Geoffrey Samuel – Cinema and Law – ten films for the Comparatist? (2) – Out of the Past and Letter From an Unknown Woman

In a previous blog I looked at four films (two double bills) whose themes for the comparatist were, first, the notion of persona and, secondly, the confrontation between cultures. In this third double bill I would like to suggest two Hollywood movies from the 1940s whose plots are very different at one level but, at another level, have a number of common elements.

Outofthepast  Out of the Past (1947) (aka Build My Gallows High) belongs to the classic detective film noir tradition made famous by earlier films such as The Maltese Falcon (1940) and The Big Sleep (1946), these latter two having Humphrey Bogart as the iconic private eye. Out of the Past is in many ways a much darker film, but one whose imagery, script, plotting and characterisations are superior to the Bogart movies, as excellent as these two might be. It was directed by Jacques Tourneur who had already made his name as one of the European émigrés that brought to Hollywood the rich expressionist monochrome style that was one of the defining characteristics of the 40’s film noir. ‘Paint it Black’, wrote Raymond Durgnat in one of the first major UK articles on this genre of movie.

The film opens with the camera placed within a car which arrives in a small Californian town to pull into a Jeff Bailey’s garage. This is the past coming to reclaim Bailey (Robert Mitchum). As the journey into the past begins, Bailey finally tells the truth to his girlfriend (Virginia Huston), one of two people devoted to Jeff, that he is not Bailey but Markham, an ex-private eye who had betrayed a client – a gang boss called Whit (Kirk Douglas) – by falling in love with the boss’ lover, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who had run away with a large sum of Whit’s money. Whit had hired Jeff to find her, which he did, but the couple then tried to make their own life together which finally collapsed when Jeff’s ex-partner sees them together at the racecourse. Jeff does his best to throw off his ex-partner (a good ‘gumshoe’), but to no avail – he had followed her not him – and the situation is only resolved (so to speak) when Kathie cold-bloodedly kills the ex-partner and disappears leaving Jeff to bury the body and to try to find a new life. It is Whit who claws Jeff back into the past by hiring him to steal back some tax records which are being used to blackmail Whit; Jeff, riddled with guilt about how he had betrayed the gang boss, agrees, only to find that Whit, and Kathie (now back with Whit), are setting him up as the murderer of the blackmailer. Jeff manages to escape from this complex frame-up but only to find himself back under the control of Kathie after she once again cold-bloodedly kills another obstacle to her ambition, namely Whit himself. Jeff again, seemingly, runs away with Kathie but, as a final phone call made by Jeff while Kathie is packing, indicates, Jeff has had enough. He has betrayed too many people; not just Whit, his ex-partner and his devoted girlfriend but equally himself.

Jeff’s small town girlfriend, Ann, was not the only person devoted to him. His young garage assistant, The Kid (Dickie Moore), who is deaf and mute but no fool or coward (he saves Jeff’s life at one point by killing Whit’s unpleasant ‘heavy’), is more than just a faithful employee; in Jeff he finds some escape from his isolated world and seems intuitively to ‘know’ about Jeff and his past. The Kid is in many ways central to the structure of the complex plot in that he is the messenger who, through his sign language to Jeff at the beginning of the film about the mystery visitor to the garage (Jeff was in the mountains with his girlfriend fishing), warns us that the past is about to revisit, and not in a positive way. “Trouble”, asks his girlfriend; “Maybe not”, Jeff pessimistically replies. The Kid is there at the end of the film as well. First to indicate to Jeff’s grieving girlfriend that, yes, Jeff was running off with Kathie (but how could he have known?) and then to gesture with affection to the sign displaying Jeff’s name over the garage. It is only as one leaves the cinema that we realise just how much The Kid’s life, together with Ann’s, have been ruined by Jeff – Ann must seemingly now turn to the ‘decent’ but actually smug and boring local law officer who has always been devoted to her and The Kid has nothing to look forward to without the one person who cared for him.

Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948) equally has a mute observer who acts as the knowerLetter_from_an_Unknown_Woman_poster and interpreter of the events which unfold in this drama of obsession. What pulls Stefan (Louis Jourdan), a professional and once very talented musician, back into the past is a letter from a woman who declares at the very beginning of the letter that by the time he reads it she will be dead. It is this striking opening that captures Stefan’s attention and totally distracts him from his hastily rushed plan to escape a duel that he knows would kill him. We soon learn (unlike Stefan), because the letter is the vehicle for a film consisting entirely of a narrative about the past, that the writer is Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) who has spent her entire life from the age of 14 or so desperately in love with the musician whom she first hears and sees as a neighbour in the same apartment building in Vienna. In quietly watching her neighbour, Lisa soon discovers what a philander he is; a charmer who returns each night to his apartment with a different woman and then sends out his servant, a mute but very kindly man, to buy food and champagne. But this life-style does not seem to depress her love for him and years later, after turning down to the shock of her parents a ‘good’ marriage proposal, she becomes one of his ‘one week stands’ so to speak, ending up pregnant as a result. Refusing to impose herself on, or even contact, Stefan, she raises her son with much love and by the time he is 10 or so marries a very respectable older military man, but only to be drawn back into the past when she sees Stefan, now a ‘has been’, at a concert which she attends with her husband. She gives up everything to go to him – to tell him about her life and love – but this ends in tragedy when he treats her as just another woman – he has no recollection of her – causing her to flee and to a life that finally kills, first, her son and then her. Having read the letter, Stefan asks his servant whether he knew who she was and he writes on a card ‘Lisa’. He knew what Stefan did not. Stefan decides not to flee, finally remembering the image of the loving young girl in the apartment block as he sets off towards his own death (in a duel with Lisa’s husband).

In the hands of Max Ophuls this film transcends its seemingly one-dimensional narrative to become a closed world of an imagined Vienna in which the sheer power of Lisa’s utterly devoted love for Stefan blends with the rather exotically claustrophobic sets (Joan Fontaine, in my view, is outstanding). These sets inject a visual depth into the human relationships. The restaurant where Stefan takes his women – including Lisa – in the first half of the film expresses a richness that mirrors Stefan’s own musical talent but, equally, indicates, in the latter part of the story, the sheer decline of this musician when Lisa is informed that Stefan no longer comes here. It is this restaurant that tells us all we need to know about Stefan. Ophuls, an extraordinarily sophisticated film director (of course another European émigré), indulges us with a fantasy within a fantasy. A central scene in the Stefan and Lisa romantic evening is a fairground where they both take a fantasy train ride in a cabin where the landscape is one of a moving picture curtain that unfolds thanks to someone pedalling it on a circuit. This is Ophuls’ view of romance, utterly constructed by our fantasies, with of course the tragic, later, consequences. What goes around comes around (a theme developed by Ophuls in another of his films, La Ronde, 1950)

However, let us get back to the basic question. Why should these two films be of interest to the comparative lawyer? There are perhaps several reasons. The first concerns time, in particular the importance of the past. The 20th century was dominated by legal theorists whose jurisprudential constructions were founded in an a priori and timeless notion of law. Yet can any true understanding of law escape the question: what has law been? These two films will of course not answer this question, but they might provoke the comparatist into reflecting about the past and just how fragile contemporary political and social constructions are in the face of this past. When the ERASMUS scheme was put into place, was there not a huge confidence in the whole European project? And has not this project, at least in the UK, been destroyed, like Jeff’s existence, by the pull of the past? By a Daily Mail dream of how Britain once was? Not all comparatists will see it this way, but at least the pull of the past is something upon which it is valuable to reflect.

