Out of the Past (1947)

via: http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/361/Out-of-the-Past/#tcmarcp-145746-145745

via: http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/361/Out-of-the-Past/#tcmarcp-145746-145745 Unless otherwise noted, all images are my own.

Out of the Past is a dark, twisty film that struck critics and audiences as an especially dynamic and gripping movie when it premiered in 1947.

In Bosley Crowther’s review in The New York Times, he wrote that “…this story of an ex-private detective who is shanghaied from a quiet, prosaic life to get involved with his old criminal associates is intensely fascinating for a time. And it is made even more galvanic by a smooth realistic style, by fast dialogue and genuine settings in California and Mexican locales.”

And Variety called it a hardboiled melodrama strong on characterization. Direction by Jacques Tourneur pays close attention to mood development, achieving realistic flavor that is further emphasized by real life settings and topnotch lensing by Nicholas Musuraca…”

Today, the film is recognized as one of the best film noirs ever made. (The term film noir didn’t come into use until later; Variety’s classification of the film as “hardboiled melodrama” is what many film noirs were called when originally released. Visit this post for more on that.)

Out of the Past has all of the characteristics of film noir: a flashback structure, voiceover narration, a femme fatale, an urban setting, a private detective, an anti-hero, crime, a mood of cynicism and pessimism, corruption, moral ambiguity, fatalism, violence and brutality, erotic elements, a dreamlike quality, a hardboiled style of narrative and dialogue, and sometimes a hopelessly tangled plot.

Besides all of those elements, film noir also has a certain visual style that includes expressionist flair (composition, angles, etc., visit The Lost Weekend for more on German Expressionism), and iconography like rain-slicked city streets, neon signs, Venetian blinds, and cigarettes. But perhaps the most salient element of film noir style is low-key lighting.

As Janey Place and Lowell Peterson write in “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir:”

Noir lighting is ‘low-key.’ The ratio of key to fill light is great, creating areas of high contrast and rich, black shadows. [Click here to learn more about the terms key and fill.] Unlike the even illumination of high-key lighting which seeks to display attractively all areas of the frame, the low-key noir style opposes light and dark, hiding faces, rooms, urban landscapes—and, by extension, motivations and true character—in shadow and darkness…

We’ll get some great examples of low-key lighting in this film, so get excited! And for more (much more!) on film noir, visit my post on Double Indemnity (1944).

Basically, if you’re looking for a prototypical film noir, you’ve come to the right movie!

Out of the Past was adapted by Daniel Mainwaring from his novel Build My Gallows High (1946), published under the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes. Fun fact: this film would be released in the UK as Build My Gallows High, and Robert Mitchum even says the line within the film. Another fun fact: Mainwaring would go on to write the screenplay for another classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

Out of the Past 4Out of the Past was directed by Jacques Tourneur, who until he made this movie was most famous for his B-movies at RKO, including the now classic horror film Cat People (1942). Tourneur was a gifted, stylish director who learned how to create evocative, striking, and gorgeous films even on B-level budgets.

He would use those skills in his film noirs, so look out for stunning compositions, dark shadows, and baroque images that turn this movie into something extraordinary. Indeed, Out of the Past would become Tourneur’s most famous film, and an important entry in the film noir canon.

Fun fact: Jacques was the son of French director Maurice Tourneur, whose The Last of the Mohicans (1920) is considered a masterpiece of the era.

Out of the Past titlesOut of the Past stars Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas as an intense trio, all three of whom were rising stars at the time.

Mitchum had been in dozens of films starting in 1943, but he hit it big in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945). Out of the Past was just his second starring role, and he only won the part after John Garfield, Humphrey Bogart (who was Mainwaring’s first choice), and Dick Powell turned it down or were unavailable. Mitchum would eventually make over one hundred films in his long career.

Jane Greer was also relatively new. She was working as a model until Howard Hughes saw her and brought her to Hollywood in the early 1940s. Her role in Out of the Past would be her most famous, though she worked in film and television until the 1990s.

Kirk Douglas had made his movie debut just the previous year opposite Barbara Stanwyck in the noir The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). Out of the Past was only his second movie. Like Mitchum, Douglas would go on to a stunningly successful Hollywood career.

