If you’re of the opinion that you can overcome the mistakes you’ve made in life, that you can identify the error of your ways, learn from your mistakes, and take off into the sunset, Out of the Past disagrees. Of course, it can’t help any that you buried the body of your ex-partner after he was murdered by your lover.
Originally considered by Warner as a vehicle for Humphrey Bogart, the rights to Out of the Past (originally an unpublished novel titled “Build My Gallows High”) went to RKO. The script was purportedly re-written (apparently pretty poorly) by James M. Cain then scrapped with a final version being attributed to Daniel Mainwaring with excellent, yet uncredited dialogue by Frank Fenton. As a classic Hollywood noir prototype, Out of the Past is among the best; the leads are superb, the photography is stylized but tasteful, the plot is convoluted, and the dialogue is quick. A classic through and through.
Things are going pretty well for Jeff Bailey, alias Markham (Robert Mitchum, in a career highlight role that almost went to John Garfield or Dick Powell) – he’s a small-town gas station owner who has the love of a good woman – Ann (Virgina Huston, likeably milquetoast and little more than an allegory). The weather’s nice, and Jeff’s quick with one-liners, and everything seems to be falling into place.
That is, until he’s tracked down by a former business associate and his presence is requested by another ex-associate, gambler Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas, on loan from Paramount and fresh off of double suiciding with Barbara Stanwyck in the incredible Strange Love of Martha Ivers). Jeff levels with Ann on his mysterious past, and so begins the flashback that dominates the first half of the film.
Years ago, Jeff was working as a private investigator in New York when assigned by Whit to find his ex-girlfriend who allegedly stole $40,000 and shot him – a Ms. Kathie Moffat (Gorgeous and impassive Jane Greer, certainly a contender for Ms. Noir). On the contingent that she will not be harmed, Jeff makes quick work of finding her Mexico, where they drink bourbon, smoke at each other. Did Kathie steal the money? Baby, Jeff doesn’t care. You can see for yourself in this wind-swept beach rendezvous which never fails to cause immediate swooning. Here, let’s watch it together.
So anyway, they fall in love with a series of gorgeous photographed beach meetings during a fatalistic voice over and decide to leave Mexico together when Whit meets Jeff at his hotel (Jeff still living on his dime and all). Jeff denies locating Kathie and tries to quit, but Whit insists he continue the search. Shortly thereafter, Jeff and Kathie move to San Francisco to live a blissful and purposely vague unmarried life – censorship fun fact – Kathie living with Jeff (and later, Whit) out of wedlock was originally forbidden by the production code administration, being a portrayal of gross illicit sex, but they relented, so long as we never actually see their living arrangements. Presumably, they just hang out on the run together and go to movies at the shitty theatres.
But the unwedded bliss can’t last, as a chance meeting with Jeff’s ex-partner (who was to receive a portion of Whit’s payout upon the recovery of Kathie) leads to a confrontation in a remote cabin that ends in ex-partner’s death at the hands of Kathie (to be fair, he did call Kathie a cheap piece of baggage), while Jeff attempted to settle their differences with a simple brawl.
Jeff is left to bury the body, and discovers what we all knew – Kathie did, indeed, take the money.
Aaaaand, now we’re back to the present.
At Whit’s home the next day, Jeff is bemused by the appearance of Kathie, the three share a tense breakfast where Whit and Jeff smoke at each other at Whit enlists Jeff’s help to steal incriminating tax documents from Eels, an attorney with incriminating tax documents on Whit. Smelling a rat, yet feeling a responsibility to Whit, Jeff goes with Eels’ secretary, Meta Carson – a little cold around the heart and Out of the Past’s secondary femme fatale, to steal the briefcase in question.
(Fun fact on this scene – if you’re watching subtitles, you’ll notice that it appears that Eels says “Apple Martini?” as if he was about to fix Robert Mitchum some kind of hideous, radio-active green concoction made from some kind of God-forsaken apple schnapps. It’s a transcription error – he is merely offering Jeff a martini, which he will conveniently end up leaving his fingerprints on).
And then the double-crossing starts to double-cross itself. Jeff doubles back to find Eels dead and hides the body. He manipulates Kathie into disclosing the location of briefcase, while she simultaneously reveals her previous manipulation that she has signed an affidavit attesting that Jeff himself killed his partner.
Jeff is now wanted by the police, and arranges a meeting with Whit and Kathie, threatening to turn the briefcase over to the IRS unless he is given the affidavit. (Oh, and by this point, Kathie’s attempt to have Jeff killed has been foiled by a young deaf boy who works with Jeff at this gas station). Shortly after, Kathie kills Whit, and, with only her left to make deals with, Jeff concedes to going with her back to Mexico.
That is, just until he drives her intentionally to a police stake out, she tries to shoot him, he commits slightly ambiguous suicide and she dies in a hail of bullets.
Despite an occasionally meandering story which I have tried to relay as simply as I could – please feel free to print it out as a pocket size Out of the Past double cross guide, Out of the Past is a stone-cold classic noir which encompasses all of the main genre hallmarks. As in Cat People, not only does Director Jacques Tourner know his way around a shadow (not to mention, of course, shadow master Nick Musuraca who also photographed Stranger on the Third Floor – common candidate for the first film noir), he/they also have the eerie ability to portray the familiar – the small town, the beach, even the serenity of Lake Tahoe with a great deal of menace. That, and Out of the Past is probably one of the all-time great smoking movies. Everyone smokes pretty consistently in the film, which isn’t uncommon, as smoking and noir go hand in hand, but there are a number of significant cigarettes in the film – Kathie and Jeff’s first date, Jeff and Whit’s breakfast meeting (“Cigarette?” Whit asks, “Smoking.” Jeff answers dryly) – even when Jeff knocks out one of Whit’s henchmen, steals the briefcase, then stops to steal one of the unconscious man’s cigarettes. The cigarettes are a form of sparring (and the smoke is attractively back-lit).
Famously nonchalant Robert Mitchum lends Jeff an air of quiet awareness of his situation, the more laconic and cold he is, the more sobering the inevitability of his situation becomes. It isn’t so much what’s happening on screen that’s hard to take – it’s Jeff’s ambivalence towards it. When, exactly did Jeff give up on self-preservation, Ann, and his future? Hard to say, but with repeat viewings, I’d saying – much earlier than it originally appears. As Jeff mentions to Kathie near the top of the film, there isn’t a way to win, only to lose more slowly.
‘Til next time… just get out, will you? I have to sleep in this room.