Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Great Unwatched: The Deadly Bees (1967) and Out of the Past (1947)

Out of the Past (1947)

Director: Jacques Tourneur
Runtime: 97 minutes

As the credits came up on Out of the Past, I thought to myself, "I have never seen a film-noir before this; I only thought that I had." This thought is particularly amusing, because as Tourneur's movie opened -- and despite the title card -- I thought that I'd put the wrong disc in the player.

Let me explain. Out of the Past has a reputation as one of the great film-noirs, a genre known for their oppressive cityscapes and chiaroscuro lighting. Tourneur's past work with Val Lewton's horror unit demonstrates that he has a way with shadowy cinematography. So it's a shock when the first sights we see in Out of the Past are open plains, the first sounds a slightly rustic musical cue. One of the credits notes that the film is based on a novel called "Build My Gallows High." When we finally see a hard-top car driving along the country road, it's a relief -- this is not a Western after all.

Of course, this is the genius of Out of the Past. It's a film that seems to define the film-noir experience, but it wouldn't work without the film-noir tropes already established by earlier films. One of the key elements of great film-noir is that those elongated shadows and endlessly criss-crossing city streets form a prison around the protagonist, locking them into the date with destiny they made when they gave in to their passion. Opening on a sun-bathed rural community is a calculated surprise; it drives the mystery before a single word is spoken. Why are we here and not the city? What is coming out of the past? The Western associations also work in Tourneur's favor. That car that drives up the road is both welcome (because it's a clue we're in the movie we expected to be) and strange (its dark color makes it look like an unwelcome invader of this dusty village).

The man in the car is looking for Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), the local gas station owner who used to be another person entirely -- Jeff Markham, private eye. Their meeting begins Out of the Past's descent into darkness, as night and shadow creep into the tale (both metaphorically and visually) with alarming speed. Markham became Bailey to hide from a big-shot named Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). Why he went into hiding is a story he tells his girl during the drive to Sterling's lodge, with the requisite flashback and narration. Why he needed to hide comprises the rest of the movie.

My original summary of the film isn't accurate; it's not that I hadn't seen a film-noir before, it's that I'd never seen a film-noir protagonist before. How could there be any other except Robert Mitchum? The rest, even his predecessors, seem like pale imitations, shadows if you will. Hard-bitten doesn't begin to describe him. When he breathes, "Baby, I don't care" to Jane Greer, you know that he goddamn means it. He has a way with conveying emotion that's guarded and revealing all at once. When his deaf station assistant tells him he has a visitor, his face barely moves, but his expression changes all the same. It's a masterpiece of performance.

Worth the Purchase? Oh definitely.

The Deadly Bees (1967)

Director: Freddie Francis
Runtime: 83 minutes

This one's a bit of a cheat, as I'd seen a truncated version of The Deadly Bees once in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. A lack of wisecracking robots does this film no favors, unfortunately. It's slow, repetitive, and silly. A pop star (Suzanna Leigh) goes to a remote island to recuperate from a nervous breakdown, only to be caught in a hive of villainy -- one of the island's two beekeepers is releasing a new strain of killer bees on the unsuspecting populace. Is it cold, forceful Guy Doleman or the doddering, avuncular Frank Finlay? Does the audience care? Notable mainly for a strong performance from that ubiquitous supporting player of British horror, Michael Ripper, as the local barkeeper/lawman.

Worth the Purchase? I should've been stingier with my money.


In Two Weeks: Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

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