Out of the Past (1947)
Out of the Past (1947)

Genre: Film Noir Running Time: 1 hr. 37 min.

Release Date: November 13th, 1947 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Jacques Tourneur Actors: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Richard Webb, Steve Brodie, Virginia Huston, Paul Valentine, Dickie Moore

 


 

A

t Marny’s Café in California, a mysterious fellow named Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine) arrives in search of Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), a gas station operator, who is currently away fishing with his devoted girl Ann (Virginia Huston). A deaf and mute kid associate (Dickie Moore) warns Jeff of the stranger’s appearance, but Jeff decides to see him anyway. As it turns out, his old boss Whit (Kirk Douglas), a wealthy, dangerous gangster, wants to see Bailey – and he clearly has no choice but to oblige. Arranging to meet the mobster from his past at Lake Tahoe near Emerald Bay the following morning, Jeff drives Ann with him and proceeds to relate the story of his shady past and his fly-by-night involvement with Whit and his thugs.

His real name is Jeff Markham, and he used to work with an “oily gent” named Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie) as New York private detectives. As the film shifts into a flashback, it chronicles their investigation of a gambling operation, during which he comes upon Whit, who offers $10,000 to retrieve his missing dame, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer in a deliciously evil role), a woman who shot him and took off with a significant $40,000. Whit claims he just wants her back – but her life is almost certainly in danger. Jeff eventually tracks her down in Acapulco, Mexico, but instead of reporting back on her whereabouts, he strikes up an impetuous affair.

Kathie claims to have not taken the money, to which Jeff quotably retorts, “Baby, I don’t care.” Narrowly escaping the prying, paranoid maneuvers of Whit, the new couple absconds north, but Fisher unexpectedly spies Jeff in a crowd and follows Kathie to a rendezvous. She shoots Fisher at the close of a fistfight with Jeff in a cabin, and the flees – and Jeff never sees her again. Back in the present, and tired of running from his past, Jeff precariously parleys with Whit once more – who now wishes to track down a greedy lawyer who has fled with income tax documents that could force Whit to pay millions and serve prison time. And, it would seem, Whit is again in possession of the unreadable Kathie.

Pleasant orchestral music never betrays the darker elements of this riveting film noir, as it exhibits a winding, complex plot in which characters double-cross one another, die, disappear, and shockingly materialize again, all at inopportune moments. The myriad of roles are all shades of gray, conducting themselves in duplicitous manners, with a blackmailer appropriately named Leonard Eels (Ken Niles), multiple femme fatales (including Rhonda Fleming as secretary Meta Carson) and love triangles, distrustful henchmen, the coordination of a frame job, and lies from all sides. It’s not so much a presentation of a mystery as it is the sorting out of underhanded activities against the antihero lead, who is incessantly used and manipulated, but retains an admirable sharpness even in distress.

Living up to the popularity of hard-edged, meaner-spirited, film noir styling (growing ever more potent as the ‘40s transitioned into the ‘50s), the dialogue features monotonic voiceover narration with plenty of ironic commentary and probing self-examinations of emotions and motives, dryly humorous repartee for romantic banter, similes and metaphors galore, and witty phrasing. “I don’t want to die,” pleads Kathie, to which Jeff counters, “Neither do I baby, but if I have to, I’m going to die last.” The captivating screenplay is by Geoffrey Homes (who also wrote the spectacular “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” of 1946, under his real name, Daniel Mainwaring), based on his novel “Build My Gallows High” – perhaps more pointedly titled than the theatrical adaptation. Visually and structurally, “Out of the Past” is an archetypal film noir, featuring bright white lights, extra dark shadows, heavy rain, perpetually lit cigarettes, personas that are unusually hard-boiled, and a generous portion of flashback storytelling. As Jeff strains to outwit his numerous opponents, the film builds to a spectacularly unnerving climax from which no one emerges unscathed, underscoring the bleak fatalism that infects human desires as they clash with criminality in such a heavy-hitting noir setting.

– Mike Massie

  • 10/10