Out of the Past

April 5, 2010 at 8:58 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , , , , , , )

“How big a chump can you get to be?”  Jeff Marcum

There are very few film noir films as “noir” as Out of the Past. Out of the Past was released in 1947 and includes several of the biggest names of the genre. Robert Mitchum stars along with Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas. This was only the second film for Douglas, but he seems already fully formed as menacing, smooth, and able to explode at the drop of a hat. In addition to these stars, noir character actors Rhonda Fleming, Steve Brodie, Paul Valentine, and Richard Webb also have significant roles.   

This film is directed by Jacques Tourneur. Tourneur was a Frenchman who spent much of his career in America. His directing credits featured some early horror films such as Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. Later in his career he moved into television, directing, among many vehicles, The Barbara Stanwyck Show. His noir credits also include Nightfall

Nicholas Musucara was the cinematographer for the film. Musucara was the cinematographer on a great number of well-known film noirs including Clash by Night, Roadblock, The Blue Gardenia, and what is considered to be the first film noir ever, The Stranger on the Third Floor

Out of the Past revolves around the laconic, but smooth, Jeff Bailey (Mitchum). Bailey is the owner of a service station in a small, out-of-the-way town. One day Joe Stepahanos (Valentine) stops by and recognizes Jeff as a P.I. that double crossed Valentine’s boss a few years before. Bailey has tried to settle down and put his past behind him, but this chance meeting puts him back into the seedy world he was all too familiar with. Bailey agrees to meet again with Whit Sterling (Douglas), a crime boss of some sort, to settle things and hopefully move on with his life. 

This meeting also leads him back into the arms of Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer). Kathie had been Whit’s girl, but, as a part of the double cross, Jeff ran off with her only to be found out by his P.I. partner Jack Fisher (Brodie). This is when the relationship with Kathy soured abruptly and Jeff decided it was time to become an obscure service station owner.   

Elements of Film Noir (Spoilers) 

Out of the Past is quintessential noir. Virtually all the elements of film noir can be found in this film. The use of shadows and key lighting dominates the atmosphere of the film. Approximately 75 percent of the film is shot at night and there is a clear distinction in atmosphere between Jeff Bailey’s world and Jeff Marcum’s world. 

Mithcum’s, Greer’s, and Douglas’s characters could be used as the prime examples of three of the essential noir character types. Jeff is one of the most doomed characters (chump protagonists) of all film noir. From the very beginning you get the sense that he is not going to make it, regardless of the few glimmers of hope that appear. He tries to get away from the dark world, but no matter how far he goes; it isn’t far enough. 

Kathie Moffat is second to only Phyllis Dietrichson as a film noir femme fatale. She can con anyone with her sex appeal and charm, but the only thing she cares about is keeping her self out of trouble and in a comfortable position. She is the downfall of at least two men and is without remorse. “Sure I shot him” Kathy says. “I’m not sorry about that.”

Jeff finally understands Kathy, as shown when he tells her, “You’re like a leaf that blows from one gutter to another.” By this point it is too late.  Jeff has already decided that she has the best of him and his only way to take her down is to take himself down in the process. 

Whit Sterling is perfectly played by Douglas as the smooth talking crime boss. He threatens with charm and innuendo, but you know that he cares not a thing for you and will put a knife in your back as soon as it is to his advantage. 

From the very beginning of the film, you can see the contrast between the small town and the city. Stephanos stops at Jeff Bailey’s gas station wearing a long, dark trench coat and smoking a cigarette. He has stepped out of the noir world just long enough to drag Jeff back in. The juxtaposing of the two worlds adds to the atmosphere of each, especially the dark world that dominates most of the film. 

The cool banter you expect from the best noir films is ever-present in Out of the Past. Mitchum is as smooth as in any film and gets to throw out lines like, “Let’s go down to the bar. You can cool off while we try to impress each other.”


Out of the Past is at the top of most connoisseurs’ list of the best film noirs of all-time. Not only is it one of the best examples of the genre, it is one of the best films of any genre. If you are interested enough to be reading this review, it should be the next movie you watch, and it should be watched more than once. Mitchum, Greer, and Douglas are all great in this film, and the supporting cast is brilliant. The story keeps you interested, and the atmosphere is amazingly set by Tourneur and cinematographer Musuraca. 


This film is Mitchum at his laconic best, Douglas is as smooth and ruthless as any of his performance, and the women are beautiful and evil. Out of the Past has it all, even the not-Hollywood ending. Jeff says it best. “Build my gallows high, baby!”


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