The first time I saw Out of the Past, I had never seen a film noir before and was not aware that I was watching one of the quintessential films of the (dare I called it?) genre. And the film did not make much of an impression on me at the time.
It was Double Indemnity that really got me going and after many years I thought it was time that I gave Out of the Past another chance. I enjoyed it much more this time. But one question still tantalizes me. What does Kathie Moffat, the femme fatale played by Jane Greer, really want?
Generally, femme fatales have pretty specific goals. Phyllis Dietrichson wants money. Brigid O’Shaunessy wants the Falcon (and money). Mrs. Grayle wants to be free of her past so she can go on enjoying money and men. But what is Kathie’s overarching goal?
This is a puzzler, because she behaves in such a contradictory fashion. She shoots gambler Whit (played by Kirk Douglas) and steals $40,000, running off to Mexico. When she is tracked down by private detective Jeff (Robert Mitchum), instead of giving him the slip, she hangs around and starts an affair with him. She even returns to American and hides out with him in shady places (not something I could ever imagine Phyllis Dietrichson doing – she’d have skipped town and gone to South America). When Jeff’s former partner shows up and tries to blackmail them, she shoots him and Jeff suddenly realizes that she’s not as innocent as he had believed (he believed that she did NOT steal the $40,000).
Now without Jeff, she returns to Whit, who she seems to not like very much. When Jeff comes back into their lives, she tries to have him framed for murder and later just plain murdered. Finally, when backed in a corner by Jeff AND Whit, she shoots Whit and blackmails Jeff into going away with her, saying that she always did find him a kindred spirit. When Jeff betrays her, she shoots him, too.
So, what are her motivations? Money? Doesn’t seem to be her main one. She stole that $40,000, but she seemed perfectly willing to stay in hiding with Jeff instead of dashing off to greener pastures. Their scenes are played like a romance movie. She’s always coming out of the sunlight, moonlight, headlights, running in the sand in her bare feet with her hair down like a woman renewed while Roy Webb’s romantic score romances away.
She says she’s afraid of Whit (assertions one has to take with a salt flat), but Whit’s attitude towards her is more one of possession than the bedazzled fascination of Jeff, so perhaps there’s some truth to what she says. But after all her running and hiding from Whit, even shooting Jeff’s partner when he threatens to tell Whit about them…she just returns to Whit and tells him everything about her and Jeff?
My sister’s theory is that she doesn’t have a specific goal; she’s living in the moment. She gets tired of Whit’s overbearing ways, so she shoots him and takes enough money to cover expenses (gambling and clothes and such). She’s attracted to Jeff, so she hangs around. She shoots Jeff’s partner, because he threatened her in the moment. Jeff loses his illusions about her, so she goes back to Whit. She kills Whit and has Jeff in her power – why not take him along with her?
It all seems rather unpremeditated. The only consistent thing I can see is that she likes to be in charge (and who can blame her). Still, it make Kathie Moffat a bit of an enigma and prevents her from seeming like a total force of evil. She’s mostly reacting to the moment and she doesn’t come off as any worse than anyone else. She’s a sociopath, but…I don’t know. Somehow, I found myself kind of on her side. Maybe it’s Robert Mitchum. Maybe he’s just too cool for me. Somehow, I rarely find myself firmly rooting for him in any of his films. It’s not that I dislike him or think he’s a bad actor. It’s just that I never quite make the leap towards being fully, emotionally on his side.
But what about you? What do you think Kathie Moffat really wants?