A second reason is to be found in the notion of ethics. A Canadian comparative lawyer at the University of Montreal has used the work of Emmanuel Levinas to argue that the comparatist’s understanding and knowledge of the Other should always be based upon an ethical relationship. In both of these films there are characters – the mute characters – who perhaps represent this ethical link between the various protagonists, for both these mute characters seem to have within them a genuine moral outlook even if they are unable in the end to use this outlook to save those to whom they are close. The Kid displays both devotion and real courage, while the servant’s full mental retention of Lisa – he knew all along what the situation was – helps convince Stefan to overcome his cowardice, even if it will have a tragic, but honourable, consequence.

A third reason might be found in the relationship between comparative law, feminist legal theory and the importance of ‘local culture’. It might seem, at first viewing, that Lisa and Kathy are hardly feminist heroes, but if one can carry one’s reflection beyond the immediate plot lines of each film, two interesting female characters emerge. Lisa may have been hopelessly in love with Stefan and this could, on the surface, be perceived as a weakness. Yet if one thinks about it Lisa is anything but a weak character. She leaves the safety and comfort of her secure parents’ home to go to live alone in Vienna where she survives by her hard work. Later, after the birth of her son, she continues this independent existence, presumably working even harder both to live and to bring up her child. She is resolute about never herself contacting Stefan; she asks him for nothing. Her problem, if that is what it is, is an obsession which becomes virtually the whole object of her life. Letter From an Unknown Woman is not a film about some meek and mild woman exploited by a selfish man – although of course she was exploited by a selfish man. It is a film that is actually about a very strong woman who finds herself in a tragic situation.

Kathie Moffat is usually portrayed as the paradigm femme fatale. “Kathie exploits and betrays the men”, says one male film writer; another writer describes her as “lethal” and a “corrupt woman”. Well, one might ask, what about the men in the film? Most of them appear lethal and corrupt and the more one thinks about Jeff’s past the more corrupt he appears. Why should Kathie not be like the men who form the social context and background within which she lives and works (and was possibly brought up)? She is far more intelligent than most of them (including Jeff) and rather than being just ‘lethal’ and ‘corrupt’ she is actually trying to get ahead of the game so to speak. Some might respond by pointing to the fact she kills Jeff’s partner in ‘cold blood’ (to quote several film writers) and, later, kills Whit. But she knows that Jeff’s partner was nothing but a cheap black-mailer who would ruin their lives and Whit a violent, and tiresome, bully. Her cultural upbringing would ‘rightly’ tell her that this is the only way to deal with such people. In fact this is basically what she tells Jeff. Whit and his associates would, of course, have done the same thing in the same circumstances, but, somehow, film writers would not be describing them with the same distain they reserve for the femmes fatales. If Jeff had not ‘betrayed’ her, she would have given him a reasonable life. After all, she had been pretty faithful when they had run away together and he had been the lowest of low detectives to keep them in, presumably, meagre bread. But what Jeff could not face, in the end, was that she would be the one in charge. Jacques Tourneur and his scriptwriter Daniel Mainwaring produced a film that is perhaps more nuanced than some film writers have appreciated.

Here, then, is another interesting point for reflection for the comparatist. Is not the vilification of Kathie a failure to appreciate the cultural context in which she exists? Once one appreciates this context, and then applies an ethical interpretation, Kathie emerges in rather a different light. One is not saying she is some kind of moral figure. Indeed quite the opposite, as of course she would be the first to admit. But Out of the Past is not really interested in moral characters – save to the extent as portraying some of them as insufferably stuffy and boring (one can only feel sorry for poor Ann now stuck with the law and order man). It is essentially portraying a culture that operates outside of the law; it is about the dark side of society. So, when judged in these terms, Kathie proves to be far more ambiguous. Indeed, had Jeff not betrayed her and himself, she might well have found space to look after the Kid as well. She had that potential.

Note: Future posts are likely to discuss following movies: Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Man of the West (1958), A History of Violence (2005), The Killers (1964), Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) and Voyage Surprise (1947).

Professor Geoffrey Samuel

Kent Law School

September 2017

(Suggested citation: G. Samuel, “Cinema and law: Ten films for the comparatist (2) – Out of the Past and Letter From an Unknown Woman”, available at