Out of the Past: An In-depth Review

July 3, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Virginia Huston Robert Mitchum

Vir­ginia Hus­ton, Robert Mitchum

In the lit­tle town of Bridge­port, Cal­i­for­nia, Jeff Bai­ley runs a gas sta­tion with the assis­tance of a mute boy, Jimmy, and courts Ann. One autumn day, Joe Ste­fanos dri­ves into town and informs Jeff that Whit Ster­lin a rack­e­teer, wants to see him. Jeff relates his life’s story to Ann as they drive to Sterling’s Lake Tahoe man­sion. As a pri­vate detec­tive named Jeff Markham, he was hired to find Sterling’s mis­tress, Kathie Mof­fett, who had shot Ster­ling and escaped with $40,000. Jeff found Kathie in Mex­ico but fell in love with her and believed her claim that she did not steal any money. They moved to San Fran­cisco and lived anony­mously until Fisher, Jeff’s for­mer part­ner, found them. Kathie killed Fisher and Jeff dis­cov­ered evi­dence that proved she lied about the money. Dis­il­lu­sioned, Jeff moved to his 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 unsuc­cess­fully tries to pre­vent the crime and real­izes 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 appears to agree but alerts the police and the two are both 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.

Mitchum Jane Greer

Mitchum, Jane Greer

Out of the Past is a title evoca­tive of the noir cycle as well as descrip­tive of this par­tic­u­lar film. The exis­ten­tial fig­ure of the ill-fated noir pro­tag­o­nist Jeff, incar­nated by Robert Mitchum, is restrained, joy­less, and with a look of doom in his sad eyes. The erotic and lethal female Kathie, is vividly por­trayed by Jane Greer. Daniel Mainwaring’s com­plex screen­play uses nar­ra­tion like the voice of fate over a flash­back into Jeff’s past, which inescapably deter­mines the present and future. The shad­owy light­ing of a cin­e­matog­ra­pher attuned to noir, Nicholas Musuraca, com­bines with the tragic sen­si­bil­ity of the direc­tor, Jacques Tourneur, and is well-suited to the down­beat nature of the genre.

How­ever, to say that this is one of the key works of film noir is not nec­es­sar­ily to accept it as unflawed. It can be faulted both for its exces­sively com­plex plot­ting, notably in the San Fran­cisco sec­tion, and for a solem­nity that almost becomes tedious. Its best sec­tion is the flash­back sequence that fol­lows an omi­nous open­ing sequence rem­i­nis­cent in mood of Hemingway’s The Killers (1946), and the faith­ful recre­ation of that story in Siodmak’s film. In the flash­back sequence, the com­bi­na­tion of Mitchum’s mes­mer­iz­ing nar­ra­tion as Jeff waits for Kathie and even­tu­ally sees her walk­ing out of the sun­light into the Mex­i­can cafe, the roman­tic inter­lude on the beach, and their des­per­ate flight con­spires to give the film the per­fect noir mood. Else­where, in the film’s sec­ond half, the Main­war­ing screen­play seems pro­tracted and overly emphatic of Jeff’s capit­u­la­tion to his fate and Kathie’s duplic­ity. The melo­dra­matic cli­max of the film, and one of the strongest visual moments, occurs when Kathie shoots Fisher and Jeff turns, reg­is­ter­ing the shock of see­ing Kathie’s true nature revealed.

Paul Valentine, Greer

Paul Valen­tine, Greer

Its many other mer­its aside and its faults taken into account, Out of the Past is, with Criss Cross (1949), one of the two films that best evoke a sub­ject cen­tral to the genre: the destruc­tion of a basi­cally good man by a cor­rupt woman he loves. In both films the hero­ine vac­il­lates between the hero and another man, which results in the destruc­tion of all three, and a flash­back traces the hero’s “fall”. But the two films are quite dif­fer­ent, even in the nature of their flash­backs. In the Criss Cross flash­back, Steve Thomp­son is already haunted by Anna, his for­mer wife, and his first view of her in the night­club recre­ates his for­mer desire. In the Out of the Past flash­back, Bai­ley encoun­ters Kathie for the first time when she walks into the Mex­i­can cafe so the tun­ing point of his life seems more imme­di­ate and placed within the film. The most inter­est­ing dif­fer­ence, how­ever, is that Bai­ley knows before the flash­back is over that Kathie is destroy­ing him. The film traces the course in which he grad­u­ally accepts this fate and even embraces it, spir­i­tu­ally if not phys­i­cally. Thomp­son, on the other hand, in spite of bad expe­ri­ences with Anna in the past, con­vinces him­self that he trusts her and only fully under­stands her and her betrayal of him in the very last scene. But in these two fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent visions of male-female rela­tion­ships, there is one con­stant: the woman herself.

Kirk Douglas, watch Out of the Past trailer

Nice trailer by Jonathan Levy

Film noir is filled with such women as these and the instances in which the woman who is loved rep­re­sents the best part of the hero rather than the worst, such as Keechie in They Live by Night (1948), are the excep­tions. This vision of women is res­o­nant in many noir films, such as Criss Cross, Angel Face (1953), Hell’s Island (1955), and Dou­ble Indem­nity (1944), and the noir milieu pow­er­fully under­scores it. Alter­nately, such films as Night­fall (1956), The Big Sleep (1946), Noto­ri­ous (1946), and Chi­na­town (1974), sug­gest the other side of this theme. In each, the hero pre­sumes at some point the heroine’s betrayal but is found to be wrong. Still this pre­sump­tion never threat­ens their lives as force­fully as the true betrayal of Out of the Past. Although it would seem that some alter­na­tive ver­sion of Out of the Past’s nar­ra­tive in which the hero’s lack of faith, his fail­ure to trust, destroys them-should be pos­si­ble, the noir vision will not admit a male protagonist’s sim­ple, pos­si­bly tragic error in judg­ment so read­ily as it will a mis­guided and fatal obsession.


Out of the Past (1947) Work­ing Title: Build My Gal­lows High
Direc­tor: Jacques Tourneur
Pro­ducer: War­ren Duff
Screen­play: Geof­frey Homes (Daniel Main­war­ing); from his novel Build My Gal­low­sHigh
Direc­tor of 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
Assis­tant Direc­tor: Harry Mancke

In 1976, Jerry Bick and John Ptak announced plans to remake ”Out of the Past“ as “Build My Gal­lows High” to be directed by Jerry Schatzberg from a screen­play by Mar­i­lyn Goldin. It finally was re-made as the vastly infe­rior “Against All Odds” (1984).

1 Blake Lucas, “Film Noir, Ency­clo­pe­dic Ref­er­ence to the Amer­i­can Style”

About Michael Mills
Rank-amateur photographer, I like Classic films, real Jazz, Opera, and a little Hank Williams . . . and sometimes baseball . . .