Jeff Bailey, small-town gas pumper, has his mysterious past catch up with him one day when he's ordered to meet with gambler Whit Sterling. En route to the meeting, he tells girlfriend Ann his story. Flashback: Once, Jeff was a private eye hired by Sterling to find his mistress Kathie who shot Whit and absconded with $40,000. He traces her to Acapulco...where the delectable Kathie makes Jeff forget all about Sterling... Back in the present, Whit's new job for Jeff is clearly a trap, but Jeff's precautions only leave him more tightly enmeshed...
Robert Mitchum ... Jeff Bailey
Jane Greer ... Kathie Moffat
Kirk Douglas ... Whit Sterling
Rhonda Fleming ... Meta Carson
Richard Webb ... Jim
Steve Brodie ... Jack Fisher
Virginia Huston ... Ann Miller
Paul Valentine ... Joe Stephanos
Dickie Moore ... The Kid
Ken Niles ... Leonard Eels
How do I love it? Let me count the ways...First, like a few perfect jazz albums, OUT OF THE PAST has a distinctive, coherent sound developed through various moods and tempos and melodies. Robert Mitchum is the lead soloist who dominates the score; the sound of the film is his sound, cool and weary and knowing. Though he doesn't sing in this one, no performance better demonstrates Mitchum's musicality, his sense of rhythm, pace and inflection. He referred to his dialogue as "the lyrics," and treated it that way, delivering his lines behind the beat, the way Sinatra sings. Jane Greer contributes her gorgeous dry contralto and Kirk Douglas adds a light, sneering counterpoint to an inspired group improvisation on the theme of disillusionment.
Mitchum is Jeff Markham, alias Jeff Bailey, an ex-private eye who made a big mistake by falling for Kathie (Jane Greer), the gangster's mistress he was hired to track down. Splitting up after he discovers she's a liar and a killer, he hides out in a small town, taking up with a nice girl named Ann, knowing it's just a matter of time before the past catches up with him. His narration and dialogue carry the film along on a laid-back high, like a series of perfect smoke rings. He sums up his philosophy of life in a casino when Kathie asks, "Is there a way to win?" and he answers, "There's a way to lose more slowly." When she says she's sorry the man she shot didn't die, he murmurs dreamily, "Give him time." His enveloping pessimism is strangely elated; Jeff knows the score and savors it like some private hipster knowledge. "She can't be all bad. No one is," Jeff's nice girlfriend says of Kathie, but he returns, "She comes closest."
Kathie Moffat is the greatest of all femmes fatales, because she's the least caricatured. She's not a scheming black widow, just a totally selfish, cowardly woman who feels no remorse for anything she does, and who happens to be beautiful and alluring enough that we can believe any man, even a smart and tough one, would fall for her. Jeff and Kathie's romance is genuinely rhapsodic, nothing like the usual mating of temptress and chump; they're both so sexy and smart and wised-up, always getting the joke together. The disillusionment wouldn't be so compelling if the illusion weren't so lovely. When Kathie shoots Jeff's partner, Mitchum—in a reaction shot lasting all of two seconds—shows Jeff realizing, and instantaneously coming to terms with, the fact that the best thing that ever happened to him is also the worst thing that ever happened to him. He looks simultaneously shocked to the core, and as though he'd expected it all along.
Jeff Bailey is a paradox: you'd think nobody could put anything over on this guy, yet he acts like a sucker; he exemplifies both cynical pride and romantic blindness. Does he know what he's getting into and deliberately delude himself? Is he drawn to Kathie because she can rouse him from his torpor of indifference, because he can only really care about his life when he's in danger of losing it? You're never sure, but Mitchum knows how to hold your interest without explaining himself. His essential "Mitchumness" lies in hidden depths, those hints of melancholy, amusement and cold violence that seep through his impassive surface, the suggestions of menace and compassion and old wounds. He gives the movie a core of mystery that's eternally captivating. Like great American popular music, it's sublime hokum, so well-crafted that it stays eternally fresh and means more to you the more you hear it.
Here is a world in which every throwaway gesture—ordering a cup of coffee, checking a briefcase—has drop-dead style, every word spoken is a wisecrack or a line of pulp poetry. Even minor characters and incidental scenes are rich and unforgettable: Theresa Harris as Eunice the maid in her fabulous Billie Holiday hat in the Harlem nightclub; the check-room clerk at the bus station, witness to who knows how many noir entanglements, with his hollow-man motto: "I always say everyone's right"; Joe Stefanos's black overcoat appearing like an ink-spot in the clean white town; the signs the mute Kid flashes to Jeff by the glittering lake, as the sky clouds over…
The movie floats from place to place, blending real landscapes and studio sets, expressionistic stairwells and Ansel Adams mountains. The episodes run together fluid and compulsive as a dream. Sometimes there's nothing but music and movement: Jeff prowling cat-like around Meta Carson's apartment while boogie-woogie piano plays in the next room. The cinematography is distractingly gorgeous, drifting into glistening abstract patterns of black and white, like the web of bare tree-branches projected onto the bodies of Jeff and Ann at their last meeting. A seamless blend of romance and cynicism, drama and humor, OUT OF THE PAST is not only a perfect Hollywood studio product, it's a definitive movie experience. It's supersaturated, yet it never feels overworked, never tries too hard. It just seems to happen, almost by casual serendipity; the wit and elegance and glamour are so unforced and alive. You succumb to it instantly and helplessly as Jeff succumbs to Kathie's magic. The spell breaks for him, but not for us. Disenchantment may be the theme of OUT OF THE PAST, but the movie itself is a source of perpetual wonder.
