, though Markham insists on handling it personally.

The search first takes Markham to a black jazz club, a classic noir setting that not only involves the kind of atmosphere discussed by Sobchack but also adds an extra element of otherness, such black clubs featuring in a number of noir films as a source of exoticism that supposedly has more life and energy than the routinized locales of white, domestic spaces but that is also vaguely outside the realm of the entirely respectable in white, bourgeois terms.[2] It’s an upscale club, filled with well-dressed, middle-class African Americans, but they are African American nevertheless. It is also a setting with a different sense of time, black culture typically being imagined by white filmmakers during this period as being almost outside of time, a slow-paced world of celebration and leisure, providing a respite from the pressures of the workaday world.

This slow-paced, pre-capitalist chronotope is developed further as Markham flies to Mexico City, then takes a bus further south, thus employing two additional forms of transportation before locating Kathie in Acapulco. In this modern world of rapid transportation, everyone moves about so easily that it is difficult for anyone anywhere to truly get away, as Markham will soon learn to his detriment. Acapulco, then, is still easily within reach of Sterling (though it has not yet become quite the popular tourist destination that it is today), even though it is depicted in the film as a sleepy oceanside hamlet, with most of its inhabitants seemingly spending most of their time drinking beer and drowsing. The Mexican cantina where Markham first spots Kathie thus serves somewhat the same function as the African American club he had visited in New York, only more so. Here, in particular, one encounters an environment with a chronotope somewhat reminiscent of the “idyllic” chronotope discussed by Bakhtin and that Sobchack specifically evokes as a tranquil counterpart to the crisis chronotope of film noir. Sobchack grants, though, that some elements of the “lounge time” chronotope parallel those in the pastoral idyllic chronotope, a point that Out of the Past makes particularly clear by extensively mixing different chronotopes within the same film.

It is also important to recognize that Out of the Past takes place in a postwar world in which capitalist globalization is already well underway. Thus, even in sleepy Acapulco, it is impossible to escape the onslaught of modernity completely. As Markham sits in a quiet cantina drinking beer and drifting off, he is continually “jarred awake” by the music from a movie house next door. The town also includes a Western Union telegraph office that he nearly uses to inform Sterling that he has found Kathie, but then he thinks better of it. And, despite the seemingly slow pace of life in Acapulco, the inhabitants are constantly hustling, constantly trying to sell anything they can to “tourists” like Kathie and Markham. Those tourists, meanwhile, have their own spaces in which they are catered to, as when Kathie takes Markham to a casino where an immaculately-dressed French-speaking croupier spins a roulette wheel for an upscale, Western clientele.

For a brief time, Acapulco functions for the two new lovers as a sort of tropical paradise, their emerging passion sealing them off from the outside world and the passing of time, placing them in an even more idyllic chronotope. Shots of lush tropical vegetation emphasize this function of the setting, but even the lovers know it can’t last. Given that Sterling knows Markham is in Acapulco, they decide to catch a boat (still another form of transportation) for an unspecified destination so that they can stay a step ahead of the gangster. Unfortunately, Sterling and Stefanos show up in Acapulco before Jeff and Kathie can depart. The disruption is more than a personal one: it represents an intrusion of the corrupt world of the modern capitalist city into the romantic idyll in which the lovers have been attempting to live. Put differently, it represents an intrusion of the fast-paced and chaotic chronotope of modern capitalism into the combined pastoral/romantic chronotope of Acapulco and new love.

Jeff Markham and Kathie Moffat kiss on the beach in Acapulco.

Acapulco as tropical paradise, a veritable Garden of Eden.

Jeff and Kathie manage to flee by steamship to San Francisco, where they struggle to maintain their two-lovers-apart-from-the-world life, despite the modern urban surroundings. And, for a while, they manage, keeping to themselves and visiting out-of-the-way parts of the city they would never, as Jeff explains to Ann in his narration, have seen on their own. Then they get over-confident, Fisher spots them at a race track, introducing still another disruption. They separate, and Jeff makes sure that Fisher follows him to L.A. Eventually, he concludes that he has lost Fisher and so can arrange to meet Kathie at a remote cabin, once again seeking an idyllic place where they can be together apart from the corruption and confusion of the modern city.

