Classic Flix Review: Out of the Past (1947)

Greetings, once again! It isn’t often that I’ve been given the opportunity to indulge in a Trifecta or triple play regarding one of Hollywood’s premier Tough Guys, Robert Mitchum. I covered his Scary attributes in The Night of the Hunter. I am going to dial it back a bit and explore another arena where the actor reigned supreme. Intimidation. Best illustrated in a film from 1947. Directed with sly gusto, elan and eerie shadows by Jacques Tourneur. Who instinctively knew when bright sunlight and its absence were called for. Where to put them and for how long. To that end, allow me to introduce:

Out of the Past (1947)

The film begins in bright California sunshine as a convertible rolls into the small rural, rustic town of Bridgeport, California. Locked somewhere between Lake Tahoe, Reno and far away from L.A. Its latest visitor is an elder errand boy for a higher power looking for Jeff Bailey. Superbly realized by Robert Mitchum. Quiet, unassuming. Just wanting to get by while seeing the town’s naive ‘Good Girl’, Ann Miller. Played well and memorably by Virginia Huston. Who knows nothing of Jeff’s past and whose parents do not approve. Though they wholehearted approve of local policeman, Jim. Well and briefly played by Richard Webb. The errand boy and Jeff talk. Jeff agrees and takes Ann with him. The long road trip allows plenty of time for Jeff to fill Ann in on his past as a private investigator in New York who had once rubbed elbows with that higher power. Failed mobster, Whit Sterling. A role creepily brought to life by Kirk Douglas. Absolutely reveling in his well toned physicality as he dutifully fends off subpoenas and possible future federal investigation. Whit needs to get his house in order. And to do that, his old (kept) girlfriend, Kathie needs to be found. Kathie may or may not have shot Whit and absconded with $40,000. May have headed south and may or may not be hiding in Acapulco.

Jeff slinks into Acapulco and begins haunting the local bars and cantinas. Striking gold very early as Kathie makes her entrance from scorching afternoon sunlight into the bar’s soft shadows. Radiating beauty and sensuality with practiced fluid ease. To say that Jeff was hit by a lightning bolt would be understatement. Jeff strikes up a conversation that quickly evolves into acquaintance and a torrid love affair. Pillow talk slowly reveals Jeff’s true purpose. Kathie denies shooting Whit, but hints that the two of them could run away together with the forty grand.

Jeff goes to his hotel room to pack and finds Whit and the errand boy waiting for him. Jeff asks to be taken off the case, but Whit will not take no for an answer. Jeff then lies. Saying that Kathie slipped through his net and is on a steamer headed south. Whit lets Jeff go and soon, Jeff and Kathie are headed to San Francisco. Where they try to maintain a low profile. Until they are spotted spending the day playing the ponies by Jeff’s old partner, Fisher. Played with oily, thuggish aplomb by Steve Brodie. Who is given the slip while quickly putting two and two together and smelling money.

Jeff and Kathie split up and when Jeff arrives at their rural bungalow. Shadowy, angular Noir kicks into high gear as Jeff finds Fisher waiting with Kathie. Fisher wants a piece of what Jeff and Kathie have to keep quiet. Punches are thrown. Many connect. More heard than seen. Except for the expression on Kathie’s slowly smiling face. Fisher drops his pistol. Kathie picks it up and kills Fisher, much to Jeff’s dismay. As she splits to leave Jeff to clean up the mess. After things are tidied up. Jeff happens upon Kathie’s bank book and finds a recent deposit of $40,000.

Fully briefed in, Ann waits as Jeff meets Whit for a final proposition. Away from the prodigal girlfriend, Kathie’s eyes and ears. It seems that things have gone from bad to worse in regard to Whit’s organization and the feds. The IRS is breathing down Whit’s neck openly discussing prosecution for tax evasion. An affidavit about a shady land deal is being kept by Whit’s lawyer, Leonard Eels. Who is using it to blackmail Whit. Jeff correctly figures that Eels also has Kathie’s affidavit implicating Jeff in Fisher’s murder.

Nightmare Alley ramps up as Ann returns to Cambridge and Jeff heads to San Francisco that night for a bout of tailing, stalking and skulking about. Avoiding Kathie as Jeff makes off with the lawyer’s papers and heads to Bridgeport. Kathie feels the walls closing in. She dispatches Whit’s errand boy to kill Jeff, but the attempt is thwarted. While Jeff drives to Lake Tahoe and talks Whit into turning Kathie over to the cops for Fisher’s murder. Before the deal is sealed, Jeff discovers Whit shot dead.

Before a word can be spoken, Kathie announces herself in charge with a superb coup under her belt. Then gives Jeff and ultimatum. Stay with her or face three murder raps. Whit’s. His errand boy and Fisher. Jeff agrees, but has time to make a quick call to Jim and his officers to set up a roadblock. As the two roll up on it, Kathie shoots Jeff. The police open up. The car crashes and the police find Jeff and Kathie dead amongst the missing forty grand.