Out Of The Past was a pivotal picture for its three principals. It was only Douglas' second film, but he started big – in a supporting role but a meaty one, as in his debut the previous year in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (they're two of the best roles he would ever take). Mitchum had spent years in the galleys but finally got a leading role that let him unleash his distinctive persona – the fearless and nimble intelligence behind the nonchalant eyes, the world-weary retorts mumbled from behind the cigarette drooping from his lip (it's Mitchum's own appropriation of what Humphrey Bogart had started). The best of his many great lines he aims at Greer, calling her a `leaf that the wind blows from gutter to gutter.' And Greer, who made far fewer movies than her acting (graceful and natural) and her looks (like a less literal Jayne Meadows) would augur, takes her most emblematic credit and plays it to the hilt. Hers is perhaps the slowest transformation in the noir cycle and the most breathtakingly brutal. When, for her final scene, she shows up in a snood, it's clear that, for Mitchum, good times are no longer in store.
The talent that went into Out Of The Past is manifold. Both director of photography Nicholas Musuraca and Roy Webb, who wrote the responsive score, were old comrades of Tourneur from his earlier days in Val Lewton's B-movie unit at RKO. The credentials for the screenplay, as above, were impeccable, resulting in chiseled, quotable dialogue, right down to Paul Valentine (as one of Douglas' strong-arms) advising Greer, about to place a long-distance call, that `those dames listen in.'
But the most prestigious palm must go to Tourneur. He had less of a distinctive style to him – less of a `look,' less of a formula – than most of the top-flight noir directors; he was a chameleon, who used his talents less to make his own statement as to bring out the best in the scripts he was given. He was born in France and he died in France, but when in Hollywood he brought neither technical innovation nor rigorous theory to his work. Rather he looked for the human element that underlies and informs art – and he relished its complexity. (The movie, for instance, opens and closes on Dickie Moore, as a teenaged deaf mute in Mitchum's employ, and whose function in the story is far from a merely sentimental fillip.) Tourneur took film noir as close to tragic poetry as it would ever come, and Out Of The Past, his masterwork, raised the standards of the noir cycle as far as they would ever go. It's not just one of the greatest noirs, it's one of the greatest movies, period.
Jacques Tourneur will probably be remembered best for this film, even though he had an extensive career in Hollywood. Working with Daniel Mainwaring, the author of the novel in which this movie is based, he created one of the best pictures of this genre, one that will be a perennial favorite. Mr. Tourneur and his cinematographer, the brilliant Nicholas Musuraca, made a stunning looking film that looks as good today, as when it was originally released.
If you haven't seen the film, please stop reading now.
Jeff Bailey has reinvented himself as the owner of a gas station in California. His past comes to haunt him at the beginning of the movie. Jeff has found peace and love in the small town where he has taken refuge. He can change his identity, but he can't hide from the people that want to see him dead.
We watch in the beginning how Jeff is sent away by Whit Sterling to look for the disappearing Kathie Moffat, who has stolen forty thousand dollars and gone hiding. Jeff finds her in Acapulco. Kathie gives a bad name to any other dames in the movies of this genre. She is totally ruthless; she will do anything to double cross Whit as well as have Jeff do whatever she wants.
Comparisons have been made between "The Maltese Falcon" and "Out of the Past". Both have plots that are twisted; when we feel we know everything, there is a new twist to the story. We are constantly misled into thinking one way, when in reality, something else has happened.
This is a film that combines all the elements of the classic film noir and juxtaposes it against the serene surroundings of where Jeff is now living. Black and white photography was used to great advantage in the movie. It has a style that makes it one of a kind. The music by Roy Webb plays neatly in the background without interrupting the action.
The acting is first rate. Mr. Tourneur got a brilliant performance from Robert Mitchum. His Jeff, is the epitome of coolness. It's hard to understand the mentality of American cinema of the times not paying Mr. Mitchum his due. He was a much better actor than he was given credit for. His presence looms large in this movie and it's a tribute to him that he makes his character dominate the movie.
Jane Greer was also excellent in her take of Kathie Moffat. She is pure evil, a sensuous woman who will do anything to get her own way. When we see her in Acapulco she is a seductress that no man can resist. She leads Jeff on by the sheer power of the desire he feels for her. Ms. Greer was not a beauty, by Hollywood standard, but yet, she makes an incredible contribution to the movie. Her textured performance is exquisite in its economy. We all see right through her, yet, she takes us for an incredible ride, up to the end of the picture.
The others in the cast do an excellent job. A young and dashing Kirk Douglas is perfect as the dubious Whit. He shows such a magnetism, even then, at the start of his career in movies. Rhonda Fleming had a small role and she makes most of it. Also Virginia Huston, as Ann, makes a great contribution to the film.
The film, ultimately, is a tribute to the talent of the director. This is Mr. Tourneur's best movie.
# This film was selected to the National Film Registry, Library of Congress, in 1991.
# Humphrey Bogart read the script and, seeing the similarities between this and The Maltese Falcon (1941), wanted to play Jeff. However, Warner Bros. didn't buy the material and RKO produced this movie.