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
Edited by Samuel E. Beetley
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Release dates
  • November 13, 1947 (1947-11-13) (USA)
Running time 97 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Out of the Past (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). Stefanos informs Jeff that Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) wants to see him. Jeff has a past with Joe and Whit which Ann Miller (Virginia Huston), the local girl that Jeff dates, is unaware of. Ann trusts Jeff, but her parents are wary, as is Jim (Richard Webb), the local law officer who is a long-time admirer of Ann.

Jeff reluctantly agrees to go to see Whit. That night Jeff picks Ann up, and the two drive together to Whit's home on Lake Tahoe. On the way Jeff tells Ann of how he came to know Whit and Joe. Much of the film is delivered 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 claimed she shot him and left with $40,000 of his money. He assured Jeff he just wants her back, and will not harm her. Jeff ends up taking the case.

Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey and Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat

Determining that Kathie is headed for Acapulco, he travels south and gets there first. When Kathie arrives he strikes up an acquaintance with her. A love affair soon develops, and Jeff ultimately tells her what they both already know, that he has been sent there by Whit to find her. 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 the arrival of Whit and Stefanos, who are at his door to check up on his lack of 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 try to live as inconspicuously as possible. Over time 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, who knows he could make money off of them. 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 runs out the door and 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 speak with Whit. Surprisingly, Whit appears genuinely glad to see him. As another surprise, Jeff soon learns that Kathie is there as well. She had gone back to Whit after leaving Jeff. Whit tells Jeff he wants to hire him for a new job. He says it is the only way to make things right between them. Whit's lawyer Leonard Eels (Ken Niles) has been blackmailing him. Whit wants to recover income tax records from Eels that document a million dollar tax dodge. Whit's lawyer Eels has been using them to threaten Whit.

Jeff tries to get out of the job. Whit is unwilling to accept no for an answer, and insists Jeff do the job. Sensing a trap, Jeff tries to warn Eels when he first meets him in town, but when he returns later he finds Eels dead. He hides the body to give him time to recover the tax papers.

On the run, he returns to Bridgeport to hide. Unbeknownst to either Whit or Jeff, Kathie has ordered Stefanos to trail Jeff's deaf young assistant the Kid (Dickie Moore) so he can kill Jeff. The Kid drives to a fishing spot near Jeff's hideout and prepares to cast. Above him, perched high on a bluff, Stefanos takes his aim on Jeff. The Kid sees it and hooks Stefanos with his fishing line, causing Stefanos to lose his balance and fall to his death.

Jeff thinks he now has a way out. He travels back to Lake Tahoe and reveals to Whit Kathie's double cross. Whit is convinced he must turn Kathie over to the police to pay the price for Fisher’s murder. Driving back to Bridgeport Jeff believes he will be able to lead a new life with Ann. However when he returns to Tahoe he discovers that Kathie has killed Whit. She gives Jeff the choice of running away with her or taking the blame for all three murders. Sizing things up, Jeff realizes he is stuck with his fate. He agrees to go with Kathie but makes a secret phone call before they leave. Jeff drives Kathie up the road to get away, but the police are there first with a roadblock. Realizing Jeff has betrayed her, Kathie shoots him. With that the police begin firing. The car careens off the road and crashes. 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. Did he really plan to run away with Kathie? The Kid nods his head "Yes". With that she turns away, and Jim drives Ann home. As they drive off together the Kid looks up at the gas station sign with Jeff's name on it, smiles and nods to his memory.


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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