The film opens on a man driving through a small town called Bridgeport in California. He pulls into a gas station and honks the horn. The young man working there doesn’t turn around, so the man shouts and then throws a match at him.

The kid is deaf and mute, and the man’s callous treatment of him automatically defines him as a bad guy. Fun fact: the kid is played by former child star Dickie Moore, who was married to Jane Powell until his death in September 2015. He was one of the last surviving actors from the silent film era, having made his film debut at age one in 1927.

The stranger asks the kid (who doesn’t get a name in the movie) where Jeff Bailey, the owner of the station, can be found. When he doesn’t get a clear answer, he walks across the street into the diner, where the gossipy waitress tells everyone everything. She is explaining to the local police officer, Jim, that “his girl” goes fishing with Jeff every day. A busybody like her is only too happy to tell the stranger (in the dark coat and hat) all about the inhabitants of the small town.

Out of the Past 6

Meanwhile, the kid goes looking for Jeff (Robert Mitchum) by the lake to tell him that a stranger has been asking questions. Tourneur was adamant about using real locations instead of the backlot, so we get beautiful shots of the outdoors in this film.

Out of the Past 7Various scenes were shot in the High Sierras of Nevada and California, Lake Tahoe, San Francisco, Bridgeport, Sherwood Lake and Sequit Point, CA, with some sequences filmed at the RKO Ranch in Encino.

Jeff and “Jim’s girl,” Ann (Virginia Huston), are having a lovely time fishing and romancing. She seems awfully in love with Jeff, so we’re not sure why Jim thinks she belongs to him.

In a crucial bit of characterization, Ann sweetly complains that she doesn’t really know anything about Jeff, and nothing about his past. He seems to have appeared in town a few years ago, and is reluctant to share anything about where he came from or what he used to do. How mysterious…and how terribly noir!

Out of the Past Mitchum Huston lake

Their idyll is interrupted by the kid, who uses sign language to communicate with Jeff. Although something is definitely a little fishy, we know that Jeff is fundamentally a good guy because he is kind to the kid.

Jeff hurries back to town to meet this inquisitive stranger. His name is Joe (Paul Valentine), and they knew each other before Jeff came to Bridgeport. Their conversation is full of hints about fake names, past shady dealings, and a possibly criminal boss who has sent Joe to find Jeff. It’s all properly byzantine. This is a film noir, after all. You can watch the scene here.

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Joe tells Jeff to come to a house on Lake Tahoe to meet with the boss. Despite the obvious danger signs, Jeff betrays no urgency nor worry in his slow, laconic behavior. Although a bit strange at first, there is something about Mitchum’s big laziness that is incredibly charismatic. Even his expressions are slow and almost carelessly underplayed, though he can snap into action when he needs to. A sluggish smile often plays about his face; he seems to be constantly enjoying a cynical, inside joke at the messed up world and people he encounters. And no one should look that good in an enormous, rumpled trench coat!

Jeff stops by Ann’s house that night (she lives with her parents and they are upset that Jeff just honks the horn instead of coming to the door to get their daughter! Ann provides a quaint, innocent contrast to the character Greer plays) and off they go to Tahoe. They drive through the night, and Jeff tells Ann about his past. So begins the flashback…

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About three years ago, Jeff Markham (his real name) worked as a private investigator with his partner, Fisher. A big-time gambler named Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) hired the pair to track down his girlfriend, Kathie, who shot him, stole $40,000, and took off. She fired three shots at Whit, but he survived. After all, as Fisher says, “A dame with a rod is like a guy with a knitting needle!”

Out of the Past Douglas Mitchum first

This movie has amazing “hardboiled” dialogue liberally sprinkled with 1940s slang. It’s practically another dialect, but it’s a lot of fun.

Whit is charming, smooth, and almost always smiling, which only makes him creepier. He’s a very dangerous man who never forgives and definitely never forgets. But Jeff doesn’t seem cowed by him, which Whit likes.

Whit and Jeff seem to respect each other, though there is very little trust between them. But that’s okay, because they’re both tough guys who are only too acquainted with the nasty side of human nature. Their uneasy working relationship is founded on money and their shared cynicism, which is actually a pretty strong bond.