Escape, though, seems to be getting harder and harder, and Fisher follows Kathie to the cabin, arriving just after the two lovers. He tries to blackmail them, then he and Jeff fight. Eventually, Kathie (always quick on the trigger) shoots and kills him, then drives away while Jeff is examining the body, which he subsequently buries. Jeff ends his story to Ann at this point, as they arrive at Sterling’s estate in Tahoe. Ann and Jeff agree that they still want to make a life together, but first he has to square things with Sterling. She drops him off at the gate and drives away. Sterling’s Tahoe estate, which contains an even more impressive display of wealth than had his New York apartment, representing still another sort of space with still another chronotope. The natural setting of the house, right on the lake, is gorgeous—the best view that money can buy. Thus, when Sterling points out the view to Jeff, the latter responds, “It must have set you back a few shells.” Indeed, while this estate is another sort of private paradise, it is a commodified form of paradise that represents, not an escape from capitalism, but a product of it, its idyllic setting suggesting the colonization of such settings by the power of modern capitalism. Asked about his current situation, Markham explains with a capsule summary of the world of the capitalist small business owner. Noting that he runs a little gas station, Markham says, “I sell gasoline; I make a small profit. With that I buy groceries: the grocer makes a profit. We call it earning a living. You may have heard of it somewhere.”

Running a gas station, of course, is a particularly proletarian form of business ownership, and it is clear here that Markham wants to figure himself (in his new incarnation as Bailey) as an honest, hard-working type, making his living by the sweat of his brow, at the same time positioning Sterling as a sort of parasite feeding off the labor of others. In short, Sterling emerges (in coded form) as the lazy, corrupt bourgeois, set in opposition to Markham as the virtuous working-class figure. This figuration might be no accident. Out of the Past was scripted by Daniel Mainwaring (using the pen name Geoffrey Homes), based on his own novel, Build My Gallows High (1946), also written as Homes. Mainwaring had begun his writing career back in 1932 with the proletarian novel One Against the Earth, published under his own name. He thus had some credentials as a leftist writer, and for him this opposition between working-class virtue and bourgeois corruption would come natural.

In addition to this class figuration, the opposition between Bailey and Sterling is a temporal one: Bailey represents the traditional values of small-time America and is thus associated with the past. Sterling, on the other hand, is associated with modern, big-city corruption and is thus associated with the present of modernity. (Markham, incidentally, is also associated with modernity, so that Markham and Bailey, though the same person, play two different allegorical roles in the film in this sense.) This same opposition between tradition and modernity also inheres in the collection of places and chronotopes found in the film. New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco (perhaps the three most important film noir cities) all figure in the text as modern, urban settings where violence and corruption reign (though we actually see very little of Los Angeles). Within them, most action takes place in precisely the kind of somewhat disreputable settings that Sobchack associates with the “lounge time” chronotope of film noir: Sterling’s New York apartment, nightclubs, race tracks. On the other hand, places such as Acapulco and its beaches or Bridgeport and its placid surroundings serve as pastoral settings governed by Bakhtin’s idyllic chronotope.

But Bakhtin describes the idyllic[3] chronotope specifically in order to set it in opposition to the way chronotopes function in his privileged genre, the novel—just as Sobchack figures the idyllic chronotope in opposition to the “lounge time” chronotope of film noir. Bakhtin, for example, notes the rootedness in a particular place that is typical of the idyll: “The unity of the life of generations … in an idyll is in most instances primarily defined by the unity of place, by the age-old rooting of the life of generations to a single place, from which this life, in all its events, is inseparable” (225). Further, the idyll tends to be “severely limited to only a few of life’s basic realities. Love, birth, death, marriage, labor, food and drink, stages of growth” (225). The ability to incorporate elements from any and all other genres is, for Bakhtin, a key source of the multiplicity of the novel, and one of the genres it incorporates is the idyll. However, the “dominant theme” in novels that incorporate the idyll is “the destruction of the idyll, and of the idyllic-type family or patriarchal relationships” (233). For Bakhtin, the idyll is timeless, ahistorical; the novel is fundamentally historical, fundamentally embedded in the flow of history. Thus, with the coming of modernity, we see the emergence of the modern novel, informed by a modern sense of time and historical change. In such novels, the idyll cannot survive. In particular, Bakhtin identifies the rise of capitalism (which, after all, initiates history as we know it) as one of the most important events in the destruction of the idyll (233). In the modern novel, meanwhile, the “narrowness and isolation” of the “little world” of the idyll are opposed by a “great but abstract world, where people are out of contact with each other, egoistically sealed-off from each other, greedily practical; where labor is differentiated and mechanized, where objects are alienated from the labor that produced them” (234).

