Out Of The Past - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

(Build My Gallows High)

USA, 1947

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Production: RKO-Radio Pictures; black and white; running time: 97 minutes; length: 8,711 feet. Released 1947.

Executive producer: Robert Sparks; producer: Warren Duff; screenplay: Geoffrey Homes (pseudonym of Daniel Mainwaring), from the novel Build My Gallows High by Homes; photography: Nicholas Musuraca; editor: Samuel E. Beetley; sound: Francis M. Sarver, Clem Portman; art directors: Albert S. d'Agostino, Jack Okey; set designer: Darrell Silvera; music: Roy Webb.

Cast : Robert Mitchum ( Jeff Bailey/Markham ); Jane Greer ( Kathie Moffat ); Kirk Douglas ( Whit Sterling ); Rhonda Fleming ( Meta Carson ); Richard Webb ( Jim ); Steve Brodie ( Fisher ); Virginia Huston ( Ann Miller ); Paul Valentine ( Joe Stefanos ); Dickie Moore ( The Kid ); Ken Niles ( Lloyd Eels ); Lee Elson ( Cop ); Frank Wilcox ( Sheriff Douglas ); Mary Field ( Marney ); Theresa Harris ( Eunice ); Harry Hayden ( Canby Miller ); Archie Twitchell ( Rafferty ).



McArthur, Colin, Underworld USA , London, 1972.

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Willemen, Paul, and Claire Johnston, Jacques Tourneur , Edinburgh, 1975.

Kaplan, E. Ann, editor, Women in Film Noir , London, 1978.

Marill, Alvin, Robert Mitchum on the Screen , South Brunswick, New Jersey, 1978.

Silver Alan, and Elizabeth Ward, editors, Film Noir , London, 1981.

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Downing, David Robert Mitchum , New York, 1985.

Mann, Michael, Kirk Douglas , New York, 1985.

Douglas, Kirk, The Ragman's Son , New York, 1988.

Fujiwara, Chris, Jacques Tourneur , Jefferson, North Carolina, 1998.


Monthly Film Bulletin (London), vol. 14, no. 168, 1947.

Variety (New York), 19 November 1947.

Crowther, Bosley, in New York Times , 26 November 1947.

Agee, James, in Time (New York), 15 December 1947.

Winnington, Richard, in News Chronicle (London), 20 December 1947.

Powell, Dilys, in Sunday Times (London), 21 December 1947.

Brion, Patrick, and Jean-Louis Comolli, interview with Tourneur, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), August 1966.

Duboeuf, Pierre, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), April 1967.

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Flinn, Tom, in Velvet Light Trap (Madison, Wisconsin), no. 10, 1973.

Place, J. A., and L. S. Peterson, "Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir," in Film Comment (New York), January-February 1974.

Farber, Stephen, "The Society: Violence and the Bitch Goddess," in Film Comment (New York), November-December 1974.

"Film Noir Issue" of Film Reader (Evanston, Illinois), no. 3, 1978.

Black, Louis, in Cinema Texas Program Notes (Austin), 15 March 1978.

Kerr, Paul, "Out of What Past? Notes on the "B" Film Noir," in Screen Education (London) Autumn-Winter 1979–80.

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Harvey, John, "Out of the Light: An Analysis of Narrative in Out of the Past ," in Journal of American Studies , no. 18, 1984.

Out of the Past
Out of the Past

Turner, George, in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), March 1984.

Camera/Stylo (Paris), May 1986.

Deutelbaum, Marshall, " The Birth of Venus and the Death of Romantic Love in Out of the Past ," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 15, no. 3, 1987.

Schwager, J., " The Past Rewritten," in Film Comment (New York), January-February 1991.

Maxfield, J. F., " Out of the Past: The Private Eye as Tragic Hero," in New Orleans Review , no. 3–4, 1992.

Gross, L., "Baby, I Don't Care," in Sight and Sound (London), vol. 7, September 1997.

Orr, C., "Genre Theory in the Context of the Noir and Post-Noir Film," in Film Criticism (Meadville, Pennsylvania), vol. 22, no. 1, 1997.

* * *

Though his filmmaking career spanned over 30 years and two continents, the name of Jacques Tourneur is still encountered chiefly in discussions of the Val Lewton unit at RKO, where Tourneur directed Cat People , I Walked with a Zombie , and The Leopard Man , the first two (at least) distinguished and distinctively poetic contributions to the horror film genre which has its roots in European folklore and the literature of English and German Romanticism. Even his auteurist partisans generally agree that Tourneur's gift for mise-enscène was nourished by and flourished in the collaborative atmosphere Lewton established; Tourneur's subsequent career, apart from Lewton, exhibits a hit-or-miss pattern which seems to confirm that Tourneur was more than usually dependent upon his collaborators for inspiration.

