Out of the Past

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Out of the Past
Out of the Past (1947 poster - retouched).jpg
Theatrical release poster by William Rose
Directed byJacques Tourneur
Screenplay byDaniel Mainwaring
Based onBuild My Gallows High
by Daniel Mainwaring
Produced byWarren Duff
CinematographyNicholas Musuraca
Edited bySamuel E. Beetley
Music byRoy Webb
Distributed byRKO Radio Pictures
Release date
  • November 25, 1947 (1947-11-25) (USA)
Running time
97 minutes
CountryUnited States

Out of the Past (billed 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) from his 1946 novel Build My Gallows High (also written as Homes),[1] with uncredited revisions by Frank Fenton and James M. Cain.[2]

Its complex, fatalistic storyline, dark cinematography, and classic femme fatale garnered the film critical acclaim and cult status.[1] In 1991, the National Film Preservation Board at the Library of Congress added Out of the Past to the United States National Film Registry of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” films.[3][4][5]


Joe Stefanos arrives in Bridgeport, California, a rural mountain town, seeking Jeff Bailey, who owns a local gas station. Bailey is fishing with Ann Miller. They are in love. (Her lifelong friend Jim is jealous.) The Kid, Jeff's deaf-mute employee and friend, interrupts them, signing to Jeff. At the station, Stefanos tells Jeff that he must go to Lake Tahoe to meet "Whit." Jeff invites Ann to ride with him. He tells her about his past in a flashback.

Bailey's real last name is Markham. He and Jack Fisher were partners, private investigators in New York. Whit Sterling, a gambling kingpin, hires Markham—solo—to find Whit's girlfriend, Kathie Moffat, who shot him and stole $40,000. Whit promises she will not be harmed.

Jeff eventually corners Kathie in Acapulco. She seduces him. She admits that she shot Whit, but denies taking his money. Eventually, Jeff proposes that they run away together. Whit and Stefanos arrive. Jeff says that Kathie is on a south-bound steamer. Whit instructs Jeff to keep looking for her.

The couple goes to San Francisco. Fisher, now working for Whit, spots Jeff at the track. Jeff arranges to meet Kathie at a mountain cabin, but Fisher follows Kathie and tries to blackmail them. The two men brawl. Kathie deliberately kills Fisher and drives away, leaving behind a bank book showing a balance of $40,000.

Mitchum and Greer

The flashback ends. Jeff wants to clean things up and return to Ann. Ann leaves him at Whit's estate. A cheerful Whit tells Jeff he has a job for him. Jeff is startled when Kathie appears at breakfast. She comes to his room; he tells her to get out.

Mitchum and Greer

Leonard Eels, a crooked San Francisco lawyer, helped Whit dodge $1 million in taxes and is blackmailing him. Whit wants Jeff to recover the incriminating records. Eels' secretary, Meta Carson, explains the plan to Jeff, who suspects he is being framed. That night, at Eels' apartment, Jeff alerts Eels, obliquely, promising to return. After they leave, Jeff trails Meta, then returns and finds Eels dead. He hides the body.

In Meta's apartment, Jeff overhears Kathie arranging for the discovery of Eels' body. When the hidden body is not found, she believes Eels has escaped. Jeff confronts her and Kathie reveals that she gave Whit a signed affidavit swearing that Jeff killed Fisher. She says they can start all over again. They kiss, he leaves. Stefanos arrives and confirms that he killed Eels.

Jeff consigns the tax papers to a delivery service. Whit's thugs capture him. He offers the incriminating records in exchange for the affidavit, without implicating Kathie. When Kathie and Meta arrive at Eels' apartment to retrieve the affidavit, the police are already there. They instead phone Whit.

Jeff becomes wanted for the murders of Fisher and Eels and police expect him to return to Bridgeport. Stefanos, directed by Kathie, trails the Kid to the gorge where Jeff is hiding out. The Kid spots Stefanos poised to shoot Jeff and hooks his coat with a fishing line, pulling him off-balance so he falls to his death. Jeff returns to Whit's mansion to inform them of Stefanos death and to tell Whit about Kathie's doublecross. He suggests making Stefanos' death look like a guilt-ridden suicide after his murder of Eels. He will return the records if Whit destroys Kathie's affidavit and hands her over to the police for Fisher's death. Whit accepts, promising Kathie he will kill her if she does not cooperate.