Whit says that he doesn’t care about retrieving the forty grand Kathie stole and just wants her back. Once he promises Jeff that he won’t hurt Kathie if Jeff succeeds in returning her to him (Jeff is a good guy even if he isn’t respectable), Jeff shrugs and gets to work.

Look at how interesting Whit’s glass is with the square foot. (For more on alcohol in old movies, and to learn why Whit is drinking a cocktail and not a beer, check out my History Through Hollywood: Vice post.)

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Back to the movie. Jeff goes on the hunt for Kathie. He tracks down her maid, who tells him that she doesn’t know where Kathie went, but that she helped her pack for a warm climate and also nursed her when Kathie’s vaccinations made her sick. Jeff deduces that she must be Mexico!

So off he goes, following her trail to Acapulco. In voiceover (a key element of film noir), Jeff bemoans the suffocating heat in Mexico with this classic line: “You say to yourself, ‘How hot can it get?’ Then, in Acapulco, you find out.”

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Jeff does some subtle sleuthing and eventually finds one of the places that Kathie (Jane Greer) frequents. And one afternoon she strolls into the cool, shadowy cafe out of the bright, hot sun in one of the best entrances ever. Jeff narrates:

Out of the Past Greer sun

He adds, “And I knew why Whit didn’t care about that forty grand.”

Until that moment, Jeff had been puzzling over the fact that Whit was far more interested in Kathie than in the missing money. Surely Whit couldn’t want her back after she tried to kill him and stole all that money, right?

But when Jeff finally sees Kathie, he understands. There’s just something about her…He finagles a seat at her table and strikes up a conversation. She’s not too into it, but tells him that there is a bar she sometimes visits, and perhaps they will run into each other there.

Out of the Past Greer Mitchum cafe 2

He watches her leave, and we know he is already hooked. You can watch the scene here.

Out of the Past Greer Mitchum cafe

The next night, Kathie shows up at the bar. Jeff has been waiting. And we get another amazing voiceover-led entrance.

Out of the Past Greer moonlight

Kathie is wearing another pale dress, not the black satin or sexy sparkles we often associate with femme fatales. But as I discussed in my Double Indemnity post, women in noirs are often dressed in white and pale colors. Sometimes that plays with their characterization, works in contrast to other characters, or just helps them remain visible in low-key lighting.

Out of the Past 30Anyway, Kathie and Jeff have a pleasant chat in the bar. I love the “KM” for Kathie Moffatt on her purse.

This scene is also unintentionally amusing because the smoke from Kathie’s ever present cigarette wafts straight into Jeff’s face for most of their conversation. But Jeff probably doesn’t even notice, because he is almost constantly smoking, too. Plus, he’s totally mesmerized by Kathie.

They leave the bar and stroll on the beach, stopping in front of some fishing nets lit beautifully in the low-key style. The symbolism is almost painfully evident: Kathie has caught him! Or perhaps it’s that they’re both trapped in this film noir net.

Out of the Past Greer Mitchum nets

Kathie reveals that she knows that Jeff is working for Whit. But she swears that she didn’t steal Whit’s $40,000, and that she only shot him because she was frightened of him. She tells Jeff, “I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know anything except how much I hated him. But I didn’t take anything. I didn’t, Jeff. Don’t you believe me?” Jeff says, “Baby, I don’t care” and kisses her. It’s an awesome moment. You can watch it here.

Fun fact: Lee Server used the line “Baby, I don’t care” as the title of his 2001 biography of Robert Mitchum.

Here they are filming this scene. It appears that Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca opted to use a day-for-night effect, filming the scene in daylight but underexposing the film or darkening it in post-production so that it looks like night. This was a common technique because it was difficult to get a good exposure when filming at actual nighttime.

Fun fact: Musaraca had first worked with Tourneur on Cat People. The cinematographer was especially famous for his film noir style, but worked in all genres during his career.

Back to the film. Kathie has so thoroughly entranced Jeff that he decides not to tell Whit that he has found her. Instead, they embark on an illicit romance in Mexico. Jeff recalls in voiceover (remember he is telling Ann the story as they drive to Tahoe):

I never saw her in the daytime. We seemed to live by night. What was left of the day went away like a pack of cigarettes you smoked. I didn’t know where she lived. I never followed her. All I ever had to go on was a place and time to see her again. I don’t know what we were waiting for. Maybe we thought the world would end.

