Based on the novel Build My Gallows High by Daniel Mainwaring, Out of the Past is the story of a gas station owner whose attempt to start a trouble-free life is visited by a mysterious stranger from his past as he is forced to return to the world of crime. Directed by Jacques Tourneur and screenplay by Mainwaring with additional contributions from Frank Fenton and James M. Cain, the film is a noir-story that plays into a man trying to escape from his dark past only for the past to catch up to him as it relates to a woman he fell in love with. Starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, and Rhonda Fleming. Out of the Past is an evocative and chilling film from Jacques Tourneur.
The film revolves around a man who owns a gas station at a small town in California where he receives an unexpected visit as he meets a crime boss who wants him to do a job as it relates to events in his past that involves his boss’ girlfriend who is stirring up trouble. It’s a film that explores a man trying to leave his past behind but he’s tempted by this woman he had fallen for just as he had created a new life for himself. The film’s screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring, with re-writes and contributions from Frank Fenton and James M. Cain, has this structure where much of its first act is told in a flashback by its protagonist Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum) who changed his surname to Bailey as he’s driving to Lake Tahoe from Bridgeport, California where he tells his girlfriend Ann Miller (Virginia Huston) about what he used to do as a private investigator.
Markham’s story where he is asked by gambling kingpin Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to find his girlfriend Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) who had shot Sterling and stole $40,000 as he just wants her and the money back. Upon finding her in Acapulco, Markham falls for her but is then tailed by his partner Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie) who catches them as it leads to trouble. Markham’s narration in the first act is stylized as it plays into the language of film noir as well as what he would say when unwittingly reunites with Sterling and Moffat for another assignment that would lead to bigger trouble. Adding to this conflict are his feelings for both Moffat and Miller with the former wanting to re-establish their old relationship while the former offers something more stable.
Jacques Tourneur’s direction does bear elements of style in the compositions yet much of his direction does have moments that are straightforward in its presentation. Shot largely on location in California with some second unit shots in New York City and Mexico, Tourneur explores the life of a man who had started a new life in this small town near Lake Tahoe as it’s simple and quiet where Tourneur uses some wide shots of the locations of Bridgeport and its surroundings as well as some of the film’s other locations. Yet, much of Tourneur’s direction emphasizes on close-ups and medium shots as it relates to characters dealing with one another as it play into some of the dramatic tension and suspense. There is also this air of style in the way Tourneur presents Markham as someone who is this figure that always finds himself in some sort of trouble with whoever he encounters. Especially when it comes to meeting Moffat as she is this radiant figure but there is also something about her that is off as he’s entranced by her yet isn’t always honest. Tourneur’s approach to the tension and suspense adds to some of the misdirection that Markham would encounter in the way he shoots him in a hallway but would find something that is odd.
Tourneur would maintain this air of suspense and tension into its third act as it relates to Markham being a target while becoming unsure who to trust as even those in Bridgeport learn about his true identity. The sense of danger and knowing that he’s being watched add to the suspense as well as the decisions that Markham has to make as it relates to Sterling and Moffat. The former in particular as he becomes aware that Markham is on to something and realizes that Moffat isn’t exactly what she seems but Tourneur knows that is more intrigue that is to occur as it relates to the conflict that Markham is in as it relates to the choices he’s made in his life. Overall, Tourneur crafts a mesmerizing and eerie film about a man who deals with his dark past and the woman who nearly destroyed his life.
Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca does brilliant work with the film’s black-and-white photography with its usage of low-key lighting, shadows, and shades to help set a mood for some of the interior/exterior scenes at night as well as some straightforward shots for the scenes in the day. Editor Samuel E. Beetley does excellent work with the editing with its usage of rhythmic cuts to play into the suspense and drama while keeping much of the action straightforward. Art directors Albert S. D’Agostino and Jack Okey, with set decorators Darrell Silva and John McCarthy Jr., do amazing work with the look of Sterling’s home in Lake Tahoe as well as his home in New York City as well as the cantina where Markham meets Moffat. Gown designer Edward Stevenson does fantastic work with the dresses that Moffat wears as well as a dress that another character who is associated with Moffat wears.
The special effects work of Russell A. Cully is terrific for some of visual backdrops in a few scenes that help play into the sense of location including the scenes of Markham following those in a taxi cab. The sound work of Clem Portman and Francis M. Sarver is superb for the atmosphere that is created as well as some of the sparse sounds that occur in some of the film’s locations in the forests as it help play into the suspense. The film’s music by Roy Webb is incredible for its soaring orchestral score that help play into the drama as well as the suspense as it is a major highlight of the film.
The film’s wonderful cast feature some notable small roles from Eunice Leonard as a woman Markham meets at a cantina who leads him to Moffat, Ken Niles as a lawyer Markham meets in the film’s second act in Leonard Eels, Dickie Moore as Markham’s deaf-mute gas station assistant known as the Kid, Richard Webb as a local sheriff at Bridgeport in Jim who is also a longtime friend of Ann, Paul Valentine as Sterling’s hired muscle in Joe Stefanos, Steve Brodie as Markham’s PI partner Jack Fisher, and Rhonda Fleming as Eels’ secretary Meta Carson who finds herself becoming a pawn in one of Moffat’s schemes. Virginia Huston is excellent as Ann Miller as Markham’s new girlfriend in Bridgeport who learns about his past as she keeps it a secret while knowing the anguish he is dealing but also realizing that she might discover things that she doesn’t want to know.
Kirk Douglas is incredible as Whit Sterling as a crime boss who asks Markham to do a job for him only for things to go bad as he then realizes that Moffat isn’t what she seems as Douglas brings that air of charisma to a character that could’ve been a typical villain but there’s so much more as he is also someone that is willing to listen but also realizes that he’s at fault for being too trusting. Jane Greer is brilliant as Kate Moffat as a woman who was Sterling’s girlfriend until she stole money from him as she is this beautiful woman who is this object of desire but there’s also something off about her as it has the elements of a femme fatale character while she is also good at playing innocent while also being devious. Finally, there’s Robert Mitchum in a phenomenal performance as Jeff Markham/Bailey as a private investigator who reinvents himself as a gas station owner that copes with his past and the traps he gotten himself into as it is this stylized yet engrossing performance from Mitchum that allows him to display humility but also be someone who is struggling with what he wants but also what he has now as it is one of his iconic performances.
Out of the Past is a tremendous film from Jacques Tourneur that features great performances from Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas. Along with its supporting cast, gorgeous visuals, themes of temptation and betrayal, and its chilling music score. It’s a film that explore a man dealing with his past and the woman who tries to tempt him to do her bidding. In the end, Out of the Past is a spectacular film from Jacques Tourneur.
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