Out of the Past ★★★★

Slight upgrade. One of the classic films -- whose entire surface-level aesthetic and general audacity I find totally alluring -- for which I'm just a touch too squeamish; even as it serves as a textbook example of noir, in which all seemingly innocuous roads lead to death and doom, I find myself disproportionately bummed out by the story's cynicism and cavalier violence. If anything this eats at me more now than it used to -- even The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon are a little too casual and cartoonish in their relationships with murder, in my view, though I dig both a lot -- but the difference these days is that I find the aforementioned aesthetics, and the oddly real, nonchalant force of the storytelling ever more persuasive. The surreal Americana of the supporting characters (I love the excitement-hungry cab driver), the very subtle but jabbing class commentary, and of course Robert Mitchum's sleepy-eyed seen-it-all portrait of macho invulnerability that has the rug taken from under it -- it's all intoxicating. One of the problems, actually, is that I like Mitchum here a little too much, so much so that his fate and its aftermath actively upset me! I spend the last half hour of the film trying to will everything into working out differently, including the devastating if heartfelt closing scene. Far from "cold around the heart," this film actually bleeds with emotion, loss and regret; so what the hell's my problem? Nothing, it's a matter of taste. My preferred brand of noir is found in the likes of Double Indemnity, which works for me because of its wicked sense of justice even as I'm thoroughly gripped by the plight and inner conflict of Fred MacMurray's character -- I like watching him, I even root for him in a strange way, but I also like seeing him get his -- and of course in Wilder's film the parameters remain small even if the stakes don't; we're invested in every life and death to which we bear witness. Or take Gun Crazy, which is horrific but never sells that horror short; same for Fritz Lang's noirs. I don't agree with whoever's said that, in this film, they don't feel that Mitchum is broken or conflicted; I read plenty of that in his performance, but there's a strange way in which I feel I'm watching a decent if flawed human being get wrapped up in a kind of monumental funeral march in which there's no possible way out even from the very beginning. The hostility of the world around him often comes from obscure or invisible sources; chaos and confusion run the day in a way that, from a writing standpoint, feels almost too easy. Which is actually fine, but for this to be the King of all Noir it would frankly need to close the gap between Mitchum's Jeff and his many enemies -- cloudy, seductive, their motivations vague and distant -- or for more of that hostility to come from within himself. Nevertheless, a riveting, witty ride -- just not exactly a cracking good time, or as deep and poetic in its tragedy as its closing moments suggest.

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