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“Out of the Past” reveals film-noir perfection

Updated: Jun 15, 2022


Robert Mitchum plays service station owner Jeff Bailey, a former New York cool-headed private eye. He and his girlfriend Ann Miller (Virginia Huston) head to Lake Tahoe and during the trip, he tells her about his past.

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Blu-ray, 1947, unrated

Best extra: An in-depth commentary with author James Ursini

SELECTED A NATIONAL treasure and registered by the Library of Congress, this film noir classic has it all.

Exhibit A: A double-crossing – no, a triple-crossing, maybe even a quadruple-crossing dame played by the glamorous Jane Greer (Kathie Moffat).

Exhibit B: A private eye with a trench coat, always a cigarette in-hand, played by cool-headed Robert Mitchum (Jeff Bailey).

Exhibit C: Stark black-and-white photography orchestrated by director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, a master of shadow and light, who abandoned Hollywood's back lot to film in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, using San Francisco for their backdrop.

Opening credits roll over a series of picturesque scenes, then stop on a road sign in the middle of nowhere: Los Angeles 349, Bishop 76, Lake Tahoe 78, Reno 98 and Bridgeport 1.

(1&2) The RKO production was filmed in and around Bridgeport, California, a small town within the Sierra Nevada Mountains. (3) Jeff has been fishing and meets Anne at a small Sierra lake. (4) Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine), an errand boy of gangster Whit Sterling has tracked down Jeff Bailey. Jeff's real name is Markham and Sterling wants to see Jeff at his lavish Lake Tahoe home.


From the backseat of a convertible, we watch a mysterious driver – hired gun, Joe Stephanos – cruise down quiet Bridgeport, Calif. (Orson Welles stole this perspective for his border town film noir, "Touch of Evil"; so did Steven Soderbergh in "Ocean's Eleven," with Brad Pitt behind the wheel beside partner George Clooney.) Stephanos pulls into a small gas station, where a sign, 'Jeff Bailey,' hangs above. Garbed in black, Stephanos, errand boy of gangster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas in his second movie), shouts out, "Where's Bailey?"

We soon realize trouble has found Jeff Bailey – dragging him back to his past.

This thriller unfolds as Bailey tells his sweetheart Ann (Virginia Huston) about his past. He starts by admitting his real name is Jeff Markham, once a New York detective hired by Sterling to find his lover, Kathie Moffat, who shot Sterling with his own .38. She wounded him, then skipped town with $40,000 of his money. Jeff asks Sterling if he wants the money back and is told, "No, I just want her back. When you see her, you'll understand better." The gangster offers Markham $5,000 upfront and more on her return. Plus expenses.

Jeff says," Now, that should have been the first thing you said."

Jeff tells Ann how the search led him to Acapulco, where he fell under Kathie's spell. Then Sterling and Stephanos showed up, just before the couple was to split for San Francisco. Jeff lies, telling them Kathie's trail has gone cold.

Once in The City by the Bay, the lovers stay low for a while, but are spotted at the racetrack by Jeff's old partner, Fisher. He follows them to a cabin, where Kathie kills him, leaving Jeff to mop up the mess. In her dash to escape, Jeff finds her bank book with a $40,000 deposit, the money she denied taking.

Back in the present – in Tahoe – Ann drops Jeff off, and who does he find back in Sterling's crib? Kathie. She's told Sterling about their love affair – and now the gangster has a new job for Jeff: Get his financial records from a blackmailing accountant in San Francisco before the IRS gets them. Nothing good can come from this.

(1) The story picks up three years earlier. Kirk Douglas in only his second film plays gangster Whit Sterling and hires New York private eye Markham and his partner Fisher (Steve Brodie) to find his girlfriend, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer). (2&3) The search leads Jeff to Mexico City and then to Acapulco where he falls under Kathie's spell.

(1-3) Jeff and Kathie become lovers and head to San Francisco, where they stay under the radar for several months. Fisher who was to receive half of the money for Kathie's return tracks the couple to a remote cabin and threatens Jeff. A fight ensues and Kathie calmly kills Fisher.


"Out of the Past" is filled with snappy one-liners. The script circulated between a number of uncredited writers, with Frank Fenton providing sophisticated dialogue right up there with "Casablanca" and Howard Hawks' "The Big Sleep." During the commentary, author James Ursini tells how "Out of the Past" changed Mitchum's career from playing mostly good-guys (he earned an Oscar nomination for the World War II docudrama, "Story of G.I. Joe," 1945) into an actor who could take on Hollywood's darkest roles as in films like "The Night of the Hunter" and the original "Cape Fear."


The Warner Archive Blu-ray imagery (1.37:1 aspect ratio) is nearly flawless, mostly mastered from the original camera negative. Its sharpness is blemished only by a couple of instances where a second-generation print was used to fill in gaps. Black levels are deep, deep black with a full range of grays for mid-tones and whites for highlights. The soundtrack is straight forward mono, pulled from the center speaker.

Mystery lovers, you're going to enjoy this one. Get this American classic for your collection.

― Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer

(1) Present Day: Ann Miller drops Jeff off at the front gate of Whit Sterling's mansion. (2) He finds double-crossing Kathie back with Whit. (3) Jeff is pressured to take another job, this time to retrieve tax documents that Whit claims are being used by a San Francisco lawyer, to blackmail him. Nothing goes as planned and there's more violence. (4) The next morning Jeff Bailey is a wanted man and makes the headlines in the Bridgeport newspaper as Ann and her parents read the news.


(1-3) A final showdown between Jeff and Kathie ends up at a California Highway Patrol roadblock.

Ann asks Jeff's service station attendant The Kid (Dickie Moore) the truth about Jeff's love for Kathie. "Was he going away with her?"





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