Director: Jacques Tourneur; Screenplay: Daniel Mainwaring (as Geoffrey Homes), based on his novel Build My Gallows High; Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca; Studio: RKO; Executive Producer: Robert Sparks; Producer: Warren Duff
Cast: Robert Mitchum (Jeff Bailey), Kirk Douglas (Whit Sterling), Jane Greer (Kathy Moffat), Paul Valentine (Joe Stefanos), Rhonda Fleming (Meta Carson), Steve Brodie (Jack Fisher), Virginia Huston (Ann), Dickie Moore (The Kid), Ken Niles (Eels)
There are certain films that I find extremely hard to write about or critically examine. These are films that I have some kind of deep emotional connection to – favorites from my childhood, movies that I saw at a key point in my life, or films that were absolutely essential to my development as a fan of cinema. So, I’m usually hesitant to try and overanalyze why I love them so much. This is one of those films. Out of the Past was the first film noir that I ever watched and it was nothing short of earth-shattering for me. I’ve been a noir junkie ever since, getting my hands on every noir I can, but all the time failing to find a single one that matches this 1947 classic. So, with that warning, I’ll go ahead and try to analyze it anyway. If I’m gushing in the review, it’s because this is one of my all-time favorite movies.
Out of the Past is on a shortlist of noirs that I would categorize as quintessential. If someone were to come to me and ask for a definition the style, I would direct them to this and Double Indemnity. If neither of those caught their attention, then it would probably be safe to assume that noir is not for them. The reason for such a bold proclamation? Out of the Past contains all of the archetypal elements of great noir. Adapted from a pulp novel. Private eye main character. Ruthless femme fatale. Shady gangster businessman. A story told in large measure through flashbacks and narration. And an unrelenting sense of destiny at every turn.
Oh, and Robert Mitchum. If Humphrey Bogart crafted the mold for the cool, tough guy noir P.I., then Mitchum perfected it in this film.
The story opens with the Mitchum character of Jeff Bailey working at a gas station in a small rural town. Little is known about Bailey’s history and this secretive nature arouses a bit of suspicion in the small town of Bridgeport, as evidenced by the negative reaction of his girlfriend Ann’s (Virginia Huston) parents. His attempt at distancing himself from his past is destroyed when gangster and ex-acquaintance Joe Stefanos (Paul Valentine) tracks Jeff down at the gas station. Joe tells Jeff that his ex-employer, wealthy gambler Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), is looking for him and sets up a meeting.
At this point Jeff is forced to reveal the truth to Ann concerning his life before Bridgeport. While driving to the meeting with Whit, Jeff recounts the tale to Ann, warning her that “Some of it’s gonna hurt you.” He says that his real name is Jeff Markham and that he used to be a New York private eye. A few years earlier, Whit hired Jeff to track down his runaway girlfriend and $40,000 that disappeared with her. The search takes Jeff to Mexico, where he finds the stunningly beautiful Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer). Rather than bringing her back to Whit, Jeff falls in love with her. They sneak away back to the States and begin to live life as a normal couple. But Whit has not forgotten his former love interest, the $40,000 dollars, or the private eye that he hired and who then vanished. Whit enlists Jeff’s old partner, Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie), to track him, which he does after randomly spotting him at a local racetrack. When the partner finds the couple and tries to extort them, Kathie insists that he won’t be revealing anything to Whit. She ensures this by gunning Jack down, then speeding away from the scene and leaving Jeff to bury the body. With Kathie again in the wind, Jeff then moves to Bridgeport and attempts to finally be rid of his former life. This pipedream is forever wrecked when Joe catches up with him at the gas station. Realizing that he has no choice but to confront his past, Jeff agrees to the meet with Whit and plunges himself back into the shady world he tried so desperately to abandon.
