Out of the Past (1947)


From the novel with a much better title, Build My Gallows High.
From the novel with a much better title, Build My Gallows High.

Genre: Film-Noir Crime Drama

Starring: Robert Mitchum (The Night Of The Hunter • Angel Face), Jane Greer (The Big StealAgainst All Odds)

Directed By: Jacques Tourneur (I Walked with a Zombie Cat People)

Overview: Jeff is a happily engaged gas station owner. When the men from his past find him to complete some unfinished business, he must return to his old life in the corrupt urban jungle to free himself of his debt. Of course there’s also the woman he left behind.

Robert Mitchum is one of those names that true cinephiles are happy to know, yet never seem to share with their ‘movie lover’ friends. Humphrey Bogart gets to be the universal Noir name that gets everyone’s attention. James Cagney, well he’s been there forever. I’d even say Edward G. Robinson is a name better known that Mitchum’s. Hopefully Out of the Past will shed a little Mitchum light into the world of iconic, classic Noir.

Once upon a time, Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), a gas station owner in a small town, was not so carefree. Years ago, he was a private eye given a job to find Kathie (Jane Greer) and bring her back to her rich and powerful man, Whit (Kirk Douglas). Jeff and Kathie instead found each other and fled together. When cornered by Whit’s men, things turned South and Jeff had to run away from it all. Now, years later, Whit’s men have brought Jeff back to his old boss. He very casually explains that Jeff needs to work off the debt of his old unfinished business. Reluctantly, Jeff agrees in hopes of being done with it once and for all, but something doesn’t smell right.

Yeah, that's the grin.
Yeah, that's the grin.

Robert Mitchum is a slow burn; his presence in Out of the Past burrows into you until about half-way through you realize how brilliantly understated he is in this role. As a matter of fact, the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book highlights this in its entry, “Mitchum literally slouches into his role as Jeff, his heavy relaxation making his vulnerability not only believable but tragic.” Director Jacques Tourneur was wise to feature him so frequently in profile. It’s his best angle. On the other side of the coin is the venerable Kirk Douglas in the role of the entitled and intelligent Whit. The moment he appears, he graces the screen with his slick suit, his slick hair, and his slick post-canary cat grit. His presence leaves you wanting more, and I’d have loved to see Kirk smile through more lines, more subtle threats.

Kathie: You ought to have killed me for what I did back there.

Jeff: There's still time…

Out of the Past's script is full of one-liners and witty, gritty repartée, but it felt a little forced at times. Perhaps this jaded critic has seen too many Noirs, but it’s very obvious which scenes were the ones our characters put gravel in their teeth for, then spat them out in a series of conveniently overlapping banter whose next line is wittier than the last. No, the script doesn’t stumble, but it’s so polished that sometimes it seems far from natural, and not in that Billy Wilder way that we all forgive.

Although Out of the Past is filled with all things Noir – low-key cinematography, trench coats and twists, frame-ups and dangerous-yet-irresistible women, and a classic love triangle where our hero’s the only one without a gun - I wouldn’t call Out of the Past “the masterpiece of film noir” that the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book calls it. Yes, absolutely it’s Noir in its purest form, and recommendable to any fan of the genre - to anyone who would like a blueprint to explain the genre, but I wouldn’t call it integral. I found Out of the Past to be merely an entertaining film that would sit in the middle of the bell-curve of Noir. 

Trenchoats, fedoras, dames. Check, Check, Ckeck.
Trenchoats, fedoras, dames. Check, Check, Ckeck.

Performance: 9 Cinematography: 8 Script: 7 Plot: 8 Mood: 8

Overall Rating: 80% (I Remember That, I Guess)

And, as ever, this Noir has my favourite iconic display of the Noirest thing to happen in Noir: a slap in the mouth. Without giving too much away, I can add that it’s the best kind on the hierarchy of face-slaps – a man slapping another man. Enjoy.

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Ahhh, Jane Greer.


Seriously foxy lady, that one.

Ah Messed up! I was just thinking of you!

Ah who'm I kidding? I always thing of you when I see Noir!

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