Out of the Past
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
RKO Radio Pictures
#198 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
IMDb users say 8.1/10; I say 10/10
Jeff Bailey: You can never help anything, can you? You’re like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another.
This visually beautiful film has a classical film noir plot involving a protagonist who is doomed by his obsession with a femme fatale and haunted by an inescapable past. The laconic Robert Mitchum is perfect as the fatalist hero of the tale and Jane Greer is one of the most perfidious shady ladies in all of noir.
I love this movie and have seen it at least ten times. With the last viewing I think I have at last figured out the confusing second half of the movie. This only added to my enjoyment but folks that have not seen the movie may not want to know the part between the spoiler alert notices.
The rather mysterious Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) runs a gas station in a small town in the Sierra Nevada. He is in love with a local girl named Ann. One day, a thug named Joe Stephanos comes looking for Jeff. Joe’s boss Whit Sterling wants to see him. Jeff and Ann drive to Lake Tahoe. On the way, Jeff tells Ann his story. The first part of the picture is thus one long flashback with voice-over narration.
Jeff – real name Markham – used to be a private detective. Whit (Kirk Douglas) hired him to find Kathie Moffet, a woman that shot Whit and made off with $40,000 of his money. Whit wanted Kathie back, with or without the money.
Jeff trailed Kathie to the Mar Azul cafe in Acapulco and was immediately obsessed with her to the exclusion of his job or the consequences. They began an affair and Kathie agrees to go away with him. She admited shooting Whit but denied taking his money. The couple returned to the U.S. and begin living in San Francisco. Whit hired Jeff’s partner Jack Fisher to track them down. When Fisher caught up with them, he attempted to blackmail the couple. Kathie shot Fisher dead and fled in Jeff’s car. A bank book she left behind showed that she had a balance of $40,000.
Segue to the present, a few years later. Jeff arrives at Whit’s mansion at Lake Tahoe. Kathie has returned to the fold. Whit tells Jeff that an accountant named Leonard Eels is blackmailing him with records that will show Whit owes the IRS $1 million. Whit asks Jeff to go to San Francisco to retrieve the records. Jeff is suspicious but agrees.
Jeff goes to see Eels’ secretary and girlfriend Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming). The plan is that Jeff will pose as Meta’s cousin and meet her at Eels’ place after which they will steal the records from the office. Jeff senses a frame up and attempts to tip off Eels that he is in danger. He follows Meta and sees her steal the records from the office. When Jeff returns to Eels’ apartment, he finds Eels murdered. Jeff hides Eels’ body in an empty apartment.
He returns to Meta’s apartment and overhears Kathie calling Eels’ building and asking the superintendent to check on Eels. Kathie is shocked when the superintendent does not find a body. Jeff confronts her and she says she is afraid of Whit and acting under his orders. Jeff tells her Eels escaped. She says Whit made her sign an affidavit saying that Jeff killed Fisher. The affidavit is now locked in Eels’ safe. She says she still loves Jeff and tells him where he can find the tax records so that they will be able to blackmail Whit into giving them money and letting them go off together. Jeff melts.
Jeff finds the records and mails them somewhere. In the meantime, Kathie learns from Joe Stefanos that he did kill Eels. Jeff finds Joe and Kathie together. He reveals that he has the records in a safe place and says that he will hand them and Eels’ body over in exchange for the affidavit and $50,000. Whit’s henchmen are now very suspicious as it looks like the only way Jeff could have found out about the affidavit was from Kathie. Kathie and Joe say they are going to get the affidavit but instead give Jeff the slip.
Jeff takes a deaf-mute kid that works for him and goes fishing in the High Sierras. Somehow Joe and Kathie locate the kid and get Jeff’s whereabout’s from him. Joe goes off to shoot Jeff but the kid sees him first and causes Joe to falls into the river and be killed.
Jeff goes back to Tahoe and confronts Kathie. He finds out Whit knew nothing about the plot for Joe to kill him and that Kathie told Whit that he killed Fisher. Jeff again agrees to turn the records over to Whit for money and the affidavit. When Whit and Kathie are alone, Whit becomes furious, hits Kathie, and threatens to kill her if she does not do exactly what he says.
Jeff returns to Bridgeport and sees Ann. He again professes his love for her. Later, Jeff goes to Tahoe to finalize the deal and finds that Kathie has murdered Whit. Kathie wants Jeff and herself to have a fresh start in Mexico. This time, she will be in total control. She is willing to threaten Jeff with being framed for the murders of Fisher, Eels, and Whit to get what she wants. While Kathie is finishing her packing, Jeff calls the police. Kathie shoots Jeff when their car runs into a police roadblock and dies herself when the car crashes during a shoot-out with the police.
END SPOILER ALERT
Clearly, I had been missing a lot for a long time! This viewing made Kathie seem much more evil than before and Whit not quite so bad. I was wondering whether Whit would have gone after Jeff at all if he had known Kathie killed Fisher.
Probably 75% of my enjoyment of this film lies in its exquisite compositions and chiaroscuro lighting. I don’t seem to have the words to explain the shots but I know that I am enraptured by them. The music is also very beautiful and the dialogue is a kind of hard-boiled poetry.
Clip – Jeff first sets eyes on Kathie