The Call of the Siren (Out of the Past, 1947) part 2

It is former acquaintance Joe who has found his way into the town where Jeff has been building his new, respectable life. Joe has come on behalf of Whit Sterling, a dubious businessman looking to rehire Jeff on a very personal, particular case. 

Jeff’s first reaction is reluctant, but then he decides to go. He drives off into the night on his way to a morning meeting at Whit’s house in Lake Tahoe. Along for the ride is Ann, who sits besides Jeff as they drive all night, and he confesses – starting with his real last name – his private detective past to her. He tells her about his last case, the retrieval of a wayward woman to a client. In an honest, no holds barred, anecdotal manner he shares with Ann the story of Kathie.

Kathie, the deadly dame and lover of his client Whit, who ran off to Acapulco, Mexico after robbing him of 40 grand and shooting him four times. When Jeff is hired by Whit, the urgency with which Whit wanted her back was evident to Jeff. It wasn’t until Jeff saw her for himself, however, why. 

When Jeff first sees Kathie, he is drinking a beer in a small cafe in downtown Acapulco, sitting out his time, as detectives often do. Her appearance is originally made apparent by the astonished look on his face as she steps into the cafe, and then followed by his description: “And then I saw her, coming out of the sun. And I knew why Whit didn’t care about that 40 grand.”

Now there’s an introduction worthy of a Femme Fatale.

The waiter sits Kathie at a table opposite of Jeff’s. She lights a cigarette, minding her own business, while looking impossibly chic considering the scorching Mexican sun and the rundown state of the cafe she chose to walk into. 

out_of_the_past_3(Kathie walks into the cafe, wearing a white dress clinging and swinging at all the right places)

Jeff makes his way to her table and strikes up a random conversation. She, of course, seems not the least bit interested in him, or what he has to say, yet leaves just enough room for a little hope – she hints at a club where she may just be found, sometime.

Understanding women and the game, Jeff knows she won’t be there that same night, but he goes anyway, and again, waits. The next night she does show up. She walks in, “out of the moonlight, smiling”, and is seated at an empty table. Jeff walks up from his table and sits down at hers, they share flirtatious banter, in which every few sentences she says something smart to provoke him. With each riposte he loses a bit of his cleverness, and not one single step down that decline goes unnoticed by her.

Sitting there all proud with her actual initials monogrammed on her purse, dressed to kill, fully in the know who Jeff is and why he is there, it is not hard to observe who has the upper hand in this scenario. 

When Jeff makes it known he wants to leave the bar, she offers to take him somewhere. The first place they go is a casino, where, at the roulette table, she shows him who she is by putting all her chips in one place. Jeff – who apparently still hasn’t realized what kind of woman he is dealing with – remarks “that isn’t the way to play it.”

While the croupier takes away all the chips she just lost, Kathie, unabashedly retorts: “I prefer it like that.”

Whether it’s because he doesn’t want to be confronted with her reckless side or simply wants to be alone with Kathie so he can cash in that kiss that’s been brewing between them, he manages to get her to take him to the beach. Again her choice of place. As they reach the shoreline, with Kathie walking slightly ahead of him, he stops her right at a stranded fishers boat. She turns, their eyes meet, and he moves towards her for their first kiss. It is a searing Latin American night, the sea water foaming and tempestuous. The fishing net of the stranded boat is waving wildly in the wind, as if to echo the sound of singing sirens. A dire warning, Alas, Jeff is caught in her net.

The two kissing scenes and what leads up to the introduction of each kiss is fundamental in establishing the two opposing paths each woman offers. 

It is Ann who represents all that is immaculate, honorable and provides the promise of an apple pie home scented fertile future. Whereas Kathie symbolizes his sordid past in all it’s erotic but toxic perfume, bourbon and gunpowder infused grimy gloom. 

And yet, Kathie is not merely some hot harlot that manages to catch his interest by sheer sex appeal, and Ann is more than just a virtuous woman with a heart of gold. 

Out of the Past is a tragic tale of inevitability, and ultimately, sacrifice. Neither good or bad prevails. The film does not quite carry that sort of morale. Instead, good and bad both have their own moment, and it is fate who has dealt the cards that reveal the outcome for each individual player as the story unfolds. 

© Barbara Timmers. Article Prepublication. All rights reserved.