The great exception to the "Lewton" rule is Out of the Past , produced by Warren Duff from a script by Daniel Mainwaring, adapted from his 1946 novel Build My Gallows High . Whether the exception proves or disproves the rule is probably beyond settlement. The film's exceptionally complicated structure, part flashback narration, part linear narrative, argues for the importance of the scriptwriter; the film's sustained pattern of self-reflexive visual metaphors argues powerfully on behalf of Tourneur as metteur-en-scène. In any event, there is little dispute that the particular combination of talents displayed in Out of the Past —significant among them the iconic screen presences of Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, and Jane Greer— resulted in a distinguished contribution to another genre tradition, film noir , for which Out of the Past has become, especially since its remake as Against All Odds , a primary measure of excellence and source of resonance.

Latter-day (often feminist) analyses of film noir often assume that representational style can be taken to oppose or undermine the "male" vantage point typical of the genre. Many films noir , for example, are presented as flashback narratives of a voice-over (and sometimes on-screen) narrator; the middle sections of Out of the Past are often cited here. And even those films which eschew the direct representation of a point of view are presented, as it were, "over the shoulder" of a central male identification figure, typically the hard-bitten detective. A surprising number of films noir are nevertheless readable as "female centered" at the level of film style, the camera favoring the central woman even while the story favors male agency. Style and narrative are thus read as opposing each other at the level of interpretation in a manner analogous to the deadly conflict of male and female which tends to motivate the sex and money intrigues typical of noir .

The degree to which Tourneur's camera centers on and favors the Jane Greer character (Kathie Moffat) in Out of the Past has been elaborately and convincingly documented by Marshall Deutelbaum. Though at various times both Jeff Markham (Mitchum) and Whit Sterling (Douglas) assume Kathie is theirs to control or "protect," what each discovers is that Kathie's power is the greater. Indeed, Jeff and Whit repeatedly agree on deals which seek to undo or retrieve the past—to retrieve Kathie after she shoots Whit, to retrieve incriminating tax records, to assign blame to Kathie for the death of Jeff's expartner—yet every attempt to undo the past only does it over again. And Kathie's importance as a figure of repetition is underlined in Tourneur's mise-en-scène by an elaborate series of visual allusions to Botticelli's Birth of Venus which serves to cast Kathie in the Venus role, god-like in her power, though perpetually (if imperfectly) "framed" by male views of her.

This association of Kathie with "frames" and "framing" has several important consequences. One is to call attention to Kathie's status as a screen, as something to look at. The issue is first raised when Jeff questions Sterling about his motives for wanting Kathie back after she had shot him. Surrounded by framed paintings and other art objects, Whit responds: "I just want her back; when you see her you'll understand better." And Jeff's first sight of Kathie, coming after several days spent seated at a cafe table across the street from a local Acapulco cinema house, catches her walking into the darkness of the cafe through the sun-bright and screen-shaped entryway, as if she were walking off the screen and into Jeff's life. And later, when Jeff and Fisher duke it out at Jeff and Kathie's hide-out cabin, Tourneur frames the battle as a dance of shadows playing across Kathie's enigmatic, screen-like features.

The temptation to see Kathie as a receptive screen should not blind us, however, to the degree of her agency, to the sense in which she actively takes on the attributes directed at her. And the world she mirrors (frames) in her actions and gestures is the male world of financial power and masculine brutality typified by the aptly named Whit Sterling. Early on Kathie's black maid reports that Whit was in the habit of battering Kathie about; when Whit closes his last deal with Jeff (agreeing to trade Kathie to the cops in exchange for the tax documents) he again resorts to battery and death-threats to enforce his will, to erase the past by rewriting it. But Kathie deconstructs Whit's project by rewriting her own past, shooting Whit a second time, and ordering Jeff to accompany her to Mexico to pick up their romantic idyl more or less where they had left off.

And just like Whit's, Kathie's last power-gesture is fatal. Just like Kathie, who in first fleeing Whit left an unmistakable trail for Jeff to follow, and who left her incriminating bank book behind after shooting Fisher, as if signaling a desire to be caught, so too does Jeff, suddenly in the Kathie position, the female to her male, the guy with the knitting needles just like the gal with the gun (to paraphrase one of Fisher's sexist wisecracks)—so too does Jeff call down his own destruction by calling the cops. Being "a woman" in a world of Whit Sterlings offers a choice, really no choice at all, between the stifling domesticity of Ann Miller's Bridgeport and Kathie Moffat's suicidal power play. Like Kathie, Jeff is "framed" (Tourneur even frames Jeff mise-en-abîme against a framed portrait of Kathie at one crucial point) and the frame is deadly. The only real difference between Kathie and Jeff in this regard is that he seems more fully conscious of the frame, and wills its destruction (and his own) as a gesture of revenge. Indeed, Kathie's last act effects a like revenge in confirming Jeff's membership in the cult of suicidal "femininity"; she shoves her gun into his crotch and pulls the trigger. From this male-brutal past there is only one way out.

—Leland Poague

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