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Smoking kills


I had a suspicion after watching Out of the Past that I overlooked an important element of Shutter Island’s mixture of noir elements. I was wondering if it had the credentials to be considered a noir, or if it was just borrowing pieces here, pieces there.

I can tell you that from hearing how Scorsese screened Out of the Past for his actors before filming, I expected it to have similar story beats. Actually, it’s pretty different most of the way through, but I think there are a couple of key elements Scorsese definitely borrowed. The first, which became a centrifugal point of the story in Shutter Island, was how the past kept creeping back in and informing the present, like a merciless tide. All we know about Teddy is what he tells us and more importantly, what he sees. There is that first beat on the boat where his partner asks how his wife died. From Teddy’s reaction, we know he’s lying. The narrative doesn’t have to convince us of that; you can read it his face. And in most noirs, when a guy like Jeff Bailey from Out of the Past starts talking about the past it’s generally the truth. In Jeff’s case, we know this because we then see it through his flashback.

So a character’s murky past has a great impact on the present, a noir staple I was cognizant of during Shutter Island. What wasn’t apparent to me until after watching Out of the Past was the aspect of the femme fatale.

Teddy’s dead wife makes a lot of strange appearances in Shutter Island. Even if she may be a voice from the past, she directs him and gives him information that plays into the present. It comes to a critical point where refusing to listen to her is a step his character must take to grow and move on from the past. We want him to refuse her, because we know she’s bad news even if the exact details remain unclear to us (eventually, they become crystal clear — maybe even too clear for some). But during the film, I didn’t see her as a femme fatale. It took a viewing of Out of the Past to realize it. Perhaps I thought she wasn’t “real enough” to anybody but Teddy. Or that she was part of the past, so how dangerous could she be?

Very, of course.

Roger Ebert called Out of the Past one of the finest noir films ever made. There are great performances from Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum, who played their characters with the right amount of distance and cool. Everybody smoked…a lot. I mean a lot.  Ebert said that if two characters were smoking it was like their version of fencing. And when there wasn’t any smoking, there was drinking. It all adds to the atmosphere of course, but personally I’ve never pretended to have a great affection for noir. I can’t really say what separates one great noir from another, and I’ve tried to understand. Los Angeles has an annual film noir festival that I attended at least twice. Most of the time I have trouble just remembering scenes, even whole movies, and when I’ve seen more than a few in a short span they tend to run together in my head. I associate the problem with black and white photography. For some reason, my brain remembers easier in color.

Maybe just as so. Those movies are all about trying to forget, anyway.


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