Adapted from Daniel Mainwaring’s provocatively titled novel Build My Gallows High (1946), Jacques Tourneur’s riveting noir is often ranked as one of the best of the genre. There are multiple reasons why Out of the Past is such an exemplary work, and in part has to do with how faithfully and inventively it adheres to the form, where themes of betrayal, corruption and fatalism are interwoven and entangled together in a perplexing and convoluted plot. Unlike most noirs, however, much of the drama is played out not in the typical confined corners of a shadowy city, but in broad daylight and natural settings – in this case, the sundrenched backdrops of Lake Tahoe and Puerto Vallarta. Throughout, cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca –who also filmed Tourneur’s Cat People (1942) – utilises stark imagery, contrasting the dark scenes of murder and treachery with stunning compositions of rural, wooded retreats.

Structured as a present-tense narrative with an extended flashback sequence, the film opens with world-weary ex-detective, Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), hiding out in an idyllic small town, where he works at a gas station. His cover is soon blown however, as Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine), a henchman for ‘big operator’ Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), orders Jeff to meet with the gangster. Forced to reveal his checkered past to his wholesome girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston), Jeff tells her about his connection with Whit. As we soon learn, Jeff has good reason to hide. Whit had asked Jeff to find his runaway mistress, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who shot him and fled to Mexico with $40,000 of his money. However, the bullets failed to kill Whit, and now he wants her back. Not because he wants to kill her, though: “I just want her back,” he tells Bailey. “When you see her, you’ll understand better.” When Jeff eventually tracks down Kathie in Acapulco – before deliberately walking into a trap set for him by one of screen history’s most fatal femmes – it is not long before he is falling for her charms. When she passionately assures him that she never stole the money, he responds with a laconic “baby, I don’t care.” And right then, he does not care – he is in too deep to worry about anything other than being with her. Before long, the erstwhile investigator is betrayed by the duplicitous dame – when, without warning, she flees. All of this takes place in the opening 40 minutes. The rest of the film is set in the present and includes two other storylines which all culminate in a violent finale, where in a series of dizzying double-crosses, Jeff attempts to stay one step ahead of Kathie and Whit, who have now teamed up against him.

Grounded in striking performances, Out of the Past is memorably portrayed by three leads at the beginnings of their respective careers. Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas – actors who went on to become screen icons – were seldom as vivid as they are here. Still barely 30 at the time of filming, Mitchum’s very presence as a man wrapped in indifference made him an archetypal noir anti-hero. His fatigued, laid-back demeanor gives Jeff the appearance of a man who has seen it all – the eternal cynic. Conversely, Greer’s deft portrayal of the gangster’s moll is the culmination of the self-consumed, anti-domestic, anti-social female as evoked by Barbara Stanwyck in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and Gene Tierney in John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven (1945), where even the most powerful men around her are unable to comprehend or control the unruly forces she represents. Switching with ease from helpless victim to shrewd and calculating man-eater during the course of a single conversation, the studios must have anticipated a long and successful career for Greer, but the jealous possessiveness of billionaire businessman Howard Hughes (her mentor turned obstacle) pretty much put paid to that.

In his second silver screen role, Douglas co-stars as the calm and collected mobster, Whit Sterling. Although we are left in no doubt that Sterling is a shrewd villain, the script never paints him as a vehement figure. Instead, he possesses a warped type of ethical code and a pleasant personality; a weakness which Kathie uses to her advantage. Another fascinating character in the film is Jimmy (Dickie Moore), a deaf-mute boy, who works at Jeff’s gas station. Signalling warnings and intentions to Jeff with his hands, he is one of Tourneur’s somewhat uncanny, liminal figures, who inhabit a border between one realm and another, much like Greer’s character.  Here, his moral presence somehow implies that words are lies and the spoken language is not to be trusted.

Beguiling and resolutely ominous, the film’s downbeat ending draws a sceptical conclusion, suggesting that past mistakes are impossible to overcome, and salvation is not available, even to those who want it. However, aside from the story’s often daunting complexity, Out of the Past is nonetheless a captivating study in male pride, stung by the lethal wiles of a dangerous woman. Undoubtedly, within this traditionally ill-fated and perversely crooked world, the mood of obsession was never more powerfully suggestive.

Out of the Past (1947 United States 97 minutes)

Prod Co: RKO Radio Pictures Dir: Jacques Tourneur Scr: Daniel Mainwaring, James M. Cain, Frank Fenton Phot: Nicholas Musuraca Ed: Samuel E. Beetley Mus: Nathaniel Shilkret

Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Richard Webb, Steve Brodie, Virginia Huston, Paul Valentine, Dickie Moore, Ken Niles, Theresa Harris.


About The Author

Amy Simmons is a freelance film critic based in Brighton, UK. She has written for Time Out London and the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound magazine. Her monograph on Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) is published by Auteur Publishing’s Devil’s Advocates series.