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Noir Love: Not for the Faint of Heart

By Karen Burroughs Hannsberry

Film noir is rife with greed and murder. Backstabbing and deceit. Scheming and thievery, cynicism and malice.

And love.


Well, love or something like it.

In this season of amour, it’s only fitting to take a look at two of noir’s most fascinating “love” matches and see what makes them so memorable.

Kathie Moffat and Jeff Bailey: Out of the Past (1947)

One of the era’s quintessential offerings, Out of the Past centers on Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), an ex-private detective turned service station owner, who finds that, no matter how hard he tries, he can’t escape his yesterdays. Jeff’s story unfolds as he reveals his past to his girlfriend (Virginia Huston) – a past that includes his relationship with Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who he was hired to track down after she shot her then-boyfriend, Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), and (allegedly) stole from him a cool 40 grand. It’s Whit, incidentally, who engaged Jeff’s services, and Whit who’s the catalyst for Jeff’s past catching up with him.

Jeff’s initial encounter with Kathie serves up an unforgettable imprint; after trailing her to Mexico, he waits day after day in a local cafe, hoping that she’ll appear, and, eventually, she does. “I used to sit there half asleep with a beer in the darkness, only the music from the movie next door kept jarring me awake,” Jeff recalls. “And then I saw her — coming out of the sun.” Before you can say “Bob’s your uncle,” Jeff is in deep, and when Kathie assures him that she didn’t take the money from Whit, Jeff resolutely responds, “Baby, I don’t care.”

Kathie and Jeff flee to San Francisco and for a while, they bask in the delightful warmth of their connection. It’s an unusual depiction for the realm of noir; we see them genuinely enjoying each other – attending the races, visiting a local movie house, laughing and joking like a couple of kids. But playtime is over when Jeff’s former partner, Fisher (Steve Brodie), catches up to the pair, and Kathie shoots and kills him. It’s at that moment that Jeff — and we — get an idea of just who and what Kathie really is. And an exclamation point is added to that realization when Kathie flees into the night, leaving behind a bankbook that shows a $40,000 deposit.

When Jeff’s past catches up with him, we learn that Kathie has returned to Whit, and that she’s not just a killer, but a ruthless, conscienceless, master manipulator. And Jeff knows it – no matter how smoothly Kathie lies, or how earnestly she pleads for his understanding, or how sweetly she assures him that she still cares for him. For Jeff, Kathie has been unmasked, and he won’t be taken in by her again — or, will he? It appears that Jeff’s love for Kathie has transformed into utter contempt (“You’re like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another,” he says at one point), but there’s one scene where we’re not so sure. “I’ve never stopped loving you,” Kathie breathily tells Jeff, her eyes full of soulful sincerity. “I was afraid and no good, but I’ve never stopped. Even if you hated me. Did you?” She paints an appealing picture for Jeff, telling him they can return to Acapulco and start all over again — and when Jeff kisses Kathie, we can’t help but wonder what Jeff is really feeling. Is he once again under the spell of that old black magic called love?

Kathie Moffat and Jeff Bailey from "Out of the Past" (1947)

George and Sherry Peatty: The Killing (1956)

The Killing is, for my money, one of noir’s best films. Director Stanley Kubrick uses a unique method of telling the story, leaping backward and forward in time, with the varying cinematic puzzle pieces connected by a pervasive narrator. The plot focuses on an intricately devised racetrack heist, involving a divergent group of men who, as one character clarifies, aren’t “criminals in the usual sense – they’ve all got jobs, they all live seemingly normal, decent lives, but they’ve got their problems, and they’ve all got a little larceny in ‘em.” They include ringleader Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), who has recently been released from prison after a five-year stretch, beat cop Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia), bartender Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer), and George Peatty (Elisha Cook, Jr.), who works as a cashier at the racetrack. Each of the men has their own reason for wanting the money that will result from the heist; Kennan owes the local mob for a gambling debt and O’Reilly is caring for his bedridden spouse. As for George, his reason is simple: his wife, Sherry (Marie Windsor).

We’re introduced to George and Sherry in an economical scene that goes right to the heart of their respective personas. George — a rather mousy, soft-spoken sort — arrives from work to his tiny, one-room apartment, hoping to elicit a little marital concern about the pain in his stomach, and sharing with Sherry the “sweet” interaction he observed between an older couple on the bus who called each other “Mama” and “Papa.” Sadly for George, he doesn’t receive the response he’d hoped for. Sherry — all bleached blonde and buxom — barely even looks at her husband and speaks only to order him to fix her a drink and poke fun at his story. 

Unlike with Jeff and Kathie, we’re not privy to the circumstances surrounding the meeting and courtship of George and Sherry. What we do know is that theirs is a painfully one-sided relationship, a fact that’s made even more plain when George asks Sherry why she married him: “You used to love me,” he says. “You said you did, anyway.” And Sherry doesn’t tiptoe around reality with her answer: apparently, George had promised her a lavish lifestyle that would include a Park Avenue apartment and a different car for every day of the week. “Not that I really care about such things, understand,” she adds in a tone fairly saturated with sarcasm, “as long as I have a big, handsome, intelligent brute like you.” But Sherry’s barbs and callous quips seem to sail over George’s head like a balloon in a breeze — even after she peppers him with a barrage of facetious phrases upon his arrival from work (and we know this isn’t atypical behavior), he tells her, “You know I’m crazy about you. I’d do anything in the world for you.”

We also quickly learn something else about the relationship between this couple: Sherry is running the show. As masterful as Kathie was in the manipulation derby, she could have taken lessons from Sherry. When George unintentionally hints about the upcoming heist but refuses to give any details, Sherry launches into an all-out offensive, first using sweet-talk to try to secure the information. When this fails, she abruptly switches tactics, feigning indignation at George’s lack of trust, and then moving on to subtle threats (“Don’t you be surprised if I’m not here when you get home . . .”). Needless to say, it doesn’t take long for George to spill the beans — and only slightly longer for Sherry to share those beans with her young and virile lover, Val (Vince Edwards). 


Like most noir couples, there’s no good end in store for Kathie and Jeff or George and Sherry.

Interestingly, while it’s the men in the relationships who loved wisely but not too well, those same men are also directly responsible for the demise of the duos. It’s a cautionary tale for the distaff side of the noir connections — be careful what you wish for, and be careful what you’re willing to do — and to whom you’re willing to do it — to make those wishes a reality. 

Love. In the world of noir, it’s a losing game.


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