Out of the Past, directed by Jacques Tourneur and released by RKO Radio Productions in 1947 is considered by many to be the quintessential film noir. In this analysis we will take a closer look at the scene where Jeff Markham and Kathie Moffat go back to Kathie’s cabin. The scene makes use of many of the cinematic elements for which film noir is notorious. Low key lighting mixed with rainy weather set the stage for Jeff and Kathie’s elicit romantic encounter while Jeff’s voiceover at the beginning of the scene makes it clear to the audience as to who whose eyes we are viewing the film. In addition, we never actually see Jeff and Kathie make love, a testament to the realities of film censorship back in the 1940s. In the following analysis we will attempt to draw a connection between these formal elements and what I see as the main thematic issue of the film, sexual deviance.
The scene begins with an outdoor establishing shot that pans to show Jeff and Kathie running into Kathie’s cabin to escape the rain. The rain can be considered a part of the plot, but it is really a cinematic element, creating an environment for us to exist in with the film. The rain very easily reflects the overall inhospitable nature of the film for the audience and the characters. This feeling of inhospitality can be seen as an attempt to communicate to the audience that this scene should not be taking place if all was right in the world, but in a noir, it never is.
Next, we hear Jeff’s voiceover describing the apartment as he sizes it up. While this element of the scene might be overlooked, I will argue that it is indicative of the film and film noir in general. This is not the first time in the film that we hear Jeff’s narration. But this scene is a prime example of how the film is told from a definite male perspective and how that perspective colors the films presented outlook, especially when it comes to sexual acts.
Jeff also points out that “one little lamp burned.” This brings us to the element of light in the scene and film. Noir’s are known for their low key lighting and this scene in particular is a great example of its use. The low key lighting effectively creates very rich shadows throughout the cabin that the characters must walk through during the scene. While it accomplishes a similar task as the rain in making the scene inhospitable, the lack of light, ironically, reveals how the film again views the sex act about to take place. This is not one of the opening scenes of the film where we see Jeff with his “good” girlfriend Ann outside in a clear bright shot. No, we are presented here with two lovers who should not be together in the eyes of society and thus they are shrouded in darkness because we not want to accept what is going on.
This brings us to our last element. Right after Kathie puts a record on to play and we begin to hear its music she sit down next to Jeff and then in a flash Jeff throws a towel, that is wet with rain, on to the lone lamp, knocking it over and plunging the room into darkness. The music swells to a crescendo as the cabin door blows open and we are given a view of the rainy exterior. In the following two shots we see Jeff go close the door and Kathie turn off the record player. These succession of scenes can be understood as being tantamount to the audience looking away as the forbidden love making occurs, for we can not even glimpse that which is so deviant.
In conclusion, the scene in which the femme fatale of the noir insnares our protagonist, the private investigator, in her forbidden lair uses many of the formal elements for which film noir are known for. But these elements are not just a rag-tag group of ideas that give a dark mood to the film. These elements successfully make us aware of the fact that what is going on is not considered proper by the standards of the society of the time.