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.
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.
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.
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
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