While at the meeting with Whit, Jeff discovers that Kathie has reunited with the gangster. Rather than being angry with him, Whit enlists Jeff for another job. But sensing that he might be getting caught up in a frame, Jeff has to navigate a path that keeps him safe from his employer, the law, and a variety of characters he comes in contact with along the way. Will this job set Jeff free from his past? Can he pay his debt to Whit and then resume his life with Ann in Bridgeport? Whose side is Kathie truly on? I’ll let you discover the answers to these questions yourself, as it’s a wild ride for the entire 97 minutes, chock full of plotting, double crossing and tense face-offs. For those that have already seen the film, I’m sure you’ll agree that the answers are always shifting and keep the viewer wondering.
The story has been characterized by some as convoluted, and it is, but don’t let anyone fool you into believing that it’s incomprehensible. The script is expertly crafted by Daniel Mainwaring, adapted from his own novel Build My Gallows High (both written under the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes). For as many twists and turns that take place throughout the story, the screenplay is surprisingly tight, with none of the conspicuous plot holes that have plagued some otherwise great noirs. And the dialog… oh my, the dialog. The lines come shooting out of characters’ mouths like daggers. Some of my favorite lines in all of cinema come from this film and from Mitchum in particular. The examples are numerous and outstanding:
“Kathie: Oh, Jeff, I don't want to die!
Jeff: Neither do I, baby, but if I have to I'm gonna die last.”
“Ann: She can't be all bad. No one is.
Jeff: Well, she comes the closest.”
“Kathie: Oh Jeff, you ought to have killed me for what I did a moment ago.
Jeff: [dryly] There's time.”
I could go on for pages. I’ll forever maintain that Jeff’s response in the first example is my favorite line of all time. This dialog is razor sharp and the epitome of cool. The brilliance of these lines is in large measure due to Mainwaring, as just reading them is terrific. But a lot of credit must also go to Mitchum. As Jeff Bailey, he is the personification of the detached anti-hero and makes these words come alive. These witty expressions would be nowhere near as powerful if they weren’t being delivered by the droopy-eyed Mitchum, adorned in an overcoat and stylish hat and with a cigarette hanging between his lips. The way that Jeff Bailey navigates this underhanded world and interacts with such shady individuals, the role calls for someone to be able to add the necessary cynicism to the character. Mitchum is precisely the man. It’s no coincidence that despite being his first top-billing, this is the role for which Mitchum is best remembered. He is that good.
As previously mentioned, the major themes that are found throughout all film noir are on display here, but this film outdoes nearly all of them in key areas. The sense of danger hanging over a likeable, yet flawed character has never been done better. It is impossible to ignore the fact that Jeff _willingly_ walks back into a world and situation that he knows could very well be his downfall. The audience knows this too, and it is distressing to see him continue down a path that everyone involved – audience and characters, Jeff in particular – knows is not likely to end well. To say that there is a sense of doom hanging over the events would be an understatement. And yet, in the end, there is redemption of sorts. The closing scene between Ann and Jeff’s deaf gas station attendant is poignant and reveals that Jeff may have been in control of his destiny all along.
The direction of Jacques Tourneur also deserves recognition. Darkness and shadows are the staples of any director working in film noir. However, few were ever able to utilize them as effectively as Tourneur, as he juxtaposed them with beautiful pastoral settings. Whenever Jeff is in Bridgeport, the scenes are wide open and bright, setting Jeff and Ann in front of a backdrop of rolling mountains, streams, and the country. But as soon as Jeff comes into contact with anyone from his past – be it Kathy, Whit or Joe – the scenes become dark and gloomy. Faces are obscured by shadows and movement becomes sinister as silhouettes creep across the screen. These are interesting contrasts and emphasize the wildly different worlds that Jeff is attempting to jump between.
After spending so much time referring to this as the quintessential film noir, I have to admit that such praise is almost doing the movie a disservice. Pigeonholing it as the best of a specific genre is too restricting for a film this good. Out of the Past is not just one of the best films noir, it is one of the greatest films of all time, period.