No big eyes

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Before the character Kathie Moffat even appears on screen in director Jacques Tourneur's gripping 1947 film noir Out of the Past, viewers suspect that she's trouble incarnate. Oily, high-rolling gangster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) hires private eye Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum) to track down Kathie, who was Sterling's girlfriend — until she fired four shots at him (one finding its mark in his gut) and took it on the lam with $40,000 of his cash. "She must be quite a dame," Markham's PI partner notes laconically, "a wild goose with 40 G's." A dead-on assessment, as the audience will soon discover, the hard way.

When Markham catches up with Kathie in Acapulco, she first materializes in a stunning tableau, strolling into a cantina through cascading light and shadow, an incandescent presence dressed entirely in white. But as portrayed by actress Jane Greer, Kathie is no cookie-cutter noir firebreather; instead, Greer defies genre expectations by rendering her character as an utterly convincing damsel in distress, a wounded victim of the evil Sterling. She proceeds to play hard-boiled paramours Jeff and Whit for chumps through the rest of the film, lying, seducing, and inveigling her way out of one predicament after another, a raven-haired dazzler who never for a moment betrays her true nature. Which, of course, makes her even more deadly, especially when she's clutching a revolver.

Out of the Past proved to be the apogee of Greer's modest Hollywood career, but her Kathie set the standard against which all future noir femme fatales would be measured. When Greer died of complications related to cancer at the age of 76 this past August in Los Angeles, no one had yet surpassed her as Queen Viper. "I was believable," the actress once explained, "because although my character Kathie was a bitch, a liar, and a killer, she looked soft and innocent." Director Tourneur laid out the role for her: "He said to me, 'First half of picture, Good Girl. Last half of picture, Bad Girl. No big eyes.'"

Born Bettejane Greer in Washington, D.C., in September 1924, she was thrust into show business at an early age by her mother, entering child talent shows and beauty pageants, modeling professionally at age 12, and then dropping out of high school in her senior year to sing in a pair of popular local big bands. Her big break came when her mother, an employee of the War Department, secured Bettejane a job modeling uniforms for a recruitment poster for the Women's Army Corps. When the resulting photo showed up in a June 1942 issue of Life magazine, it caused many hearts to flutter, among them those of two particularly powerful men.

Movie-studio mogul Howard Hughes responded most ardently not long afterward, summoning Greer to Los Angeles, where he signed her to a personal contract. But it was bandleader and crooner Rudy Vallee who successfully wooed Bettejane, and they married in December 1943, infuriating Hughes. Divorced from Vallee the following summer, Greer moved in with Hughes and, finally, embarked on a motion-picture career, debuting in the low-budget 1945 melodrama Two O'Clock Courage, making a minor splash in the next year's The Falcon's Alibi, then attaining demi-stardom in 1947's They Won't Believe Me. The latter role catapulted her into Out of the Past and subsequent noir iconography.

Greer went on to illuminate a handful of other movies, notably director Don Siegel's tense 1949 The Big Steal (also with Mitchum) and 1950's soapy The Company She Keeps, before temporarily retiring in 1953 to raise a family with a new husband. She worked intermittently from the late '50s through the '90s, surfacing in 1984 to play Kathie's mother in Against All Odds, an ersatz remake of Out of the Past, and guesting with Mitchum on "Saturday Night Live" in an OOTP spoof — a certifiable signifier of the film's (and her own) mythic status.

"How could I fail?" she recalled later in life. "It's the kind of part where people are talking the character up in such intriguing terms for the first reel of the picture — 'quite a gal,' et cetera. And for my first appearance, I walk into the saloon out of the sunlight wearing a big picture hat while soft, romantic music plays on the soundtrack. I was in."

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Michael Yockel writes for City Paper, where this feature first appeared. Send comments to [email protected]
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