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Out of the Past

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Out of the Past
Out of the Past (1947 poster - retouched).jpg
Theatrical release poster by William Rose
Directed byJacques Tourneur
Produced byWarren Duff
Screenplay byDaniel Mainwaring
Based onBuild My Gallows High
by Daniel Mainwaring
Music byRoy Webb
CinematographyNicholas Musuraca
Edited bySamuel E. Beetley
Distributed byRKO Radio Pictures
Release date
  • November 25, 1947 (1947-11-25) (USA)
Running time
97 minutes
CountryUnited States

Out of the Past (billed in the United Kingdom as Build My Gallows High) is a 1947 film noir directed by Jacques Tourneur and starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas. The film was adapted by Daniel Mainwaring (using the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes) from his novel Build My Gallows High (also written as Homes),[1] with uncredited revisions by Frank Fenton and James M. Cain.

Film historians consider Out of the Past a superb example of film noir for its complex, fatalistic storyline, dark cinematography, and classic femme fatale.[1] In 1991, Out of the Past was added to the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."[2][3]


Joe Stefanos is hired muscle for “big operator” Whit Sterling, a former New York City gambling kingpin relocated to Lake Tahoe. He arrives in a rural mountain town in the California Sierra Nevada looking to meet and talk with someone from his past.

Jeff Bailey, owner of Bridgeport's gas station, is fishing at a nearby lake with wholesome local girl Ann Miller. Stefanos sends Jeff's deaf mute employee, The Kid, to retrieve Jeff, then informs Jeff that Whit wants to see him. Though Ann trusts Jeff implicitly, her parents are wary of him, as is Jim, a local conservation official who has been sweet on Ann since childhood. Jeff reluctantly agrees to meet with Whit, and invites Ann to join him for the 75 mile drive to Whit's home. On the way, Jeff tells Ann of a dark episode in his past (in flashback) involving both men and a beautiful but dangerous woman.

Bailey's real name is Markham. He and former partner Jack Fisher were private investigators in New York. The pair had been hired at an extremely lucrative rate by the shady but superficially amiable Sterling to find his girlfriend, Kathie Moffat, who had shot him and stolen $40,000 before fleeing. Jeff is hesitant, sensing Sterling, who claims he is disinterested in the money and wealthy enough that may be true, instead is seeking revenge rather than a reconciliation. Whit assures Jeff he just wants her back, and will not harm her, but, having an impulsive disregard for Fisher, tells Markham he wants him to handle the case alone. On their way out in the elevator Fisher insists the payday still be split 50-50 according to their standing agreement, and Markham agrees.

Kathie's maid tells Jeff she helped Kathie pack for a “tropical“ climate, and mentions something about inoculations, but seeks to throw him off by dissembling that she has gone to Florida. Jeff guesses Mexico instead, since shots were not needed for Florida. He follows Kathie's trail to Mexico City and Taxco, before staking her out in Acapulco and eventually striking up an acquaintance. Kathie slowly but successfully seduces a willing Jeff, admitting she shot Sterling but denying she took his money. Befuddled with desire, Markham proposes the two of them go on the run together. Kathie warns him Sterling won't forget, which Jeff tries to dismiss with the wisecrack that the two of them will send him a postcard greeting every Christmas.

Jeff proposes they leave the next morning for somewhere south by sea, and Kathie agrees to meet him at his hotel. While packing, he is surprised by the arrival of Sterling and Stefanos, checking up on his lack of progress. Jeff lies that Kathie slipped past him and is on a steamer going south. Whit instructs Jeff to keep looking for her. Jeff overreacts and tells Sterling he's finished both with the case and their relationship, to which Sterling responds threateningly, “I fire people. Nobody quits me.“ After a close call in the hotel cocktail lounge, Sterling departs.

