Film and TV

Film Noir, Philosophy Meet in Free Out of the Past Program Thursday

Why would a world-renowned philosopher come to Denver to talk at a free screening of an old film noir? “When I talk about German philosophers, people tend to tune out. When I talk about movies, I get a much better reception,” says Robert Pippin, a Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche expert at the University of Chicago, who'll be in town on Thursday, October 22 to talk about a 1947 classic by Jacques Tourneur, Out of the Past. “I love talking to people about film.”

The program is part of a year of events hosted by the Denver Project for Humanistic Inquiry (D-phi). It turns out that Pippin has an enthusiastic sideline expertise in genre film, which he has written about and discussed extensively; he was a friend of the late, great, renegade film critic Manny Farber, and also was influenced by another noted philosopher and film writer, Harvard’s Stanley Cavell.

And it only takes Pippin a few minutes to warm to the topic, unleashing a stream of insights about noir film. For instance, he quickly and easily crushes the conceptual wall between the worlds of “high” and “low” culture. “If you think about it, Macbeth is an early noir," he explains. "You’ve got a doomed protagonist, a femme fatale, elements of nightmare – it’s quite interesting.” 

In a post-WWII America that was obsessively, desperately cheerful and conformist, Pippin sees the noir of the period as an outlet for antisocial, subversive impulses and feelings, and a formulation of tragedy that contemporary audiences could handle. In Out of the Past, Robert Mitchum plays a cynical former private eye trying to outrun both his past and his obsession with the captivating but completely evil Jane Greer. Mitchum’s weary sneer and half-mast eyelids are perfect for the part.

“It’s almost like he’s sleepwalking,” says Pippin. “In noir, you have male leads who are very passive. They may think they’re doing things, but they’re not, they’re just drifting into doom. Dana Andrews was particularly good at this kind of reduced activity, this sense of helplessness. People seemed hypnotized, almost like zombies.”

Pippin also loves director’s Tourneur's attention to detail, especially how the seductive Greer moves into darker and more severe outfits as the movie goes on, until at the end “she’s dressed like a nun," he says. "She doesn’t need sex anymore; now she’s all about death.”

The Denver Project for Humanistic Inquiry hosts a free screening of Out of the Past with a discussion by Robert Pippin at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 22, at History Colorado, 1200 Broadway. For more information, visit
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Brad Weismann became an award-winning writer and editor after spending years as a comedian. He's written about everything from grand opera to movies for a diverse array of magazines, newspapers and websites worldwide.