Out of the Past

Out of the Past

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Produced by Warren Duff
Written by Daniel Mainwaring
Music by Roy Webb
Cinematography Nicholas Musuraca
Editing by Samuel E. Beetley
Studio RKO Radio Pictures
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Release date(s) November 13, 1947 (1947-11-13)
Running time 97 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Out of the Past (originally 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).

The film is considered by film historians to be a superb example of film noir, due to its convoluted, dreamlike storyline and its chiaroscuro cinematography (cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca also shot Tourneur's Cat People). In 1991, Out of the Past was added to the United States National Film Registry as being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."[1]



Jeff Bailey (Mitchum) seems to be a mundane gas station owner in remote Bridgeport, California. He is dating local girl Ann Miller (Virginia Huston) and lives a quiet life. Town lawman Jim (Richard Webb) is in love with Ann and unsure about Jeff, who is secretive about his past.

A man named Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine) passing through town recognizes Jeff. He returns and tells Jeff that their mutual acquaintance Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) has been looking for him. Jeff agrees to go to Lake Tahoe to meet with Whit.

Before he leaves, Jeff decides it's time to tell Ann about his mysterious past. His real name is Jeff Markham. He and partner Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie) worked as private investigators in New York. They took on a job for Whit Sterling, a rich gambler.

In a flashback to that time, Whit hires Jeff to find his girlfriend, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer). She has run away after shooting Whit and stealing $40,000 from him. Whit wants both the woman and money back.

Jeff is told by her former maid, Eunice, that Kathie packed for warm weather, was vaccinated and left for Florida. Jeff knows that vaccinations aren't needed for Florida, but they are for Mexico. He tracks the luggage to Mexico City and, from there, the trail leads to Acapulco.

Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey and Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat

He finds Kathie there. At first he doesn't mention that he's been hired to find her. They begin a love affair. Jeff ultimately tells her the truth, that Whit is alive and wants her back. She denies taking Whit’s money. They decide to run away together the next day.

Whit and his henchman Joe Stephanos show up unexpectedly, having flown down to check up on Jeff. He lies to Whit that he hasn’t found Kathie yet, that she has caught a boat south. As soon as Whit leaves, the lovers take a boat north.

They live as inconspicuously as possible in San Francisco, thinking the odds are one in a million that anyone will spot them. But it happens. Jeff’s old partner, Fisher, spots him at a race track. Tracking the couple to a cabin in the woods, he demands the $40,000 in return for his silence. A fistfight breaks out that ends when Kathie fatally shoots the would-be blackmailer. She drives off, leaving Jeff to fend for himself. He finds her bank book and discovers a balance of $40,000.

The story flashes forward to Jeff and Ann. He tells her that he never saw Kathie again, but that Whit has sent for him. He arrives at Whit’s home in Lake Tahoe to discover that Kathie is living there. Rather than discussing the past, Whit says he wants to hire Jeff to recover some income tax records that a San Francisco lawyer, Leonard Eels (Ken Niles), is using to blackmail him.

Jeff feels obliged to take the job. He meets with Eels' secretary, the sultry Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming). She tells him Whit's plan to get the tax papers back. Jeff feels certain he is being set up and tries to warn Eels that something is wrong. He returns later to find Eels dead. With Kathie's help, Whit has planned the murder of Eels and hopes to frame Jeff for it.

Kathie has lied to Whit that it was Jeff who killed Fisher. Among Eels' papers is an affidavit she signed that names Jeff as the killer. Jeff goes to Whit’s nightclub, slugs the manager and takes the papers.

Jeff returns to Bridgeport, to see Ann, and to communicate with The Kid, who is acting as a messenger between between Jeff and Kathie. Joe Stephanos tracks him there and is about to shoot when Jeff's deaf young assistant from the gas station, The Kid (Dickie Moore), hooks him with a fishing line and pulls Stephanos off a cliff to his death.

Jeff convinces Whit to reveal Kathie as Fisher’s murderer. He then visits Ann, and is confronted by Jim. Jeff returns to Whit's home, only to find that Kathie has killed him. She tells Jeff that he must leave with her or be arrested for killing three men—Fisher, Eels and now Whit. Jeff agrees, but makes a private phone call before they go. They come upon a police roadblock. Kathie realizes Jeff has double-crossed her. She shoots him with a small revolver. The police fire on their car, killing both.

On the way from Jeff's funeral, Ann stops to ask the deaf young man from the gas station, The Kid, if it was true that Jeff was going away with Kathie. The Kid nods to indicate that he was. Ann drives off with Jim, who still loves her.

Background and production

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-movies 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.


Robert Mitchum ... Jeff Bailey
Jane Greer ... Kathie Moffat
Kirk Douglas ... Whit Sterling
Rhonda Fleming ... Meta Carson
Richard Webb ... Jim
Steve Brodie ... Jack Fisher
Virginia Huston ... Ann Miller
Paul Valentine ... Joe Stephanos
Dickie Moore ... The Kid
Ken Niles ... Leonard Eels

Critical reception

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 movie 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]

American Film Institute Lists

  • AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies - Nominated[10]
  • AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills - Nominated[11]
  • AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions - Nominated[12]
  • AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains:
    • Whit Sterling - Nominated Villain[13]
  • AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
    • "You know, maybe I was wrong and luck is like love. You have to go all the way to find it." - Nominated[14]
    • KATHIE MOFFAT: "I think we deserve a break." JEFF BAILEY: "We deserve each other."[14]
  • AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) - Nominated[15]


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 0684195852. 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 1843534746. 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). http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20040718/REVIEWS08/407180301/1023. 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 0810813637. OCLC 6708669. 
  8. ^ Crowther, Bosley (November 26, 1947). "Out of the Past (1947)". The New York Times (The New York Times Company). http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?_r=1&res=9500E0DE1E3AE233A25755C2A9679D946693D6CF. Retrieved February 1, 2008. 
  9. ^ "Out of the Past Review". Variety (Reed Business Information). 1947. http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117793803.html?categoryid=31&cs=1&p=0. Retrieved February 1, 2008. 
  10. ^ http://www.afi.com/Docs/100Years/movies400.pdf
  11. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills Nominees" (PDF). http://www.afi.com/Docs/100Years/thrills400.pdf. Retrieved 2011-11-01. 
  12. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions Nominees" (PDF). http://www.afi.com/Docs/100Years/passions400.pdf. Retrieved 2011-11-01. 
  13. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains Nominees" (PDF). http://www.afi.com/Docs/100Years/handv400.pdf. Retrieved 2011-11-01. 
  14. ^ a b "AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes Nominees" (PDF). http://www.afi.com/Docs/100Years/quotes400.pdf. Retrieved 2011-11-01. 
  15. ^ "Movies_Ballot_06" (PDF). http://www.afi.com/Docs/100Years/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 0520221303. OCLC 40907588. 

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.