What Makes This Film Good?

Where to begin? A superb screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring based on his hard boiled novel, Build My Gallows High with James M. Cain close by to kibitz. Lateraled to the machinations of Nicholas Musuraca and the little to no budget, magic pedigree of Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People and  I Walked with a Zombie. A master of limited lighting, smoke and myriad shadows. Instinctively aware of benefits of sunlight to accentuate the positive. And the variations of its absence to titillate the darker side of ominous tension and fear. Well versed in how emotions play into a dream scape of his own making. That appears familiar, yet slightly off kilter and other worldly once the action moves to San Francisco at night. In other words, Grade A Prime Noir!

A story that starts out at a regular pace, but slowly starts to wind tighter and tighter once Jeff and Ann begin their road trip to Lake Tahoe. And Jeff begins telling his sordid tale in flashback with occasional narration. Where nothing and no one is as it seems.The first hurdle is reached with Kirk Douglas and his smooth and oily, somewhat intimidating Whit Sterling. Swelled, broad chest and all. Obliquely speaking in cautious sentences that rarely connects point A to B. Lest there be microphones connected to the law close by. Radiating supreme confidence as his empire shows cracks from strain and threatens to fall.

Aided by Roy Webb’s sometimes eerie orchestration that seethes with mood when Jeff and Kathie are together. Deftly focusing the attention of the audience throughout. Kudos to Darrell Silvera’s sometimes spartan set direction played against Edward Stevenson’s choices in sheer, opulent, flattering gowns for Jane Greer’s Kathie.

What Makes This Film Great?

Robert Mitchum well in his prime. Seeming incredibly tall and nearly as wide across. His face and body intersected by shadows. Proving to the world that he was made for Noir and foggy, rainy San Francisco nights. Snap brim Fedora, Trench coat and all. Not quite ready for the bad craziness that would plant him on the map with Night of the Hunter. Mitchum reveals more of himself and his character in 97 minutes than in the lion’s share of his works. Relying on his physical presence to get his message across. Occasionally offsetting that with wisps of smitten, shambling, puppy dog silliness after he’s fallen Hook, Line and Sinker for Jane Greer’s femme fatale, Kathie. Knowing this relationship won’t have a happy ending. Though enjoying the ride and really not caring as he plays every card in his hand and still comes up short.

Jane Greer setting the bar incredibly high for all later gorgeous, manipulative women in film. Using elegance and poise to catch the attention of her prey. Then using raw sensuality to keep him well and fully trapped. Shrewd and obviously used to getting what she wants. Greer’s Kathie Moffat does whatever is necessary to stay one step ahead. And looks great doing it!

The Film’s Mystique:

Considered by many to be the crème de la crème of Film Noir. Out of the Past along with Detour set and exceeded many of the ground rules for Film Noir. Basically due to budgeting. Lighting cost money. So, the fewer lights that are required. The more money is saved. In this film, that premise is writ large. Relying on Sunlight for scenes in and around Cambridge. While leaving San Francisco shadow slashed and swirling in fog. Tourneur’s natural playground.

Creating a gem that was nominated for the National Film Registry in 1947 and was selected in 1991.

Check out Jack’s profile page and links to his other reviews

Thoughts on Out of The Past? Do share ’em in the comments.

24 thoughts on “Classic Flix Review: Out of the Past (1947)

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Michael:

      Thanks so much for the compliment!

      ‘Out of the Past’ is one of those films you need to see from its opening credits to understand and enjoy. There’s a lot going on within its first fifteen minutes that lays the floor plan for what is to come, but even that doesn’t pan out the way anyone expects.

      Thanks for dropping by and starting the conversation.

  1. (Applauds.) I myself do consider this the crème de la crème of Film Noir. More than film noir, even. I mean, movies themselves just can’t get much better, right? Gorgeous to look at, a joy to listen to, an actor and an actress that are both pitch-perfect for their parts and play the heck out of them, and that beautiful arc of inevitable tragedy.

    I love this movie. God help me, I do love it so.

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Nick!

      Films don’t get much better than when you have the top of his game with a troupe of young, hungry talent. Even lower tier Kirk Douglas and Steve Brodie are going for the gold. With outstanding, unique dialogue and a twisty plot in the hands of a master.

      Nice ‘Patton’ reference, BTW.

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Eric:

      Thanks for dropping by!

      I wanted to cover the three top roles of Mitchum in his prime. Thankfully, all three are spectacularly memorable and cover his versatility and strengths so deftly.

      I still have no idea why Taylor Hackford took such a convoluted, lackluster approach to this gem when he tried his hand at a re-make with ‘Against All Odds’ in 1984. Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward are good, but they aren’t Mitchum and Jane Greer!

  2. Great minds think alike as I reviewed this on my blog a few months back. There’s no man like Mitchum. I’ve always equated him to the sleazy older man who you can’t help but love. Night of the Hunter made me love him but the original Cape Fear cemented him as one of my favorite actors!

