Out of the Past, 1947, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. B&W, 97 minutes.
Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) has chosen a simple life in a small town, making his living from his gas station and dating the local sweetheart, Ann Miller (Virginia Huston). He is content and at ease, until a dark shadow from his past appears in the memory of Kathie Moffatt (Jane Greer).
Years before, Moffatt had shot and wounded her boyfriend, the less-than-honorable Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). She fled to parts unknown, and Sterling hired a private investigator, Jeff Markham, to find her and bring her back. Markham, of course, is none other than the man now known as Jeff Bailey. His search leads him to find Moffatt hiding in plain site in Mexico, but he doesn’t let Sterling know about his discovery. He’s fallen for Kathie, and the two run off together.
They are living quietly until Markham’s partner, Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie), finds them and threatens to take Moffatt back to Sterling. Markham and Fisher get into a brawl, and Moffatt, now sharper in her aim, shoots Fisher dead. After Markham buries the body, he starts a new life, but without Kathie Moffatt.
Destiny steps in, and Jeff finds himself first back in Sterling’s palatial home, then in San Francisco, where he meets up once again with Kathie. The three have a few issues to resolve.
Before Mitchum was cast in the lead, the part allegedly was offered to Humphrey Bogart, John Garfield and Dick Powell, three of the most popular actors of the time. It was said to first have been offered to Bogart because the story on which the film is based, Build the Gallows High, and the movie itself, both strongly echo elements of The Maltese Falcon.
It is brooding, classic film noir, with tension that builds and a resolution that leaves its own questions. As the femme fatale, Jane Greer does a fine job, but her acting doesn’t match the quality performances by Mitchum and Douglas, nor is the interaction between her and either of those men half as interesting as the interplay between the male lead characters.
Filming took place primarily in a small town in northern California, with most of the cast and crew arriving a week or so before Mitchum appeared. He almost didn’t make it at all when the brakes failed on the four-seat plane he arrived in. The pilot was able to avert disaster, and while the two passengers in the back were unconscious after the emergency landing, Mitchum is rumored to have crawled out and hitched a ride to the set.
It was only Kirk Douglas’ third film role, the first being The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and he is sharp, cunning and unlikable as the unscrupulous Whit Sterling. Mitchum, also a rising star at the time, shines with his typical low-key style in one of his finest roles.
In 1984, Out of the Past was remade, with a significantly different script, as the film Against All Odds. The remake starred Jeff Bridges in the Mitchum role, Rachel Ward in Greer’s role and James Woods in Douglas’ part. Jane Greer played Ward’s mother, and Paul Valentine, who had a small part in the original film, played a councilman.
For fans of film noir, Out of the Past is a must-see, with most of the classic elements of that style seen in this movie. The snappy dialogue, the moody lighting, the sharp contrast between good and evil, all play a role. Mitchum, with his laconic style and brooding appearance, is the quintessential film noir star. And for classic film fans in general, this is one to add to your list of movies worth watching.