Out of the Past

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Out of the Past
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Produced by Warren Duff
Screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring
Based on Build My Gallows High 
by Daniel Mainwaring
Music by Roy Webb
Cinematography Nicholas Musuraca
Editing by Samuel E. Beetley
Studio RKO Radio Pictures
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Release dates
  • November 13, 1947 (1947-11-13) (United States)
Running time 97 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Out of the Past (originally released 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), with uncredited revisions by Frank Fenton and James M. Cain, from his novel Build My Gallows High (also written as Homes).

Film historians consider the film a superb example of film noir due to its convoluted, dark storyline, dark cinematography and classic femme fatale. The film's cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca also shot Tourneur's Cat People. In 1991, Out of the Past was added to the United States National Film Registry as being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."[1]


Joe Stefanos (Paul Valentine) is a large man dressed in a dark suit who arrives at small, out-of-the-way Bridgeport, California in search of Jeff Bailey (Mitchum). Jeff is dating local girl Ann Miller (Virginia Huston), whose parents are mistrustful of Jeff, as is Jim (Richard Webb), the local law officer and a long-time admirer of Ann.

Stefanos informs Jeff that Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) wants to see him. Jeff reluctantly agrees. That night Jeff picks up Ann, and the two drive together to Jeff's meeting.

Much of the film is related as a flashback, with Jeff narrating to Ann the story of his dark past. His real name is Jeff Markham. He and partner Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie) were private investigators in New York. Jeff had been hired by Whit to find his girlfriend, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer). Whit claims she shot him and left with $40,000 of his money. He assures Jeff he just wants her back, and will not harm her.

Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey and Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat

Jeff figures out Kathie is headed for Acapulco. When he finds her there, he strikes up an acquaintance. A love affair develops, and Jeff ultimately tells her his real purpose. Kathie denies taking Whit’s money, and pleads with Jeff to run away with her.

Preparing to leave with her the next morning, Jeff is surprised by Whit and Stefanos, who are at his door to check up on his progress. He asks Whit to take him off the case, but Whit refuses. Jeff then tells Whit that Kathie slipped past him and is on a steamer heading south. Whit leaves, instructing Jeff to track her down. Instead Jeff takes Kathie north, to San Francisco.

Once there, they live as inconspicuously as possible. As time goes by, they relax and settle into their new lives, but an outing to the race track goes bad when they are spotted by Jeff’s old partner, Fisher. Jeff and Kathie split up, with Jeff trying to throw Fisher off their trail. His tail clear, Jeff rejoins Kathie at a rural cabin, only to find Fisher already there. Fisher demands money to keep quiet. A fistfight breaks out, which Kathie brings to an abrupt end when she guns Fisher down. She drives away, leaving Jeff to cover up the crime. Jeff spots Kathie’s bankbook showing one transaction - a deposit of $40,000.

Returning to the present, Jeff and Ann arrive at Whit's estate. Ann drops Jeff off to attend to his business with Whit. Whit appears genuinely glad to see him. To Jeff's great surprise, Kathie is there as well. She got back together with Whit after leaving Jeff. Whit tells Jeff he wants to hire him for a new job to make things right between them. He wants to recover income tax records that document a tax dodge. Whit's lawyer Leonard Eels (Ken Niles) is using them to blackmail Whit.

Sensing a trap, Jeff tries to get out of the job but Whit will not take no for an answer. In town Jeff tries to warn Eels, but returns later to find him dead. Kathie’s affidavit, in which she claims Jeff killed Fisher, is among the papers with the tax documents. Jeff slips into the nightclub later and takes the papers.

On the run, he returns to Bridgeport to hide. Unbeknownst to either Jeff or Whit, Kathie has ordered Stefanos to trail Jeff's deaf young assistant, the Kid (Dickie Moore), to lead him to Jeff to kill him. The Kid drives to a fishing spot near Jeff's hideout, and prepares to cast. Perched above on a high rock, Stefanos aims his sights on Jeff, but the Kid hooks him with his fishing line, causing Stefanos to fall to his death.

Back at Lake Tahoe, Jeff sees his way out. He reveals Kathie's double cross to Whit and convinces him to turn Kathie over to the police as Fisher’s murderer. Jeff has found his way through, and will be able to lead a new life with Ann. Returning to Whit's later, however, he discovers things have changed. Whit is there, but has been shot dead. Kathie declares she is in charge now. She gives Jeff the choice of running away with her or taking the blame for all three murders. Jeff is stuck with his fate. He agrees to go with Kathie, but makes a secret phone call before they leave. When they drive away up the road the police are there with a roadblock. Kathie realizes Jeff has betrayed her and shoots him. With that the police begin firing. The car careens off the road. Inside the wreck, the police find a great deal of money, and the lifeless bodies of Kathie and Jeff.

Afterward, Ann asks the Kid if Jeff had been lying to her. Was he really going away with Kathie? The Kid nods his head "Yes". Jim drives Ann home. With that, the Kid looks up at the gas station sign with Jeff's name on it, smiles and nods to him.


Background and production[edit]

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,[2][3] Out of the Past was given an A-budget.

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 Western The Way West alongside Richard Widmark two decades later.


Critical response[edit]

Out of the Past is considered one of the greatest of all films noir.[4][5][6] Robert Ottoson hailed the film as "the ne plus ultra of forties film noir".[7]

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."[8]

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."[9]

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."[6] Ebert also called it, "The greatest cigarette-smoking movie of all time."[10] "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."[10]

American Film Institute Lists[edit]


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.


  1. ^ Andrews, Roberts M. (October 11, 1991). "25 Films Designated For Preservation". St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Lee Enterprises). 
  2. ^ Schatz 1999, p. 173, table 6.3.
  3. ^ 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. 
  4. ^ Ballinger, Alexander; Graydon, Danny (2007). The Rough Guide to Film Noir. Rough Guides reference guides. London: Rough Guides. pp. 56, 151–52. ISBN 1-84353-474-6. OCLC 78989518. 
  5. ^ Schatz 1999, p. 364
  6. ^ a b Ebert, Roger (July 18, 2004). "Out of the Past (1947)". Chicago Sun-Times (Sun-Times Media Group). Retrieved February 1, 2008. 
  7. ^ 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. 
  8. ^ Crowther, Bosley (November 26, 1947). "Out of the Past (1947)". The New York Times (The New York Times Company). Retrieved February 1, 2008. 
  9. ^ "Out of the Past Review". Variety (Reed Business Information). 1947. Retrieved February 1, 2008. 
  10. ^ 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 moview"
  11. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Greatest American Movies Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-08-27. 
  12. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-11-01. 
  13. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-11-01. 
  14. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-11-01. 
  15. ^ a b "AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-11-01. 
  16. ^ "Movies_Ballot_06" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-11-01. 

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. 

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