Out of the Past (1947)

 “I know a lot of smart guys and a few honest ones.”

In the film Out of the Past Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is the owner of a small garage in the sleepy town of Bridgeport, California. He keeps to himself, and that arouses the suspicions of the locals, and some of them disapprove of the fact that he’s courting the saintly Ann Miller. One day, a mysterious stranger appears in town bearing a summons from Tahoe-based gangster, Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). Bailey reluctantly agrees to meet Sterling. They have some unfinished business together, and Bailey cannot refuse.

A protagonist running away from a sordid past is a popular theme in film noir. In Out of the Past Bailey’s pre-Bridgeport history catches up with him, and suddenly it’s time to face past mistakes.

Years before, Bailey was a New York private detective. He was hired by Sterling to track down Sterling’s runaway girlfriend, Kathie (Jane Greer)–as well as the $40,000 that disappeared with her. Kathie, apparently, used Sterling for a little target practice before she disappeared. Bailey begins searching for Kathie, and, eventually, he catches up with her ….

Humphrey Bogart was slated for the role of Bailey. Mitchum does a credible job–he’s not as edgy as Bogart, and there’s a certain laconic sloth to his personality. It’s easy to accept Mitchum as the corruptible P.I. who accepts a dirty job from Sterling, and it’s no stretch of the imagination to see Mitchum falling for Kathie. As a Dark City femme fatale, Greer delivers a stellar performance. Bailey tells her: “You’re like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another.” Kirk Douglas as gangster Whit Sterling really adds to the atmosphere of the film. He has a chilly politeness and ironic–yet threatening–sense of humour.

For film noir fans, Out of the Past is a hidden gem. Unfortunately, the plot loses some of its tight drama when the action moves to San Francisco. This results in a red herring or two which detracts from the action and the tension. This slight flaw noted, however, film noir fans will enjoy the performances, and the dialogue is full of acid-based one-liners. From director Jacques Tourneur and based on a novel by Daniel Mainwaring.

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