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 by the Library of Congress as being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."[1]


Joe Stefanos (Paul Valentine) arrives at small, out-of-the-way Bridgeport, California, in search of Jeff Bailey (Mitchum). Jeff is away, off on a picnic with local girl Ann Miller (Virginia Huston). Stefanos sends Jeff's deaf young assistant, The Kid (Dickie Moore), off to bring Jeff back. When he arrives Stefanos informs Jeff that Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) wants to see him. Jeff has a past with Whit which Ann is unaware of. Ann trusts Jeff implicitly, but her parents are wary, as is Jim (Richard Webb), a local police officer who is Ann's long-time admirer.

Jeff reluctantly agrees to go meet with 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. The story unfolds in a flashback, with Jeff narrating. Jeff's 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 stole $40,000. Sensing his finding Kathy will result in her death, Jeff is reluctant to take the case. Whit assures Jeff he just wants her back, and will not harm her.

Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey and Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat

Jeff learns from Kathie's maid that she had packed summer clothes. The maid suggests she's gone to Florida, but Jeff guesses Mexico because of Kathie's inoculations. He goes to Acapulco and waits for her there. She arrives, and Jeff strikes up an acquaintance with her. A love affair between the two soon develops, complicating Jeff's life. Ultimately Jeff reveals to Kathie that he had been sent by Whit to find her. Kathie apparently had sensed this from the start, and has been spinning a web for him. She tells Jeff she didn't take Whit’s money, and she pleads with Jeff to run away with her.

Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey and Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat

Preparing to leave with her the next morning, Jeff is surprised by the arrival of Whit and Stefanos, who are checking up on his lack of progress. Jeff asks Whit to take him off the case, but Whit refuses, telling Jeff that he fires people but nobody quits on him. Jeff then tells Whit that Kathie slipped past him and is on a steamer going south. Whit instructs Jeff to track her down. Instead Jeff takes Kathie north to San Francisco.

They live as inconspicuously as possible. Over time, they relax, 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. Jeff rejoins Kathie at a rural cabin, only to find Fisher has followed Kathie rather than him. Fisher demands money to keep quiet. The two men start fighting and Kathie shoots Fisher in the middle of it, then flees by car. Jeff finds Kathie’s bankbook. The pass book shows a deposit of $40,000, the money she said she did not take.

Returning to the present, Ann drops Jeff off at Whit's estate. Surprisingly, Whit seems genuinely glad to see him. Jeff is even more surprised when Kathie comes out from the back. She had gone back to Whit. 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 says his lawyer, Leonard Eels (Ken Niles), has been blackmailing him. Whit wants Jeff to recover incriminating income tax records. Sensing a trap, Jeff tries to turn the job down, but Whit insists he take it. Jeff tries to warn Eels when he first meets him, but when he returns later, he finds Eels dead. He hides the body.

He returns to Bridgeport. Unbeknownst to either Whit or Jeff, Kathie has ordered Stefanos to trail the Kid so he can kill Jeff. The Kid drives to a fishing spot near Jeff's hideout and prepares to cast his line. Above him, Stefanos takes aim at Jeff. The Kid sees it and hooks Stefanos with his fishing line, causing Stefanos to lose his balance and fall to his death.

Jeff goes back to Lake Tahoe and tells Whit of Kathie's double cross and the death of Stefanos. He offers that the death of Stefanos, who killed Eels, can be made to look like suicide out of guilt, removing Jeff from the frame. He tells Whit, in front of Kathie, that her affidavit stating Jeff shot Fisher must be destroyed and that Kathie must be handed over to the police for Fisher's death. Otherwise Whit will not be given Eels's blackmail material. Whit takes the offer, and Jeff believes he has found his way out of the trap. He leaves to speak with Ann back in Bridgeport. However, when Jeff 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. He agrees to go with her, but secretly makes a phone call. The state police are waiting for them at a roadblock. Realizing Jeff has betrayed her, Kathie shoots him. The police begin firing. The car careens off the road and crashes. Inside the wreck, the police find the bodies of Kathie and Jeff.

After Jeff's funeral Ann asks the Kid if Jeff had been planning to run away with Kathie. The Kid lies for Jeff and nods his head. Ann returns to Jim and she drives off with him, while the Kid looks up at the Jeff's name on the gas station's sign, 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 movie"
  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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