The world described here by Bakhtin is the world of modern capitalism as described by Karl Marx; but it is also the world of modern America as described in film noir, which can thus be seen as playing a cultural role very similar to the one associated by Bakhtin with the novel. For Bakhtin, the novel is a unique genre for a number of reasons, the most important of which are the intense dialogism of its language (where different worldviews meet and clash in the very texture of novelistic style), the intimate connection of the novel with the world around it (and with the historical process within this world), and the fact that it contains no set style, form, or other characteristics (including the chronotope), but is instead informed by the simultaneous existence of multiple characteristics in the same text. From this point of view, I think that Sobchack might have missed the point in attempting to define a single governing chronotope for film noir. Instead, I would argue that the concept of the chronotope helps us to understand just how strongly novelistic (in the Bakhtinian sense) film noir really is, because film noir is informed, first and foremost, by the presence of multiple chronotopes in the same film.

Out of the Past illustrates this point perfectly, with its multiple settings and its clear opposition between the idyllic chronotopes of Acapulco and Bridgeport and the modern capitalist chronotopes of New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. It is important, however, to recognize that this opposition is not complete or absolute. In the modern, postwar world there are already no places that have not been impacted to some extent by modernity, thus the telegraph office and the Western-style casino in Acapulco and the cars and gas station of Bridgeport. And then there are liminal spaces that have been essentially swallowed up by modernity but still contain echoes of a more genteel past, as in the case of the posh apartment building in San Francisco where Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming) ostensibly manages to afford to live on her secretary’s salary (though there are suggestions that this salary has been supplemented by corruption).[4] The building, we learn, is so charming because it was converted to apartments from its origins as a fine, old house and still carries resonances of that past.[5] Finally, the remote cabin Jeff and Kathie hope to use as an idyllic lovers’ retreat quickly becomes a place of violence and death after Fisher, bringing with him the chronotope of a corrupt modernity, appears.

Meta Carson and Jeff Markham. Smoking and drinking play large roles in the lifeworld of film noir.

There is, however, one important distinction between the clash of chronotopes that occurs in Out of the Past and the one that occurs, according to Bakhtin, when elements of the idyll are brought into a modern novel, and this distinction helps to illuminate a key characteristic of the film that has gone largely unnoticed by critics. Despite Bakhtin’s negative, rather Marxist description of the alienated lifeworld of modern capitalism, it should nevertheless be understood that, for Bakhtin, the novel is an altogether richer and more interesting genre than the idyll. Moreover, Bakhtin is a thinker who never idealizes the past but sees history as always moving forward, so that the coming of capitalist modernity is ultimately a good thing (as it was, in fact, for Marx and Engels), if only because it opens the way for something better than what came before. In Out of the Past, however, the idyllic settings are figured positively, even if they cannot be maintained thanks to the negative impact of modernity.

Critics have typically seen Out of the Past as a film in which Jeff’s attempt to build a new life in the present is disrupted by the emergence of forces from his past, in a sort of return of the repressed. Thus, Barton Palmer (who draws upon Sobchack’s discussion of the chronotope), concludes that the lesson of Out of the Past is that

“the past, in short, cannot be escaped and, worse yet, must find renewed expression in the present, which is often doomed, as in Out of the Past, simply to repeat it. Thus the crisis the typical noir story develops can be resolved (or at least understood) only by a return in some sense to the past and to the postponed, unresolved difficulties it insistently bequeaths to the present. And so the present is always already contingent, its apparent solidity subject to a sudden, often thoroughgoing disruption that is connected somehow to what has been left behind but is not, as the story begins, in any sense ‘over’” (59).

