This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Rhonda Fleming.
Out of the Past is a lurid tale of betrayal and immorality. In short, it is a perfect film noir, with excellent performances and a strong story.
Seemingly straight-arrow mechanic Jeffrey Bailey has a sordid past, one he eventually reveals to Ann (Virginia Huston). His real name is Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum), a shady private investigator whose last assignment came courtesy of mobster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). Jeff and his partner Fisher (Stevie Brodie) are to look for Whit's moll, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who both shot him and ran off with $40,000.
Jeff tracks her down to Acapulco, but it is not long before he too falls under the spell of the fatal beauty Kathie. They conspire to run off together and shake off Whit and his goon, Stefanos (Paul Valentine). While Whit does catch up with Jeff, Kathie is able to get away back to America. Their idyll comes to an end when Fisher, still angry about being cut out of the reward money, tracks both of them down. Kathie is not above a little murder, though, to keep herself out of trouble.
Now, moving to the present, Whit has a new assignment for Jeff. He is to procure tax records held by crooked lawyer Leonard Eels (Ken Niles), which Eels has been using to blackmail Whit. Kathie appears to have reunited with Whit, but is she on the level? What about Eels' secretary, Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming)? There's more double-crossings and murders before almost everyone gets their just desserts, but will Ann and Jeff's deaf/mute friend The Kid (Dickie Moore) live to have a happy ending themselves?
Out of the Past, even at a brisk 97 minutes, moves surprisingly fast. A good amount of credit should go to director Jacques Tourneur and screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring, who adapted his novel Build My Gallows High for the screen. Oftentimes flashbacks stop a film cold. At the very least, they tend to slow down a film, but not here.
I think it is because Out of the Past has only one extended flashback and has it early in the film. The film also has a sense of logic to the flashback in the form of Jeff telling his story to Ann. It does not use the trope of having the individual drift into memory. Instead, he recites it, so it makes sense. Fortunately, once we leave the past, it stays there.
Out of the Past also has strong dialogue and scenes that reveal more than what the censors would allow. As Stefanos talks to a local townsperson about how he "accidentally" came across Jeff Bailey's garage, she says, "It's a small world". Stefanos replies, "Or a big sign". Ostensibly referring to the sign advertising Bailey's garage, there is a subtext about how in reality Stefanos saw his "sign".
Jeff remarks that he and Kathie did everything "at night", a curious suggestion about their relationship. A more overt but still subtle reference to their torrid affair is when Jeff tosses a towel that knocks a lamp out, followed by a door swinging open during a storm. They had sex, but we weren't about to show that. Audiences then and now should figure that Out of the Past was saying enough without having to spell it out.
Mainwaring's dialogue again reveals a lot more than what is actually said. Shortly after seeing Kathie again, Jeff tells her, "You're like a leaf blown from one gutter to another," and I think the use of "gutter" is apt for someone as wicked as Kathie.
Each performance, large or small, is pitch perfect. Jane Greer is brilliant as the femme fatale of femme fatales. Alluring, able to play all the men she meets for fools, Greer plays Kathie as ambiguous as well as devious. One never really knows if she genuinely loves Jeff or is just using him as a means to an end. As Jeff and Fisher fight in front of her, Greer gives Kathie a cold, almost aroused look. Kathie does not look terrified or afraid but excited to see former friends battle it out. It's a wicked look, revealing so much about Kathie.
Mitchum here has one of his most definitive roles as Jeff. He is a center of what little morality there is in Out of the Past. One senses that Jeff does want to start fresh with Ann, but he is also capable of ruthlessness. A tearful Kathie tells him, "I don't want to die", to which Jeff replies coldly, "Neither do I, baby, but if I have to, I'm going to die last". Smart enough to outwit Whit, but perhaps dumb enough to keep getting pulled by Kathie, Mitchum makes Jeff both antihero and sap.
Douglas was starting out in films with Out of the Past, and while not physically imposing as Mitchum, his quiet confidence as the ruthless Whit works well. Paul Valentine's Stefanos was menacing with a smirk, and Rhonda Fleming's perhaps duplicitous, perhaps innocent secretary also makes one guess where on the moral scale she fits in.
Out of the Past is one of the great film noirs made, its reputation highly earned. Fast, efficient and effective, Out of the Past works on every level possible.