That’s such a perfect film noir monologue!

Out of the Past Greer Mitchum beach

The pair decide to run away together and start a new life. But on the morning of their departure, guess who shows up at Jeff’s hotel?

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Whit and Joe! Whit was traveling through Mexico on business and decided to check on Jeff’s progress. He  knows how captivating Kathie can be, and is concerned at Jeff’s silence.

Jeff claims that he has not been able to find Kathie, and tells Whit that he wants to quit the case. But Whit won’t hear of it.

In a suspenseful scene, Jeff manages to keep Whit from seeing Kathie as she arrives at the hotel to meet him, but it’s a very near miss. You can watch the scene here.

Whit finally leaves and Jeff and Kathie take off for San Francisco. They have a lovely time together, but then they run into Jeff’s old partner, Fisher, whom Whit has hired to find Jeff. So to make themselves harder to track, Kathie and Jeff split up for a while. When they arrive at a cabin for their long-awaited reunion, Fisher crashes their party. He and Jeff fight, and then Kathie shoots Fisher.

Out of the Past Greer Mitchum murder

Jeff is shocked. He’s a tough guy, but he’s not a murderer. Kathie coldly defends her actions and then drives away when she realizes how upset Jeff is. She leaves behind her bankbook, and Jeff realizes that she has been lying to him all along.

Out of the Past Mitchum money

I don’t think a woman as smart and cunning as Kathie would actually write down her $40,000 deposit of stolen cash, but it makes for a neat piece of evidence. You can watch the scene here.

The film cuts back to the present moment of Ann and Jeff driving to Lake Tahoe. Despite learning about Jeff’s sordid past, Ann still loves him. She drops him off and drives away after telling him that she’ll be waiting back in Bridgeport.

I love this shot of Jeff standing at the gate of Whit’s estate at Lake Tahoe. The twisted past has returned to trap him.

Out of the Past 99

Whit is as delightful as ever, and he doesn’t even mention Kathie. He says that he wants Jeff to help him with another matter. A lawyer named Leonard Eels helped Whit avoid paying income tax, thus saving the gambler about a million dollars. But now Eels is threatening to expose Whit to the government unless Whit pays him a lot more money.

That’s not okay with ruthless Whit, and he wants to hire Jeff to take care of Eels. Jeff refuses, but hospitable Whit invites him to stay for breakfast anyway. It’s all fine until Kathie joins them.

Out of the Past Mitchum Greer Douglas breakfast

After murdering Fisher, Kathie returned to Whit and told him everything. Jeff is shocked to see Kathie, and their breakfast is pretty tense and awkward. You can watch the scene here.

Out of the Past Greer Mitchum Douglas breakfast 2

Fun fact: According to the Production Code Administration files, Joseph Breen, the director of the organization, originally advised RKO not to film this novel at all. It was packed with objectionable material (crime, sex, violence) and he didn’t think the studio would be able to clean up the story enough to pass the Code. (For more on the Code, read my article here.)

One of Breen’s main objections to the story was that Kathie lives with both Whit and Jeff even though she never marries either of them. That was a big no-no! Breen wrote in June 1946 that “such a brazen portrayal of gross illicit sex is in violation of the Code.” So RKO got to work and submitted two different versions of the script to Breen later that year.

By October, Breen told the studio that he would approve the film so long as Kathie is not shown living with Jeff. That’s one reason that Kathie and Jeff’s living arrangements in Mexico and San Francisco are kept vague. And she has a bedroom all to herself in Whit’s house, so you could claim that she’s a platonic houseguest, though of course everything else in the film suggests otherwise.

Back to the film. After breakfast, Kathie tries to explain to Jeff that she is still Whit’s innocent victim. She tells him how scared she was, and how she had no choice but to come back to Whit, and how she needs Jeff and still loves him and never loved Whit!

Out of the Past Greer Mitchum chat

Jeff tells her to get out. When she asks him, “Can’t you even feel sorry for me?” He replies, “I’m not going to try.” But their encounter has shaken him.

