- Out of the Black Past: The Image of the Fugitive Slave in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past
In 1947, the same year that Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past was released, Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement won the Academy Award for Best Picture. A mainstream film that focused on anti-Semitism, Gentleman’s Agreement was not without its virtues, though it was often didactic and self-congratulatory. Its protagonist, journalist Philip Schuyler (Gregory Peck), pretends to be Jewish to write a story on anti-Semitism, but the film’s moral focus is upon Schuyler’s finance, Kathy Lacey (Dorothy McGuire) who lacks the courage of her convictions. She is against anti-Semitism but is unwilling to speak out, especially in situations in which bigots voice their opinions. Schuyler forces her to overcome her own timidity, to see that if she confronts her fears, the demons of prejudice will disappear. A reflection of America’s Enlightenment tradition, Gentleman’s Agreement assumes that the voice of reason will ultimately prevail, that the dark shadows of America’s past can be erased.1 In Out of the Past, director Jacques Tourneur and screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring (whose pen name was Geoffrey Homes) were not that sanguine. Their film, called “one of the finest examples of film noir in Hollywood’s history” (Flynn 44), would show that the terrors of history were still present in post-World War II American culture.
Before directing Out of the Past, Tourneur had explored racial themes in film noir by concealing them within the “pulp” context of popular culture. Before 1947, he had already directed the racially charged Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943). In Cat People, Irena (Simone Simon), is Serbian, and she tells a tale to her future American husband about the history of her village in Serbia in which the villagers were enslaved by the “Marmadukes.” Some of the truly wicked villagers fled to the mountains and became black panthers, and Irena fears that the curse of the past may fall upon her. To her fiancé, the past, as Irena describes it, is just “stuff.” He laughs at her story, reminding her that this is twentieth-century America. Nothing like that tale has ever happened here. I Walked with a Zombie also explores history as something more than just “stuff.” The film is a version of the Jane Eyre story set in the modern island of Antigua in the West Indies, but the wife of the Rochester character is a zombie instead of a mad woman in an attic. Supposedly she has become one of the walking dead as punishment for her infidelity to her husband, but Tourneur suggests that the real reason for the loss of her soul lies in her kinship to the first slave owners on the island.
Like Tourneur, Mainwaring was also an unapologetic Leftist. Two years after he wrote the screenplay for Out of the Past, he would write the screenplay for Joseph Losey’s The Lawless (1949), a film about a lynching and the racial tensions between Mexican Americans and the white populace of a small town in California. In the 1950s, Mainwaring also wrote screenplays for the fictional documentary The Phenix City Story (1955) and the science fiction thriller Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), both of which were veiled narratives about racial violence. Co-written with Crane Wilbur Diamond, Mainwaring used the script for The Phenix City Story (1955) to attack the segregated South of the era. The movie claimed to be a “shocking” exposé of the “syndicate” that controls a small Alabama town through gambling, prostitution, and drugs. The movie is, however, a cleverly coded indictment of racism in the fictional small town of Phenix City, Alabama. The film lets us know that its subject is [End Page 97] the civil rights movement by including a truly shocking scene: the dead body of a young black girl is thrown from a car by the city’s ruthless power brokers with a note attached as a warning to the white citizens: “This will happen to your kids.” Mainwaring’s most famous screenplay, of course, was the one...