The fugitive couple flees north by freighter to San Francisco. There, they initially live as inconspicuously as possible, but are spotted at a horse race by Fisher, now working for Sterling. Jeff and Kathie split up to shake him, with Jeff conspicuously heading to Los Angeles. When he is confident he has given Fisher the slip, Jeff arranges to meet Kathie at a cabin in the Sierra Nevada, only to find that Fisher had been following her instead. When Fisher demands the full $10,000 originally promised the pair by Sterling to keep quiet, the two men brawl. Kathie suddenly shoots Fisher dead. Jeff is not merely startled but appalled, and lets her know that. He turns back towards Fisher and she flees, leaving him to bury the body. In her haste to flee, some of her purse contents had spilled out on a table, including her bank book. Jeff opens it to reveal a single deposit, $40,000.

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past
Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past

Jeff finishes his confession to Ann just as they reach Sterling's palatial Lake Tahoe estate, ending the flashback. Ann drops him off and Jeff is greeted with great bonhomie and apparent forgiveness by a cheerful Whit, who tells him he has a job only Jeff can handle. Jeff instinctively declines. Over breakfast, Jeff is startled when Kathie appears. Whit dismissively yet with seeming graciousness tells them that they are both “back in the fold“, indicating to Jeff the job is not one that he can turn down. Trying to sugar-coat things, he indicates it is the only way to square things between them.

Mitchum and Greer
Mitchum and Greer

A crooked San Francisco lawyer, Leonard Eels, has helped Whit dodge $1,000,000 ($11.5 million today) in taxes, but now is blackmailing him for $200,000 or he will turn the incriminating records over to the United States Treasury. Whit wants Jeff to recover them and sends him on the afternoon train to San Francisco. There, Jeff meets Eels' secretary, Meta Carson, who explains the plan. Jeff begins to suspect he is being framed. That night, at Eels' apartment, she introduces him to Eels, which is to cause him, Jeff deduces, to leave his fingerprints on a glass. The couple leave, Jeff trails Carson, then returns and finds Eels dead. Knowing he will be blamed, he hides the body to throw off those plotting against him.

Returning to Carson's apartment, he entraps Kathie (who has impersonated Carson in seeking to ensure that Eels' apartment manager finds the dead man's body) and wrings out of her that she gave Whit a signed affidavit swearing that Jeff killed Fisher. Jeff manages to retrieve the tax papers from some of Sterling's thugs and mails them to a safe location, substituting a local phonebook in the briefcase to throw off Sterling's henchmen when he is captured. He tells them he will only deal with Sterling and flees, only to find him himself the focus of a police dragnet for an accused double murderer.

Jeff returns to the Bridgeport area. Unbeknownst to Whit, Kathie has ordered Stefanos to trail The Kid so he can find and kill Jeff. The Kid drives to a steep, narrow canyon where Jeff is hiding. The Kid spots Stefanos aiming a pistol at Jeff and quickly hooks him with a fishing line, causing Stefanos to lose his balance and fall to his death.

Jeff goes back to Whit's mansion and tells him of Kathie's double-cross and Stefanos's death. He offers that the death of Stefanos, Eels' actual murderer, can be made to look like a guilt-ridden suicide, removing Jeff from that frame-up. Furthermore, he will return the business records to Whit if Whit destroys Kathie's affidavit and hands her over to the police for Fisher's death. Whit takes the offer and Jeff believes he has worked his way out of Kathie's web.

Jeff makes a quick visit to Ann, then returns to Tahoe to discover that Kathie has killed Whit. She gives Jeff the choice of running away with her and a satchel of Whit's money or taking the blame for all three murders. He agrees to go with her, but phones the state police while she is upstairs packing. Driving up to a police roadblock, Kathie realizes that Jeff has betrayed her and shoots him dead. She then fires at the police, who fatally shoot her. When the news reaches Bridgeport, Jim offers to take Ann away. Ann asks The Kid if Jeff had been planning to run away with Kathie. The Kid lies and nods his head. Ann returns to Jim and she drives off with him as The Kid smiles and salutes Jeff's name on the station's sign.


Background and production

Out of the Past was produced by RKO Pictures, and the key personnel — director Jacques Tourneur, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, actors Mitchum and Greer, along with Albert S. D'Agostino's design group — were long-time RKO collaborators. Although the studio had focused on making the more lucrative B-films during the early 1940s,[4][5] the post-World War II Out of the Past was given an A-budget.[citation needed]

John Garfield and Dick Powell turned down the lead.[6]

In only his second film role, Kirk Douglas plays a supporting part as Mitchum's antagonist in this film. The next time Mitchum and Douglas played major roles in the same picture was in the 1967 Western The Way West alongside Richard Widmark.

