On December 09, 2016, movie fans wish a very happy 100th birthday to Issur Danielovitch Demsky, better known as Kirk Douglas.* For my natal tribute, I’ve chosen his charmingly menacing performance as Whit Sterling in possibly the most noir of all noirs, Out of the Past. Please note, there are major spoilers ahead. If you have not seen Out of the Past, what is the matter with you? I kid…bookmark this page, go watch it, and then come back.
Out of the Past is not Kirk Douglas’ film, not by any means. It’s told from the point of view of Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), and the latter’s narration leads us into the darkness of the film’s world. By the end, despite whatever the two men may think, it’s clear that the very fatal femme, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), is running the show. Moreover, Douglas’ Whit Sterling is a supporting character who appears in the film for comparatively few scenes…but Douglas makes the most of them to portray a smug, dapper, and very shady businessman, whose smooth exterior conceals deep anger and a desire for control and revenge.
To refresh our memories, here is a really quick summary of the film: The story starts off in a flashback. Gas station owner Jeff is summoned from a small California town to Whit’s Lake Tahoe vacation home by his former colleague Joe (Paul Valentine). As he is driving there, he tells his girlfriend, Ann (angelic Virginia Huston), about his past history with Whit. Three years before, Jeff was a private eye whom Whit had hired to find the latter’s girlfriend, Kathie. She had shot him, Whit claimed, and absconded with $40,000 (to this day a decent chunk of change). But Whit also claimed that he didn’t want revenge, or even the money back; he just wanted her. Jeff tracked Kathie to Acapulco, found her, and fell in love with her. Kathie emphasized that she hadn’t stolen the money and she was afraid of Whit. So Jeff lied to Whit, saying he hadn’t found Kathie, while the couple planned to run off together. But Whit suspected something was up, and he and Joe showed up at their hotel in Acapulco the very morning Jeff and Kathie were going to leave.
With Kathie narrowly escaping Whit’s notice, Jeff and Kathie went to San Francisco, knowing Whit would be looking for them. At first, they were careful, but they got sloppy, and eventually Jeff’s former partner, Fisher, found them, and tried to claim his part of the fee Whit was supposed to pay Jeff for finding Kathie. Jeff and Fisher fought, and Kathie shot Fisher and left. Jeff learned that Kathie DID in fact steal Whit’s $40K. Heartbroken, Jeff changed his name, settled in the small town of Bridgeport as a gas station operator, and began dating Ann. As Jeff finishes his story, we are in the present.
Long story short version, Jeff arrives at Whit’s to find that Kathie went back to Whit and told him that Jeff shot Fisher. Whit claims anything that happened between Jeff and Kathie is water under the bridge (“My feelings? About ten years ago, I hid them somewhere and haven’t been able to find them since”). He has a job for Jeff to do, which will atone for his betrayal with Kathie (“You’ll never be happy until you square yourself”). The job is ostensibly to retrieve incriminating tax documents from Whit’s accountant; the actuality is that Jeff is being set up for the accountant’s murder. Jeff realizes this and attempts to flip the script. He is partially successful. The resulting chain of events, in appropriate noir tradition, leaves everyone dead.
This short scene from the Acapulco sequence illustrates what Roger Ebert referred to as Mitchum and Douglas “smoking at each other, in a sublimated form of fencing.”
Douglas gives Whit a demeanor as coldly chipper as a cobra, showing us the mania for control underneath. Whit thinks he can win “the game” by imposing his will on everyone else, and he peppers his lines with contempt for everyone, indicated by Douglas with the smirk, just short of a snarl, that he went on to use so effectively in all his noir roles.”Joe couldn’t find a prayer in the Bible.”
Once Kathie’s treachery is known, Whit slaps her and makes one final attempt to control her in a speech Douglas delivers with perfect venom:
You dirty little phony. Go on, lie some more. Tell me how you handled things for me in San Francisco. Tell me it was all Joe’s idea. Go on, Kathie, show me how you’re gonna squirm your way out this time. What a sucker you must think I am. I took you back when you came whimpering and crawling. I should have kicked your teeth in. No, I’m not going to. Not now, Kathie. We’re gonna let the law push you around…You’re gonna take the rap and play along. You’re gonna make every exact move I tell ya. If you don’t, I’ll kill ya. And I’ll promise you one thing. It won’t be quick. I’ll break you first. You won’t be able to answer a telephone or open a door without thinking: ‘This is it.’ And when it comes, it still won’t be quick. And it won’t be pretty. You can take your choice.
In the end, though, Kathie shoots Whit (for the second time!) and attempts to set Jeff up for the murder. Both men are merely the pawns of one of the baddest noir women ever.
The actor would play a less malevolent version of Whit as Jonathan Shields in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)…it’s just a different racket that he keeps pulling everyone back into, proving that no one portrays charming evil like Kirk Douglas. Happy Birthday to one of the best!
*In case anyone was wondering, Douglas is a Sagittarius, with Moon in Gemini and Aquarius ascending.