“Out of the Past” is Jacques Tourneur’s best film and a great sampler of the film noir genre, which in 1947 was in its peak.
The film’s all-star cast includes Robert Mitchum, in top form, the young Kirk Douglas, in one of his first films, and Jane Greer, who had never looked so beautiful and seductive.
Revolving around a romantic triangle, this classic feature centers on a doomed man (Mitchum), who can’t escape his former life, when a one-time employer-gangster (Douglas) and a lover (Greer) entangle him in a web of sex, murder, jealousy, and double-dealings.
In Bridgeport, a California small town, Jeff Bailey runs a gas station with the assistance of a mute boy, Jimmy. One day, a stranger named Joe Stefanos drives into town and informs Jeff that Whit Sterling, a racketeer, wants to see him.
In a series of flashbacks, Jeff relates his life’s story to his wholesome and naïve girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston), as they drive to Sterling’s Lake Tahoe mansion.
As a private detective named Jeff Markham, he was hired to find Sterlings mistress, Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer), who had shot Sterling and escaped with $40,000.
Jeff falls in love with Kathy, and, at first, her believes her claim that she did not steal any money. They moved to San Francisco and lived anonymously until Fisher, Jeff’s former partner, finds them. Kathie kills Fisher and Jeff discover evidence that implicates Kathie in the theft. Disillusioned, Jeff moves to a new life at Bridgeport.
Arriving at Sterling’s, Jeff assures Ann before she departs that he no longer loves Kathie. Meeting with Sterling, Jeff is surprised to see Kathie. She secretly tells him that Sterling is blackmailing her about Fisher’s murder to stay with him. The racketeer blackmails Jeff to obtain tax records from Eels, a renegade accountant of Sterling’s gang, but Jeff is being used as a patsy: Eels is to be killed by Stefanos who will frame Jeff for the murder.
When Jeff discovers the plot, he manages to prevent the crime, realizing that Sterling has false evidence that also implicates him as Fisher’s murderer. Hunted by the police, Jeff flees to Bridgeport and finds that Ann still believes in him. After eluding Stefanos, Jeff confronts Sterling, who agrees to reveal Kathie as Fisher’s murderer, but Sterling is killed by her.
Kathie tells Jeff that they belong together and should escape the country. He agrees but alerts the police and the two are killed as she attempts to drive through a roadblock.
Jeff’s assistant, Jimmy, conveys the impression to Ann that Jeff actually loved Kathie so that Ann can reject Jeff’s memory and free herself from the past to build a new life.
The existential figure of the ill-fated Jeff is splendidly played by Mitchum in an understated but powerful performance that draws on restraint and a sense of doom (just look at Mitchum’s sad, droopy eyes). The erotic and lethal femme fatale is vividly portrayed by Jane Greer, who reveals some of the most beautiful set of eyes a Hollywood actress ever had.
Daniel Mainwaring’s narrative is complex and full of twists and turns, underlining the inevitable impact of the past on the present–and future.
The shadowy lighting of a cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, and the tragic sensibility of director Tourneur, complement the text’s downbeat nature.
One of the film’s most memorable images—and one of the greatest entrances in film history–is in the flashback sequence, when Jeff observes the alluring figure of Kathie (seen in silhouette) as she walks out of the bright sunlight outdoors into the dark, cave-like Mexican café.
The film’s melodramatic climax, and another strong visual moment occurs when Kathie shoots Fisher and Jeff registers on his face the utter shock of seeing for the first time Kathie’s true nature.
Every element of the film highlights the central, quintessentially noir motif, the destruction of a basically good man by a corrupt and greedy woman he loves.
Consider this verbal exchange. “Is there any way to win?” Kathie asks Jeff, to which he replies: “There’s a way to lose more slowly.”
During production, the working title of the film was, “Build My Gallows High,” but the studio (RKO) considered it too much of a gloom and doom.
“Out of the Past” is directed with great taste and technical skill by Jacques Tourneur, still an underestimated filmmaker, who had also helmed the cult movies “Cat People” and “I Walked With a Zombie.”
The success of this picture catapulted the perfectly-cast Mitchum, who had begun his career in small roles in the 1940s, into major stardom, cementing his iconic screen persona as one of Hollywood’s coolest and most macho actors around.
“Out of the Past” was remade in 1984 by Taylor Hackford in a color version titled “Against All Odds,” with Jeff Bridges in Mitchum’s part and Rachel Ward in Greer’s.
Robert Mitchum (Jeff Bailey)
Jane Greer (Kathie Moffett)
Kirk Douglas (Whit Sterling)
Rhonda Fleming (Meta Carson)
Richard Webb (Jim)
Steve Fisher (Brodie)
Virginia Huston (Ann)
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Exec Producer: Robert Sparks
Producer: Warren Duff
Screenplay: Geoffrey Homes (Daniel Mainwaring), from his novel Build My Gallows High.
Photography: Nicholas Musuraca
Special Effects: Russell A. Cully
Sound: Francis M. Sarver, Clem Portman
Music Score: Roy Webb
Conductor: Constantin Bakaleinikoff
Art Directors: Albert S. D’Agostino, Jack Okey
Set Decoration: Darrell Silvera
Costumes: Edward Stevenson
Makeup: Gordon Bau
Editor: Samuel E. Beetley
Running Time: 97 minutes