Palmer is, of course, entirely correct about Out of the Past when reading the film at the personal levels of the life narratives of the characters. Markham and, to an extent, Moffat do try and fail to escape their past lives. Palmer also seeks to broaden his reading into the social realm of history, but still sees the film in the same way, arguing that the postwar world of the film was still struggling to escape the traumas associated with the experience of the war. In particular, he draws upon the work of historian William Graebner, who argues that the postwar years were haunted by memories of the war and the Depression before it, marked by an insecure “culture of contingency” in which “the past was the repository of the most frightening memories—of desperate joblessness and totalitarianism, of separation and death in war” (Graebner 52). Any sense of impermanence in the present, for Graebner, “flowed from being drafted and shot at, from witnessing the murder of the Jews, and from subjecting others—the populations of Dresden and Hiroshima to start with—to the possibility of sudden, undeserved death” (19).

Graebner and Palmer are again surely correct here in terms of the short-term individual memory of recent events. I would argue, however, that the sociohistorical dimension of Out of the Past derives more from the long view of history as the hundreds-of-years-long process of capitalist modernization in which it is the pre-capitalist past that is viewed as the locus of stability and tranquility, while the present is viewed as a time of contingency, precarity, and change. Viewed in this way, what really occurs in Out of the Past is not that Jeff attempts to escape from the past into the present, but that he attempts to escape to the past from the present. Put differently, Jeff attempts to build an idyllic life in a world of the past, a project that fails because of the emergence of forces representing the present world of modern capitalism. The film, in short, functions in a nostalgic mode that idealizes the past and identifies the present as destructive, which is essentially the opposite of what most critics have felt that it was doing. It is, however, very much in keeping with some of the other work of screenwriter Mainwaring. For example, exiled American director Joseph Losey (for whom Mainwaring had written the noir film The Lawless in 1950, shortly before Losey departed for England), has compared Mainwaring’s nostalgia for a lost, idealized version of small-town America to his own:

“This is one of the things that makes me very close to Dan Mainwaring—his experience of Americana, the nostalgia of the good things about small towns. I remember the smell of burning leaves at night in the autumn too. And I remember the smell of Christmas, the sparkle in the air at football games, and the sound of distant trains. And Dan remembers them all. He’s a much underrated writer and he’s a really quite noble man” (Ciment).

Along these lines, one might note that Mainwaring’s other best-known screenplay was that for the science fiction classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), in which the tranquil, idyllic life of a small California town is disrupted by the arrival of forces from outer space that bring with them the power of a dehumanizing modernity, gradually replacing the townspeople with pod-grown replicants stripped of all emotion and individual eccentricities. Many have read this motif as a critique of the anti-individualist tendencies of communism, though the terrors represented in the text might just as well be associated with a fear of anti-communism. As I have noted elsewhere, “the obvious interpretation that the pod people represent communism is certainly available. But it is also perfectly consistent with the content of the film to read the interchangeable pod people as representative of conformist forces within American society itself” (Monsters 128).[6]

Whether Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an allegory about the threat of communism or an allegory about the threat of capitalism is, for my present purposes, largely irrelevant. Both communism and capitalism are products of modernity, and the script for the film is shot through with suggestions of anxieties about the destruction of traditional ways of American life by the forces of modernization. One might say the same thing about Out of the Past, which would seem to make the film’s ending a happy one. The outside forces that have been threatening the peacefulness of Bridgeport have all been removed (Sterling, Stefanos, Markham, and Moffat are, in fact, all dead), and life in the quiet mountain town seems set to return to normal, with Ann now apparently willing to settle for marriage to childhood sweetheart Jim (Richard Webb), having been convinced by The Kid that Jeff had betrayed her and was running away with Kathie.

There are, however, a number of problems with this seemingly recuperative ending, leaving openings for readings that undermine the film’s apparent intentions. For one thing, Jim—though a native of Bridgeport—now works for the State of California Department of Highways and travels freely about the state. (As the film begins, he has just returned from Los Angeles.) He is himself thus to some extent an agent of modernity, suggesting the difficulty of maintaining a completely traditional existence in the modern age. Indeed, as the film ends, he and Ann drive away together in his state car, headed out of town, though their departure is presumably only temporary. In any case, Ann seems to regard Jim as more of a friend than anything and is willing to marry him only because Jeff is out of the picture (and only because The Kid—presumably trying to protect her feelings—has lied to her about Jeff’s intentions). In addition, the marriage is something of a defeat for her (built on murder and lies) that safely transcribes her within the patriarchal structures that are such a prominent component of the traditional ways of life that film seems to want to romanticize. After all, it’s 1947 in small-town America, and she has to marry somebody—lest she end up like the sophisticated, but slightly disreputable, Meta Carson, the unmarried big-city secretary to a crooked lawyer (and agent of Sterling). Indeed, Carson seems to have no real function in this film except perhaps to serve as a cautionary warning of what might happen if a woman should escape inscription within marriage and traditional gender roles—which of course potentially makes the sexy and independent Carson at least a partly positive character from the point of view of an against-the-grain feminist reading.