Whit has Jeff neatly boxed in, so Jeff heads for San Francisco to handle Whit’s tax problem. Whit has already put a plan in place for stealing the crucial documents that Eels is threatening to take to the government. He tells Jeff to meet with Eels’ secretary, Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming). They have a friendly conversation about San Francisco and the weather until Jeff says this great line: “Well, if we’d drop this Junior League patter, we may get this conversation down where it belongs.” As in, let’s talk about you betraying your boss and helping me steal the papers.

Out of the Past Mitchum Fleming

Here they are filming this scene:

Meta is going to steal the papers from Eels’ office, so they make some plans and then meet up later at Eels’ apartment.

Out of the Past Mitchum Niles Fleming

Jeff suspects that Eels is about to murdered, and that Meta brought him to Eels’ apartment so that Jeff’s fingerprints would be found there. Whit is framing Jeff for murder in order to get revenge! Jeff tries to warn Eels (Ken Niles) that something is going down.

Meta gets Jeff out of there as quickly as she can before Jeff ruins everything. They go their separate ways, but Jeff gets an old taxi-driver friend to tail Meta while he goes back to Eels’ apartment. But he’s too late. Eels is already dead. So he hides Eels’ body in a vacant apartment next door and leaves. Look at this gorgeous shot framed through the window of Jeff discovering Eels’ body. Very noir.

Out of the Past 116

Jeff sneaks into Meta’s apartment where he overhears Kathie on the phone. She pretends to be Meta and calls the super at Eels’ building to ask him to go check on Eels. Joe was sent to kill the lawyer, and now Kathie needs Eels’ body to be discovered for the rest of the plan to kick into action.

Out of the Past Greer Mitchum phone

Kathie gets quite a shock when the super reports that Eels isn’t there. What happened to the dead body?

Jeff makes his appearance and tells Kathie that he warned Eels so the lawyer took off. Their plan to kill him has been foiled! (He’s lying, of course.) Kathie swears that she is glad to hear that Eels is safe, and that Whit is making her do this. She really just wants to run away with Jeff! He says “You’re magnificent. You can change sides so smooth!”

Out of the Past Greer Mitchum kiss

Jeff asks Kathie about the rest of the plan. She tearily admits that they made her sign an affidavit saying that Jeff killed Fisher, and then Meta planted the affidavit in Eels’ office safe. That was supposed to be Jeff’s motive for killing Eels. “Foolproof and beautiful,” says Jeff. “That Whit can really hate, can’t he?”

Here is Greer between takes:

Now things get even more complicated. Jeff gets his hands on Eels’ papers proving that Whit cheated on his taxes. Then he tells the various concerned parties to give him the affidavit Kathie signed claiming Jeff killed Fisher. In exchange, he’ll give them the papers and tell them where he hid Eels’ body. If they don’t cooperate, he’ll send the tax papers to the government and Whit will go to jail. Film noir twists! The more convoluted the plot becomes and the more characters involved the better.

Of course Kathie and Joe try to double-cross Jeff, but he doesn’t fall for it. So then Kathie calls Whit to warn him that things have gone off course and to keep him away while she and Joe try to repair the situation.

Out of the Past Douglas Greer call

Meanwhile, Jeff goes into hiding because Whit’s frame-job convinces the police that he killed Eels and Fisher. So Kathie springs into action and summons the kid. She pretends to be on Jeff’s side, but tells Joe to tail the kid to Jeff and then take care of their problem.

Out of the Past 68

Things are crazy at this point. It’s not The Big Sleep (1946) confusing, but it’s close. As Bosley Crowther wrote in his review of the film in 1947:

There have been double- and triple-crosses in many of these tough detective films, and in one or two Humphrey Bogart specials they have run even higher than that. But the sum of deceitful complications that occur in “Out of the Past” must be reckoned by logarithmic tables, so numerous and involved do they become. The consequence is that the action of this new film…is likely to leave the napping or unmathematical customer far behind.

Fun fact: when Mitchum was asked years later about the confusing plot in this movie, he joked that “two or three pages were lost in the mimeo department.”

Kathie’s plan almost works: Joe follows the kid into the woods and is about to shoot Jeff when the kid catches his sleeve with his fishing rod and pulls him off the cliff to his death.