    1. jackdeth72

      Welcome, maroon5gurl!

      Thanks for dropping by and adding to the conversation. Mitchum is one of my favorite actors, too. Nailing down the Tough Guy persona in many films, but superbly in ‘Out of the Past’.

      There was also an admirable world weariness about Mitchum that came out
      throughout his career, but much more in ‘Out of the Past’. And later in his take on Philip Marlow in ‘Farewell, My Lovely’, ‘The Big Sleep’ and as the two time loser in ‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle’.

      You are invited to search here for my guest reviews on ‘Night of the Hunter’ and ‘Cape Fear’.

      Hope to see you drop by more often.

  3. Ted S.

    Thanks for reviewing these films that I’ve never heard of before Jack, I always like Robert Mitchum so I’ll give this a rent someday.

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Ted!

      You are most welcome.

      It’s been a ball pointing out some of Robert Mitchum’s greatest roles in film.

      I guess I had an advantage of being a child of the 60s. With a B&W Zenith that received only nine stations around DC and Baltimore as a kid. One of which, WTTG-5 (Now Fox) devoted weeknights to different styles and genres (Gangster, Noir, Sci-Fi, Dramas and Comedies) of films.

      The number of stations changed to 14 in the 70s with UHF and Channel 20. That had ‘Ghost Host’ and “Creature Features’ with Sir Graves Ghastly and Count Gore De Vol late Saturday nights. Which filled the void of Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe classics and other cheap horror films.

      Now, with the wonders of Technology. You have TCM on satellite and cable and Nextflix to watch or stream.

      It looks like you have some catching up to do in regards to Mr. Mitchum and Peck. Though in the case of ‘Out of the Past’ your effort will be well rewarded!

      1. Ted S.

        Yeah I’ve only seen a few of Mitchum’s films, the first one was the underrated 70s action flick, The Yakuza.

        1. jackdeth72

          Hi, Ted:

          You chose an excellent place to start your trek of Mitchum films. ‘The Yakuza’ is near forgotten gem that introduced the US to Asian organized crime all by itself.

          With some great early writing from Paul Schrader and Robert Towne under Pollack’s deft touch and Richard Jordan as Mitchum’s back up. A good flick, all the way around!

          PS: ‘Out of the Past’ will be on TCM this Friday, the 27 at 3:15pm if you want to watch or DVR it.

    1. jackdeth72

      Welcome, Dave:

      Mitchum did have an exceptional body of work. And his role as Jeff Bailey is close to the top his list. More so, for revealing his vulnerabilities. Which for a man of Mitchum’s size and stature seem foreign and are to be avoided.

  4. I have not seen this film in a long while. But I do remember it as a really solid grade A film noir (like you said).

    Jane Greer was a quinessential alluring femme fatale.

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, iluv!

      I’ve been hoping you’d drop by.

      Jane Greer sultrily rocks her role as Kathie. Making it her own once she enters that bar in Acapulco.

      What’s alluring about ‘Out of the Past’ is the chemistry between Kathie and Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey. Watching Jeff willingly, almost anxiously fall for her. While playing what few angles he has until there are none left.

  5. Haven’t seen this movie but I was recently impressed by Mitchum in Cape Fear. A great actor of his time indeed. Excellent review as always, Jack!

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Castor:

      Thanks for the compliment!

      I think Mitchum was still trying to find his niche and comfort zone with ‘Out of the Past’ and he used the opportunity to his great advantage. In and amongst a cast of equal talent.

      One thing I’ve admired about Mitchum is willingness to take on roles of unlikeable, evil characters and make them believable and memorable. As brought to life in ‘Night of the Hunter; and ‘Cape Fear’.

  6. Great review, very well written.
    I’m not familiar with this film though so I don’t have that much to say except that the story, the director and the cast all make it very appealing. Yet another film that goes into my queue of films to watch.

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Blog:

      Tourneur put together a dream team from the top on down with this film. Working from a popular novel and having its author supply the grist. Then handing it over to a competent cast and crew eager to make their marks. In a film that has become a touchstone of the genre.

  7. I noticed Out of The Past (1947) was among director Lawrence Kasdan’s Five Favorite Films over at rottentomatoes recently, he gave it high praise, and you liked it too. I enjoy a good screenplay, so I’m anxious to track down this classic. Thanks for the review, Jack!

    1. jackdeth72

      Welcome, Chris:

      Thanks for adding to the conversation!

      I saw that article at Rotten Tomatoes as well. If you closely at Kasdan’s premiere, ‘Body Heat’ there are several scenes with similar shadow work tucked inside.

      The screenplay, story and dialogue in ‘Out of the Past’ are hard boiled personified with few twists. Though those few twists are delightful indeed.

  8. Cool blog! Is your theme custom made or did you download it from somewhere?

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  9. Pingback: The Large Association of Movie Blogs | Classic Chops: May 23rd

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