Just because I was Googling in a mad rush the other day, I ran across a still from Out of the Past, Jacques Tourneur’s merciless, seductive noir starring Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer. It didn’t take me long to go into a reverie about the movie and all of its wonderful, haunted twists and turns, and to remember how good she and Mitchum were together. I’d forgotten that she actually appeared in Taylor Hackford’s ill-advised remake of Out of the Past, entitled Against All Odds, essentially playing the mother of the character she played in the original film. I’d also forgotten that she played Peggy Lipton’s mother on several episodes of Twin Peaks. And she was good in a not particularly inspiring role as Lon Chaney’s second wife in the lush Cinemascope biography Man of a Thousand Faces, starring James Cagney. But probably the movie in which I love her most, perhaps the only other movie in which I’ve seen her, is Don Siegel’s The Big Steal, which reteamed her with Mitchum on the lam into Mexico, tossing back and forth some excellent barbed-wire dialogue and throwing a much harsher Mexican sun on the sexual chemistry that was more appropriately subtle and shadowy (but no less strong) between them in Out of the Past. Greer had that sharpness, that insouciance that I find so attractive in actresses of this period, yet at the same time she wasn’t someone you’d look at and necessarily think “tough cookie” like you would of, say, Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, or Forty Guns, or Ball of Fire. Greer’s toughness was hidden underneath a veil of curves and Midwestern appeal, a nonthreatening outward appearance that made the revelation of the thicker skin, the meaner mouth, and in the case of Out of the Past the blacker heart within, even more disturbing.
I’ll give the last word to David Thomson. I especially love his description of her in the first paragraph quoted below. Thomson wrote about Greer upon her death in 2001:
“I can't really say that Jane Greer was a great actress, or that she might have been, given better opportunities. Chances are not, or she'd have stuck at it. But she had a lethal smile, long floppy hair and eyes like large blueberries floating in cream -- you wanted to play bobbing for eyes. She was one of those women you could smell, even on film. Have you noticed that? There are some actresses who have a fragrance, or a scent. And with Jane Greer it was very sweet and sophisticated, until you got the aftertaste -- and there was something like death in that.
You could say she was lucky. Out of the Past is a very good film: Jacques Tourneur knew how to direct such pulp so that it seemed poetic, she had Nicholas Musuraca to gather the shadows around her pale face, she had yards of tart dialogue and she had Robert Mitchum to play off.
But give her credit. Just as she made it absolutely evident why (Mitchum) would do the stupidest things for her, without really doing anything more erotic than getting soaked in the rain in one scene, she made it quite clear -- in the sense of don't tell me I didn't warn you -- that she was treacherous, spiteful and entirely selfish.”