Out of the Past  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Out of the Past (released in Britain as Build My Gallows High) is a 1947 film noir starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas, in which a small-town gas-station owner's mysterious past catches up with him.

The movie was adapted by Daniel Mainwaring (using the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes) from his novel Build My Gallows High (also written as Homes). Uncredited revisions were made by Frank Fenton and James M. Cain. It was directed by Jacques Tourneur and released by RKO Radio Pictures.

In 1991, Out of the Past was added to the United States National Film Registry as being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

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 and I Walked with a Zombie).


Jeff Bailey (Mitchum) seems to be a mundane gas station owner in Bridgeport, California. He is dating local girl Ann Miller (Virginia Huston) and lives a quiet life, but is secretive about his past. A stranger passing through recognizes Jeff. Later, he returns and tells Jeff that Whit Sterling has been looking for him. Jeff agrees to meet him.

Before he leaves, Jeff begins 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 a rich gambler, Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). The movie then flashes back to that time.

Sterling hires Jeff to find his girlfriend, Kathie Moffat (Greer). She had run away after shooting Sterling and stealing $40,000 from him. He wants her and the money returned. Jeff goes to a jazz club to talk to Kathie's former maid, Eunice (Theresa Harris). He learns that she had packed for warm weather, was vaccinated, and left for Florida. Jeff knows that vaccinations aren't needed for Florida, but they are for Mexico. So he tracks the luggage to Mexico City and finds that she had been there, but left on a bus south. From there, the trail leads to Acapulco.

Jeff meets Kathie there. At first he doesn't tell her that he's been hired to find her. Later, when he goes to the local Western Union office to send a telegram to Whit, he finds the office is closed for the siesta. Instead, he sees her again and they begin to fall in love. He tells her the truth, and that Whit is alive and just wants her back. She claims that she didn’t take Whit’s money. The couple continue to meet every night and their relationship deepens. Eventually they decide to run away together. They plan to start from Jeff’s hotel the next morning.

Whit and his assistant Joe show up unexpectedly, having flown down to check up on Jeff. He tells Whit that he hasn’t found Kathie yet, that she has caught a boat south. After Whit leaves, the lovers take a boat north to San Francisco.

They live as inconspicuously as possible in San Francisco, fearful of being found but thinking the odds are one in a million that anyone will spot them. But it happens. Fisher, Jeff’s old partner, 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 then drives off, leaving Jeff behind. He finds her bank book and discovers a balance of $40,000--the money she had claimed she hadn’t stolen.

The movie then flashes forward to Jeff and Ann. He tells her that he never saw Kathie again, and that he has to tell Whit all that has happened. He arrives at Whit’s place and sees that Kathie is living with him again. Rather than discussing the past, Whit says he wants to hire Jeff to recover some income tax records that a lawyer, Leonard Eels (Ken Niles), is using to blackmail him. Jeff agrees to take the job.

In San Francisco, Jeff meets Eels' secretary at her home and she tells him of her and Whit's plan to get the papers. When Jeff meets Eels, he warns him that Whit isn't interested in paying Eels off, and that he should give up the papers to Jeff. He later returns to Eels' place, only to find him dead. With Kathie's help, Whit had planned the murder of Eels and hoped to frame Jeff for it. Jeff also learns that Kathie has told Whit that it was Jeff who killed Jack, and that among Eels' papers is an affidavit she signed naming Jeff as the killer. Jeff goes to Whit’s night club, slugs the manager and takes the tax papers. He tries to trade them for the affidavit, but that arrangement goes awry.

Later, when Jeff again tries to meet with Whit to negotiate with him, he finds that Kathie has killed him. She tells Jeff that he must leave with her or be arrested for killing his partner, Eels and now Whit. Jeff agrees, but when she goes to get her bags, he makes a phone call. They leave together, but soon come to a police roadblock. Kathie realizes Jeff has double-crossed her. She shoots and kills him, calling him “a double-crossing rat.” The police then fire, killing Kathie.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Out of the Past" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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