Musuraca also shot Tourneur's Cat People.


Box office

The film made a profit of $90,000.[6]

Critical response

Out of the Past is considered one of the greatest of all films noir.[7][8][9] Robert Ottoson hailed the film as "the ne plus ultra of forties film noir".[10]

Film critic Bosley Crowther wrote, "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 cheeky 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."[11]

The staff at Variety wrote, "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."[12]

In a 2004 review of the film, critic Roger Ebert wrote "Out of the Past is one of the greatest of all film noirs, the story of a man who tries to break with his past and his weakness and start over again in a town, with a new job and a new girl. The film stars Robert Mitchum, whose weary eyes and laconic voice, whose very presence as a violent man wrapped in indifference, made him an archetypal noir actor. The story opens before we've even seen him, as trouble comes to town looking for him. A man from his past has seen him pumping gas, and now his old life reaches out and pulls him back."[9] Ebert also called it, "The greatest cigarette-smoking movie of all time."[13] "The trick, as demonstrated by Jacques Tourneur and his cameraman, Nicholas Musuraca, is to throw a lot of light into the empty space where the characters are going to exhale. When they do, they produce great white clouds of smoke, which express their moods, their personalities and their energy levels. There were guns in Out of the Past, but the real hostility came when Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas smoked at each other."[13]

The film currently holds a "Fresh" score of 95% on review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of 9/10, based on 37 reviews.[14]


Out of the Past was remade as Against All Odds (1984) with Rachel Ward in the Greer role, Jeff Bridges filling in for Mitchum, and James Woods as a variation of Kirk Douglas' villain, with Jane Greer as the mother of her original character in Out of the Past and Richard Widmark in a supporting role.

See also


  1. ^ a b Handler, David. "The Unsung Godfather of Film Noir". CrimeReads. Literary Hub. Retrieved 4 March 2020.
  2. ^ Andrews, Roberts M. (October 11, 1991). "25 Films Designated For Preservation". St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Lee Enterprises.
  3. ^ "Complete National Film Registry Listing | Film Registry | National Film Preservation Board | Programs at the Library of Congress | Library of Congress". Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Retrieved 2020-05-07.
  4. ^ Schatz 1999, p. 173, table 6.3.
  5. ^ Crafton, Donald (1997). The Talkies: American Cinema's Transition to Sound, 1926–1931. History of the American cinema, volume 4. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. p. 210. ISBN 0-684-19585-2. OCLC 37608321.
  6. ^ a b Richard B. Jewell, Slow Fade to Black: The Decline of RKO Radio Pictures, Uni of California, 2016
  7. ^ Ballinger, Alexander; Graydon, Danny (2007). The Rough Guide to Film Noir. Rough Guides reference guides. London: Rough Guides. pp. 56, 151–52. ISBN 978-1-84353-474-7. OCLC 78989518.
  8. ^ Schatz 1999, p. 364
  9. ^ a b Ebert, Roger (July 18, 2004). "Out of the Past (1947)". Chicago Sun-Times. Sun-Times Media Group. Retrieved February 1, 2008.
  10. ^ Ottoson, Robert (1981). A Reference Guide to the American Film Noir, 1940-1958. Metuchen, N.J., and London: Scarecrow Press. p. 132. ISBN 0-8108-1363-7. OCLC 6708669.
  11. ^ Crowther, Bosley (November 26, 1947). "Out of the Past (1947)". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved February 1, 2008.
  12. ^ "Out of the Past Review". Variety. Reed Business Information. 1947. Retrieved February 1, 2008.
  13. ^ a b Ebert, Roger - 200 Cigarettes Chicago Sun, February 26, 1999. This review also later appeared in the book by Roger Ebert, "I Hated Hated Hated HATED this movie"
  14. ^ "Build My Gallows High (1947)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 20 November 2017.
  • Schatz, Thomas (1999) [1997]. Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s. History of the American cinema, volume 6. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-22130-3. OCLC 40907588.

Further reading

External links

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