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), with uncredited revisions by Frank Fenton and James M. Cain, from his novel Build My Gallows High (also written as Homes).
Film historians consider Out of the Past a superb example of film noir due to its complicated, 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."
Joe Stefanos arrives in a small town, Bridgeport, California, in search of Jeff Bailey. Jeff, owner of the town's gas station, is on a picnic with wholesome local girl Ann Miller. Stefanos sends Jeff's deaf young employee, The Kid, to retrieve Jeff, then informs Jeff that Whit Sterling wants to see him. Though Ann trusts Jeff implicitly, her parents are wary of him, as is Jim, a local police officer who has been sweet on Ann since childhood. Jeff reluctantly agrees to meet with Whit, and Ann joins him to drive through the night to Whit's home on Lake Tahoe. On the way, Jeff tells Ann of his past (in flashback).
Jeff Bailey's real name is Jeff Markham. He and partner Jack Fisher were private investigators in New York. Jeff had been hired by shady businessman Whit to find his girlfriend, Kathie Moffat. Whit claimed she shot him and stole $40,000 from him. Jeff is hesitant, sensing that finding Kathie will result in her death. Whit assures Jeff he just wants her back, and will not harm her.
Kathie's maid tells Jeff that she's gone to Florida, but Jeff guesses Mexico because of the particular inoculations Kathie received. He goes to Acapulco and waits, eventually striking up an acquaintance with her. A love affair develops, and Jeff ultimately admits that he had been sent by Whit. Kathie sensed this from the start and has been spinning a web for him. She denies taking Whit’s money and pleads with Jeff to run away with her.
Preparing to leave, Jeff is surprised by the arrival of Whit and Stefanos, checking up on his lack of progress. Jeff asks to be taken off the case, but Whit refuses. Jeff lies that Kathie slipped past him and is on a steamer going south. Whit instructs Jeff to keep looking for her—instead, Jeff takes her north to San Francisco.
They live in San Francisco as inconspicuously as possible, but an outing to the horse races goes bad when they are spotted by Jeff’s old partner, Fisher. Jeff and Kathie split up, with Jeff making himself conspicuous in moving to Los Angeles. Jeff seems to give Fisher the slip and eventually rejoins Kathie at a rural cabin, only to find that Fisher had actually followed her. When Fisher demands money to keep quiet, the two men brawl. Kathie suddenly shoots Fisher dead and flees without Jeff. He finds her bank book, revealing a deposit of $40,000, the money she had denied taking from Whit.
Back in the present, Ann drops Jeff off at Whit's palatial estate. Jeff is surprised when Kathie reappears. She had returned to Whit and told the whole story. Whit tells Jeff that doing one last job is the only way to make things right between them. Whit's lawyer, Leonard Eels, has helped Whit dodge all taxes, but now wants $200,000 ($2.2 million today) or he will give Whit's business records to the IRS, which would put Whit in prison. Whit wants Jeff to recover the records, but Jeff realizes that he is being set up.
In San Francisco, he meets Eels' secretary, Meta Carson, who is secretly conspiring with Whit. He is introduced by her to Eels, leaving his fingerprints on a glass. Jeff returns and finds Eels dead. He hides the body and retrieves the business records, but is told by the devious Kathie (who has impersonated Meta Carson) that she gave Whit a signed affidavit swearing that Jeff killed Fisher, setting up Jeff to be a double murderer—reported as such in the morning papers.
Jeff returns to the Bridgeport area. Unbeknownst to Whit, Kathie has ordered Stefanos to trail The Kid so he can find and kill Jeff. The Kid drives to a steep, narrow canyon where Jeff is hiding. The Kid spots Stefanos taking aim at Jeff and quickly hooks him with a fishing line, causing Stefanos to lose his balance and fall to his death.
Jeff goes back to Whit's mansion and tells him of Kathie's double-cross and Stefanos's death. He offers that the death of Stefanos, Eels' actual murderer, can be made to look like a guilt-ridden suicide, removing Jeff from that frame-up. Furthermore, he will return the business records to Whit if Whit destroys Kathie's affidavit and hands her over to the police for Fisher's death. Whit takes the offer, and Jeff believes he has worked his way out of the trap.
Jeff makes a quick visit to Ann, then returns to Tahoe to discover that Kathie has killed Whit. She gives Jeff the choice of running away with her and a satchel of Whit's money, or taking the blame for all three murders. He agrees to go with her, but phones the state police while she is upstairs packing. Driving up to a police roadblock, Kathie realizes that Jeff has betrayed her and shoots him dead. She then fires at the police, who fatally shoot her.
When the news reaches Bridgeport, Jim offers to take Ann away. Ann asks The Kid if Jeff had been planning to run away with Kathie. Wanting to free Ann, The Kid lies and nods his head. Ann returns to Jim and she drives off with him.
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, Out of the Past was given an A-budget.
The then little-known 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.
The film made a profit of $90,000.
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."
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."
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." Ebert also called it, "The greatest cigarette-smoking movie of all time." "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."
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.
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