Out of the Past Mitchum Valentine

It’s a nasty business.

That night, Jeff sneaks into the Tahoe house to make a deal with Whit. Now that Joe is dead, they can pin Eels’ murder on him, and Fisher’s on Kathie (and since those are the real murderers it works.) He tells Whit to claim that Joe committed suicide, which would wrap up everything quite nicely. In exchange for Whit’s help convincing the police that Joe and Kathie are the murderers, and a $50,000 payoff, Jeff will give Whit those incriminating tax papers.

Out of the Past Mitchum Greer Douglas chat

Whit agrees to Jeff’s conditions. He doesn’t want to give Kathie to the cops, but he’s pretty mad at her now. She messed up the San Francisco plot and then sent Joe to his death without telling Whit. He tells her that if she doesn’t take the rap for Fisher’s murder he will kill her. He is terrifying in this scene.

Out of the Past Douglas Greer

Meanwhile, Ann is struggling with the fact that her beloved is now a wanted man. Jim tries to talk to her about Jeff, but she won’t tell him anything. So instead he follows her in the middle of the night to a rendezvous with Jeff.

Ann tells Jeff that she still loves him, and that if he is sure that he isn’t in love with Kathie anymore, he and Ann can start a new life together. Jeff tells her that he knows that he doesn’t deserve her, but if he can clear up his current problems he will spend the rest of his life trying to be worthy of her. It’s all very noble and sweet. She’s a Good Woman.

Out of the Past Mitchum Huston kiss

Jim corners Jeff after he leaves Ann. He tells him that he was about to arrest him, but he heard what he said to her so he lets Jeff go.

Jeff goes back to the Tahoe house and discovers Whit dead on the floor. Kathie killed him–there was no way she was going to let Whit turn her in to the cops. Now Kathie is running things, and she wants Jeff to come with her. They’ll start over in Mexico and regain the magic of their early romance. Jeff has no choice: she threatens to frame him for Fisher, Eels, Joe, and Whit’s murders if he doesn’t do as she tells him.

Out of the Past Greer Mitchum murder 2

They do the classic film noir femme fatale/anti-hero conversation about being bad to the bone but making a good pair. Kathie says that they are perfect for each other because they are both rotten: “You’re no good for anyone but me,” she says. “You’re no good and neither am I. That’s why we deserve each other.”

Here they are filming this scene:

Jeff plays along and she thinks he’s going to go with her. But while she finishes packing upstairs he lights a cigarette and then makes a phone call. This is such a perfectly film noir image, a trenchcoated private eye smoking in shadows!

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They drive along and it all seems fine until a police road block appears out of the darkness. Jeff called the cops. Kathie shoots Jeff and then is killed by the police.

Out of the Past Greer Mitchum crash

The car crashes into the blockade. The police find Jeff and Kathie’s bodies and a pile of cash. It’s a nasty, brutal ending.

Out of the Past Greer end

Fun fact: the PCA originally objected to Jeff’s “suicide” at the end of the movie, but let it slide because it was “morally necessary.” You can’t have a “bad guy” win, and at least Jeff took evil Kathie down with him.

But the movie isn’t quite finished. We head back to the small California town where Jeff tried to start over. Ann asks the kid if Jeff was really running away with Kathie. The kid knows the truth (apparently Jeff told him everything), but in order to set Ann free and allow her to move on with Jim, he nods.

Out of the Past Moore Huston end

Ann is heartbroken but has some closure. She and Jeff drive away, and the camera lingers on the kid until “The End” appears.

Just like in many noirs, the “best” relationships aren’t between men and women but are between men. The love between Jeff and the kid, and even the strange respect between Jeff and Whit, is “purer” than anything Kathie shares with anyone, just as in Double Indemnity when the love between Edward G. Robinson and Fred MacMurray is far more real than MacMurray’s relationship with Barbara Stanwyck.

Out of the Past was in production from October 23, 1946 to January 9, 1947. It was released in November, and received good reviews and box office.