Jeff meets Ann in the woods. She believes in him, but tells him to be absolutely sure of what he wants. She will wait.

Jeff discovers that Kathie has killed Whit. She gives him a choice: run away with her or take the blame for all three murders. He dials the phone while she is upstairs. They leave in a car with Jeff driving. Seeing a police roadblock ahead, Kathie shoots him. She fires at the police. A machine gun riddles the car with bullets, killing her.

In Bridgeport, Ann asks the Kid if Jeff was going away with Kathie. Lying, the Kid nods his head. Ann gets into Jim's car, and the Kid smiles, saluting Jeff's name on the gas station's sign.


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 focused on making B-films during the early 1940s,[6][7] the post-World War-II Out of the Past was given a comparatively lavish budget.[8]

John Garfield and Dick Powell turned down the lead.[9] Kirk Douglas, in only his third credited screen performance, plays a supporting role but a central part in the story as Mitchum's antagonist. The next time Mitchum and Douglas played major roles in the same picture was in the 1967 Western The Way West, alongside Richard Widmark.[citation needed]

Musuraca also shot Tourneur's 1942 RKO horror film Cat People.[10]


The film made a profit of $90,000.[9]

Out of the Past is considered one of the greatest of all films noir.[2] [11][12][13] Robert Ottoson hailed the film as "the ne plus ultra of forties film noir".[14] Bosley Crowther, the film critic for The New York Times in 1947, complimented the crime drama's direction and performances, although he did find the latter portion of the screenplay hard to follow:

...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.[15]

Shortly after the film's release, the staff of the widely read trade publication Variety also gave it a positive review:

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 his role of henchman stand out. Rhonda Fleming is in briefly but effectively."[16]

Decades later, in his 2004 assessment of the film for the Chicago Sun-Times, critic Roger Ebert noted:

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.[13]

With regard to the production's stylish and moody cinematography, Ebert also dubbed the film "The greatest cigarette-smoking movie of all time":[17]

...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.[17]

The film holds a score of 93% on review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of 9/10, based on 40 reviews.[18]


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.[19]


  1. ^ a b Handler, David (13 August 2019). "The Unsung Godfather of Film Noir". CrimeReads. Literary Hub. Retrieved March 4, 2020.
  2. ^ a b "Top 10 film noir". The Guardian. 29 November 2013. Retrieved 24 November 2022.
  3. ^ Andrews, Roberts M. (October 11, 1991). "25 Films Designated For Preservation". St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Lee Enterprises.
  4. ^ "Complete National Film Registry Listing". Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Retrieved 2020-05-07.
  5. ^ https://www.loc.gov/static/programs/national-film-preservation-board/documents/out_past.rev.pdf[bare URL PDF]
  6. ^ Schatz 1999, p. 173, table 6.3.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ Hagopian, Kevin. "Out of the Past". New York State Writers Institute.
  9. ^ a b Richard B. Jewell, Slow Fade to Black: The Decline of RKO Radio Pictures, University of California, 2016.
  10. ^ "Cat People (1942)", catalog, American Film Institute (AFI), Los Angeles, California. Retrieved June 5, 2022.
  11. ^ Ballinger, Alexander; Graydon, Danny (2007). The Rough Guide to Film Noir. Rough Guides reference guides. London: Rough Guides. pp. 56, 151–52. ISBN 978-1-84353-474-7. OCLC 78989518.
  12. ^ Schatz 1999, p. 364
  13. ^ a b Ebert, Roger (July 18, 2004). "Out of the Past (1947)". Chicago Sun-Times. Sun-Times Media Group. Retrieved February 1, 2008.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ Crowther, Bosley (November 26, 1947). "Out of the Past (1947)". The New York Times. Retrieved February 1, 2008.
  16. ^ Out of the Past. review, Variety (New York, N.Y.), December 31, 1946. Last retrieved June 5, 2022.
  17. ^ 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 Movie.
  18. ^ "Out of the Past". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved August 18, 2022.
  19. ^ "Reviews: Against All Odds". rogerebert.com. January 1, 1984.
  • 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.
  • Out of the Past by Daniel Eagan in America's Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Film Registry, A&C Black, 2010 ISBN 0826429777, pages 406-408

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