Out of the Past (1947)

Tonight's selection:

"All women are wonders because they reduce all men to the obvious. 
And so do martinis."

Jeff Bailey is just your everyday gas station owner. 

He keeps mum about his past, both with his girlfriend Ann (whose parents strongly disapprove of him) and with his deaf-mute assistant "The Kid." One day, though, a former business associate drives through town and recognizes Bailey as he's working the pumps.

Joe persuades Bailey to come up to Lake Tahoe and see their old mutual boss, Whit Sterling, for whom Joe still works.

Bailey decides to take Ann with him, and on the way, he opens up about his past life. Years ago, Sterling hired Bailey, who was then private detective "Jeff Markham", to track down and return his estranged wife, Kathy. Kathy shot him twice and left him for dead and ran off with $40k. Sterling doesn't care about the money; he just wants Kathy back. 

"I don't understand."
"When you see her, you'll understand."

Bailey/ Markham agrees, but he tells his partner Fisher (Steve Brodie) he's doing this one alone. Fisher doesn't care, so long as they split what Sterling's paying. Bailey locates Kathy in Acapulco and - wonders never cease - immediately falls in love with her. 

He double-crosses Sterling and runs off with Kathy to San Francisco.

Everything's cozy and great until they're spotted by Bailey's old partner, Fisher, who follows them into the mountains and confronts them. He wants his cut of the old deal. Kathy shoots him dead and flees. Despondent, Bailey takes up his new life as a gas station man of mystery. 

After Bailey finishes his story, Ann promises to wait for him while he goes to Tahoe. Sterling welcomes him into his home and assures him that the past is the past. 

Bailey is skeptical.

The big surprise comes when grapefruit is served and in walks Kathy. She's told Sterling everything. Sterling uses this leverage to have Bailey do a little favor for him: go to San Francisco and see about getting his hands on some tax documents that implicate Sterling with defrauding Uncle Sam out of $1m of undeclared income. The papers are in the possession of a lawyer, Mr. Eels. Feeling he has no choice, Bailey agrees.

He's put in touch with Eels' secretary, the extravagantly named Meta Carson.

After talking with the soft-spoken Eels, however, in a wonderfully awkward scene, Bailey begins to suspect that Sterling has set him up for a frame: he intends to have the lawyer killed and pin it on Bailey. Bailey warns Eels, but he's unable to prevent his murder. 

Although he is unable to prevent Eels's murder, He discovers Kathy was in on the frame, having signed an affidavit naming Bailey as Fisher's murderer back at the mountain lodge.

Now the target of a police manhunt, Bailey has to play everyone against one another for a chance to get back to Ann and clear his name. But - as foretold by the doomed tone of voice of Bailey's voiceover narration throughout the film - it's not meant to be. Kathy kills Sterling, and Bailey agrees to flee to Mexico with her. He deliberately drives into a police stake-out and the bullets fly. 

Out of the Past is one of the more popular film noirs. It's easy to see why. The performances are great, the scenery's great, all the film noir boxes anyone could want to look for are checked, and   it's a very accessible picture. It's easy to follow even when it takes its twists and turns.

Part of its appeal is undoubtedly the cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca. As always, museum-painting perfect, particularly when paired with director Jacques Tourneur. 


I always feel a little odd trying to come up with things to say about guys like Robert Mitchum. What more is there to say? He's Robert Mitchum. Here's a brief tutorial, specific to Out of the Past. On a side note, I think only Sam Rothstein from Casino or Rick Blaine from Casablanca smokes more cigarettes than Bailey does in this film. Some kind of cinematic record. 

I'm not quite as enamored with Ms. Greer as everyone on-screen, but she's certainly a bad-ass femme fatale. I don't think I've seen her in much else, actually. Of her classic stuff, I mean - I remember her from Twin Peaks and other TV of that era. She's great here, to be sure. 

The once and future "Queen of Technicolor."

I checked out Kirk Douglas' autobiography from the library a few years back. It was overall enjoyable, but what I remember most was one anecdote he told about how he set out to seduce thirty women in thirty days. He failed, and it sent him spiraling into depression. "I had failed as a Man." Ever since I project this on his every performance and chuckle to myself. But I'll be damned if doing so here doesn't cut to the quick of Sterling's character and role in the psychodrama. Which conforms to a theory I have on all great actors: they circle the same thing in their psyche from performance-to-performance.

Special shout-out to Paul Valentine. All too often the enforcer-guy in these things tends to the over-the-top (perfumed bullets, theatrical routines, mother fixations, etc.) But Stephanos is actually somewhat sympathetic. It'd actually be interesting to tell this story from his point of view, and I wonder if someone has done this, actually, disguised as another film. This nose smells a mystery!

Jacques Tourneur, one of the jewels of the RKO crown, especially when paired with Musuraca, was given considerable resources to make Out of the Past, and he wielded them perfectly. Ed Dmytryk was originally slated to direct, but a scheduling conflict made that impossible. Tourneur got the job on his recommendation. 

"What was left of the day went away like the pack of cigarettes you smoked."



  1. I had heard of this film before.

    It is considered by no less a luminary than Martin Scorsese to be "The Film", not "Casablanca", not some obscure gem waiting to be rediscovered, "for Scorsese, "Out of the Past" will always be "The Film".

    I can see the film has merits, yet I'm not prepared to go that far (besides, as far as I'm concerned that honor still belongs to the film and novel of Peter S. Beagle).

    However, OOTP is still something worth hunting down.

    On a curious note, I find myself preferring Scorsese's "The Color of Money" to "The Hustler", while still recognizing the merits of the older film. It proves little, I guess, except that life is strange.


    1. I also prefer "The Color of Money" to "The Hustler" - I hear you! I just think it's a more interesting film. I've never read the Walter Tevis novel - maybe "The Hustler" will open up to me more if I did.

  2. Back in my days of Film Studies, this movie was one that stood out for me during the section on Film Noir. So much so, that whenever my wife gets home from work and comes in through the front door, I hear Mitchum's voice utter that line in his world-weary tone: "And then SHE walked in."
    Such a shame that Mitchum didn't do a few Marlowe films in the '40s and '50s. By the time he got the gig in 1974 ("Farewell, My Lovely"), he was still good, but a little too long in the tooth for the role, IMHO.
    And thanks for not mentioning the Jeff Bridges remake. I liked Bridges, but no guy would go through the ringer for Rachel Ward...except maybe Bryan Brown.
    And yeah, read "The Hustler".

    1. I agree on 70s Mitchum/ Marlowe. It'd have been great had the pairing happened a few decades earlier.

      I'll add "The Hustler" to the list. I enjoyed the only other Tevis I read ("The Man Who Fell to Earth.")

    2. (And the movie, too, of course. For both, but specifically "The Hustler." I just like "The Color of Money" a tad more.)

  3. This sounds fantastic. I've never seen a Tourneur movie; sounds like this'd be a great one to start with.

    It's weird to see Kirk Douglas third-bill on a movie poster. Just doesn't seem right, somehow. That anecdote about his failed seduction-thon is pretty great. THAT'S a failure?!? Lord, what Kirk Douglas would think of me...

    1. This one or "I Walked with a Zombie" would be my recs for Tourneur entrypoints. Then "Cat Women." Plus they've all got that fantastic Musuraca cinematography. (Actually, I stand corrected - just googled "Zombie" in another tab and see that one had Roy Hunt as DP. Still wonderful, though.)

      If you ever saw the old "Tale of Two Cities" movie from the 30s, Tourneur was the guy who cut together that fantastic Soviet-style montage in the middle of it. I had a great bio of him years ago but lost it in one of my moves, I think, and no longer have it.