Variety‘s review was positive:

Out of the Past is a hardboiled melodrama [from the novel by Geoffrey Homes] strong on characterization. Direction by Jacques Tourneur pays close attention to mood development, achieving realistic flavor that is further emphasized by real life settings and topnotch lensing by Nicholas Musuraca…Mitchum gives a very strong account of himself. Jane Greer as the baby-faced, charming killer is another lending potent interest. Kirk Douglas, the gangster, is believable and Paul Valentine makes role of henchman stand out. Rhonda Fleming is in briefly but effectively.

Bosley Crowther at The New York Times agreed, but he found the movie needlessly confusing:

But after this private detective has re-encountered an old girl friend (who originally double-crossed him after luring him to double-cross his boss, whom she had shot) and the two get elaborately criss-crossed in a plot to triple-cross our boy again, the involutions of the story become much too complex for us. The style is still sharp and realistic, the dialogue still crackles with verbal sparks and the action is still crisp and muscular, not to mention slightly wanton in spots. But the pattern and purpose of it is beyond our pedestrian ken. People get killed, the tough guys browbeat, the hero hurries—but we can’t tell you why.

But Crowther found it worth watching in the end, writing:

However, as we say, it’s very snappy and quite intriguingly played by a cast that has been well and smartly directed by Jacques Tourneur. Robert Mitchum is magnificently cheekly and self-assured as the tangled “private eye,” consuming an astronomical number of cigarettes in displaying his nonchalance. And Jane Greer is very sleek as his Delilah, Kirk Douglas is crisp as a big crook and Richard Webb, Virginia Huston, Rhonda Fleming and Dickie Moore are picturesque in other roles. If only we had some way of knowing what’s going on in the last half of this film, we might get more pleasure from it. As it is, the challenge is worth a try.

Greer and Mitchum were re-teamed just two years later in the film noir The Big Steal (1949), though Greer was a replacement for femme fatale extraordinaire Lizabeth Scott. Daniel Mainwaring worked on the script, so The Big Steal was an inadvertent reunion of three of Out of the Past’s personnel.

Mitchum would star with Kirk Douglas again, too, though not for another two decades. The mega-stars were reunited in The Way West (1967), a western, which also starred Richard Widmark.

In the neo-noir craze in the 1980s, Out of the Past was remade as Against All Odds (1984) with Jeff Bridges, Rachel Ward, and James Wood. Jane Greer appeared in the film as Kathie’s mother, and Richard Widmark, another film noir actor from the classical era and a castmate of Mitchum and Douglas in The Way West, had a part as Greer’s business partner.

Fun fact: Phil Collins sang the title song “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now),” and was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Original Song. It became one of the best selling singles of the year, and won the Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Performance in 1985.

You can watch the original music video here:

A few years later, on November 14, 1987, Robert Mitchum hosted Saturday Night Live and was in a spoof of Out of the Past called “Out of Gas.” The sketch even included an appearance by Jane Greer! I can’t find video of this, but you can watch his monologue here.

For more, follow me on TwittertumblrPinterest, Instagram at BlondeAtTheFilm, and Facebook, and you can buy this movie here.  As always, thanks for reading!



Categories: Drama, Film Noir, Thriller

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21 replies »

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful review! This is such a “big” classic, it would be hard to know where to start. You looked at things I wouldn’t have thought of. One thing I learned: I usually detest day-for-night photography, but I don’t think I ever noticed it in this movie. Thanks for sharing that photo! I’m sorry you didn’t say more about Steve Brody and his character, not to mention that lovely fight scene with the slashes of light and shadow and the cutaways that obscure the action – probably hard to capture in stills.

    • Absolutely! It is a “big classic” with so much going on! That is a great fight scene, thanks for mentioning it! This movie is so dense and important that I had to pick and choose what to talk about it, but I love that scene too! Thanks for reading!

  2. Ooh, a Christmas present for me? I love this film and this post. Thanks Ms Film!

    “…Although a bit strange at first, there is something about Mitchum’s big laziness that is incredibly charismatic. Even his expressions are slow and almost carelessly underplayed…”

    I always think of Lee Marvin’s comment on Mitchum: “The beauty of that man. He’s so still. He’s moving. And yet he’s not moving.”

    You mentioned Jane Greer’s light colored clothing at the beginning. If you notice it generally gets darker as the picture goes along, until at the end when she enters the room she looks like the angel of death over Jeff’s shoulder. I’m sure it’s a conscious choice. It mirrors Jeff’s idealization of her and his gradual disillusionment.