All in all, Out of the Past is a complex film that can be read in a number of ways. And these complexities go far beyond the complex twists and turns of the plot to include the fact that the film incorporates a number of historical narratives and Bakhtinian chronotopes. The specifics of its story reflect the disruptions in American life of the past few years prior to the release of the film, disruptions from which Americans were still trying to recover in the postwar years. But the film also shows the impact of the larger historical narrative of capitalist modernity, which brings about a world informed by constant, vertiginous change and transformation, in a process that sweeps away traditional modes of life like dust in the wind. This world brings with it progress and opportunity (especially of the economic variety), but it is unsettling and disorienting in a way that destabilizes institutions, social practices, and personal relationships. In this world, as Marx and Engels so aptly put it, “All that is solid melts into air.”


Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. University of Texas Press, 1981.

Booker, M. Keith. Alternate Americas: Science Fiction Film and American Culture. Praeger, 2006.

Booker, M. Keith. Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, 1946–1964. Greenwood, 2001.

Ciment, Michel. Conversations with Losey. Methuen, 1985.

Dahlby, Tracy. “‘The White Negro’ Revisited: The Demise of the Indispensable Hipster.” The Mailer Review. 5.1 (2011): 218–230. 

Palmer, R. Barton. “‘Lounge Time’ Reconsidered: Spatial Discontinuity and Temporal Contingency in Out of the Past (1947).” Film Noir Reader 4. Eds. Alain Silver and James Ursini. Limelight Editions, 2004. 53–65.

Sobchack, Vivian. “Lounge Time: Postwar Crises and the Chronotope of Film Noir.” Refiguring American Film Genres. Ed. Nick Browne. University of California Press, 1998.


[1] The considerable chemistry between Mitchum and Greer is a key to the success of this film, even though their relationship does not work out well in the end. In fact, this chemistry was strong enough that were teamed again two years later in The Big Steal (1949). This film is sometimes considered to be a noir film, but it is really more of a screwball comedy, allowing the two main characters to end up together in the end, despite the significant difficulties they face along the way.

[2] This problematic figuration of black culture was probably most famously expressed by Norman Mailer in his 1957 essay “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster.” For Mailer, black culture offered a form of sexually and physically vital cultural energy that could oppose the mind-numbing conformism of mainstream white American culture in the 1950s, as well as helping to overcome the traumas of World War II and Cold War nuclear fear. For him, the Beat poets of the period were an example of white artists who wrote with a nonconformist black sensibility. Mailer’s argument is very specific to the 1950s, but see Dahlby for an argument for its ongoing relevance.

[3] Bakhtin uses the term “idyll” to describe the specific genre. In this sense, the idyll is a short poem dealing with rustic or pastoral topics, as exemplified by the work of the ancient Greek poet Theocritus.

[4] It might also be significant that Carson lives in Apartment B in this building, suggesting that she is a sort of high-class “B girl,” the designation given to girls who work in bars, talking to customers and encouraging them to buy drinks. B girls have a rather unsavory reputation, sometimes also working as strippers or prostitutes.

[5] This building is specifically contrasted with the old building where Markham once lived in New York and which “wasn’t very amusing.” But in New York, even an old building would be thoroughly modern, built for commercial purposes from the very beginning and carrying no reminders of a more refined past life.

[6] As I note of Invasion of the Body Snatchers in still another place, “Star Kevin McCarthy (whose shared surname with Senator McCarthy provides an additional irony) has stated in an interview that he himself felt that the pod people were reminiscent of the heartless capitalists who work on Madison Avenue. Indeed, if communism was perceived by many Americans of the 1950s as a threat to their cherished individuality, capitalism itself was often perceived in much the same way” (Alternate Americas 66).