Out of the Past

The first and last scenes of films are critical for an audience’s understanding—a first and last impression for the director to impart their film’s raison-d’etre. In Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, the first and last scenes both feature the same character: an unnamed, deaf boy. By placing this character, called ‘The Kid’ by others in the film, in such pivotal scenes, Tourneur signals the importance of the kid in his film.

This first scene shows Joe Stefanos searching for Jeff Bailey at his place of work, a gas station Bailey owns and the kid works for. Stefanos berates the kid, saying “deaf and dumb, eh?” when he realizes the kid’s disabilities. Yet Stefanos also needs the boy—this ‘deaf and dumb’ kid is the only person who knows where Bailey is.

Later in the film, Stefanos and Kathie trick the boy, using him as a tool to find and kill Bailey. As Stefanos creeps along a river gorge where the boy and Bailey are both fishing, the contrast between the two characters is vast. Stefanos is dressed in full-city garb, a long dark coat and fedora hat, while the boy looks right at home in fishing gear that matches the natural setting. Ultimately, the kid—who again Stefanos declared dumb—kills Stefanos and saves Bailey’s life.

This inversion of the castrated man is fascinating. Prior to killing Stefanos, the kid was the castrated man defined—what every man feared becoming. He was a boy without phallic power, without even a name, literally silenced because he failed to fit within the patriarchy’s tight standards. Yet, he then inverts this definition by killing Stefanos and saving Bailey. In the world of Out of the Past, phallic power and patriarchy are reveled to be their true selves: fragile and a masculine grasp for control in a chaotic world.

Ann asks the boy if Bailey was truly going to run away with Kathie in the final scene, trusting the boy to tell her the truth. In a genre defined by deceit and manipulation, Ann decides to trust this kid to tell her the truth and make a massive life decision—since he says yes, she decides to be with and likely marry a different man.

 As an audience member, we question what is truly masculine? What is truly powerful? As the kid lies to Ann and usurps power for himself, the film says that this is an act of true masculinity. That to be masculine is to control and coerce. That the kid as trust-worthy, honest, and stable was worthy of castration. And now? In manipulating Ann’s future, in deciding that he can dictate a woman’s life, the kid becomes what the patriarchy defines as a man.

After-Class Analysis:

Kaplan identifies recurrent visual motifs of the femme fatale: visual expressions of women’s sexual power and their danger to male characters. These sexual and often violent forms of iconography include long hair, long legs, make-up, and jewelry—critically images associated with most women, as in noir, no woman can truly be trusted. Cigarettes and guns also serve as a cue for dark female sensuality while also referencing their unusual phallic power.

This powerful, strong, sexual image of the femme fatale is what viewers remember, not their inevitable demise. As Kaplan points out, the lessons of the myth of sensuality–that women are manipulative, must be controlled, etc.–is often overshadowed by the images of the women themselves. The visual style of noir and noir women overwhelm the actual plot and narrative content.

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