    I love all the silly things Greer does: bouncing up and down and smiling with the race track ticket in her mouth, flirting with Jeff at the meetup (“well I really shouldn’t ought”). She’s the most playful femme fatale I can think of. Lana pouts, Ava smolders, but Greer’s playful. It’s really an effective contrast with the essential coldness of her character. Even at the end I still can’t help rooting for her. There’s a little homunculus inside me jumping up and down and yelling “Don’t call the cops! Go with her — it’ll be fun. She might let you live 6 months.”

    Happy New Year to you and yours, Ms. Film. And many more.

    • Happy New Year, Syd! Thanks for this comment. I love that Lee Marvin quote–perfect! And great catch on the changes in Greer’s costumes. I think you’re absolutely right. And I agree–she is a playful, even cute femme fatale when she turns on her charm! And perhaps that’s what makes her so terrifying! Adorable one moment and then murderous the next!

      • Exactly. Ava in the Killers just goes for a frontal assault: ‘you’ll do what I want because I’m gorgeous.’ Effective but obvious. Greer’s approach is more like judo. Just when you think this woman’s too silly to be dangerous, she coldly shoots your partner. Nothing could be more unsettling.

        BTW, is it possible to use HTML syntax in comments? Thanks again for writing up this movie. I’m sorry it didn’t get more of a response.

  3. Robert Mitchum was totally compelling in his prime, with that slow-motion, “don’t give a …” demeanour. Of his own performances, he observed, ‘It’s been said that I underplay so much, I could have stayed home,’ while John Huston thought Mitchum capable of playing King Lear! He’s definitely on my Top Ten list of leading men. Of his films, a few of my favourites are ‘Crossfire’ (1947), ‘His Kind of Woman’ (1951, with Jane Russell) and ‘Heaven Knows, Mr Allison’ (a 1957 war-movie-cum-romance – albeit a chaste one – with Deborah Kerr). He could even ‘do’ drawing-room comedy – ‘The Grass Is Greener’ (1960) with Cary Grant, Kerr again, and Jean Simmons.

    In contrast to his troublemaker reputation and bawdy conversation (including the habit of peppering his conversation with scatological references), he recorded two albums of songs (the first being ‘Calypso … is like so’) and wrote poetry throughout his life: the lines he wrote at 15, ‘Trouble lies in sullen pools/Along the road I’ve taken,’ could refer to the experiences of his character in any number of his movies.

    On the subject of the cast members’ reunions you refer to above, Richard Widmark and Jane Greer also co-starred in 1956’s ‘Run For the Sun’ (although that is an adventure film, rather than noir) alongside British actor Trevor Howard.

    Richard Widmark is another of my favourite actors, ever, in either lead or character roles – he may even be #1. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his debut, the giggling killer Tommy Udo in noir classic ‘Kiss of Death’ (1947). He made films with big names such as Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, William Holden, Sidney Poitier, John Wayne, Henry Fonda and a young Marilyn Monroe, and with directors as diverse as Vincente Minnelli and Elia Kazan. And his guest role in ‘I Love Lucy’ (‘The Tour’) is an absolute blast, confirmed in the zeitgeist hall of fame by a typically quick-fire tribute in ‘Gilmore Girls’ (‘But Not As Cute As Pushkin’, season 5). Could Widmark be a topic for a future post?

    • Thanks for this comment! So much good stuff! Widmark is wonderful–I think I first saw him in the very bleak noir “Night and the City.” He’s an incredible actor. I definitely hope to write about more of his movies! Thanks for reading and for this great comment!

  4. Out of the Past is an amazing film that deserved to have someone like you writing about it. This was an outstanding read. Thank you.

  5. Thank you very much for your wonderful review of this wonderful movie, long a favourite with us. I especially loved the stills you chose from the movie, they were the best, mesmerising to look at.

    Just a quick question please, if anyone can help. I would like to use a quote from this film in something, and I was just wondering if this movie is in the public domain? Would you happen to know this please?

    I can’t find out anywhere online if it is in the public domain – nowhere says it for certain.

    Would really appreciate any help, thank you!

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