Pulp Corner: Out Of The Past

I’ve been shying away from reviewing a lot of the classics of the film noir genre. Part of the problem is when I sit down to watch a movie; I almost always pick one I haven’t watched before rather than an old favorite. There’s just too many movies out there I still haven’t seen. The Warner Brothers Archive released Out Of The Past on Blu-Ray for the first time a few weeks ago and I figured now was as good a time as any.

b70-9896Out Of The Past is considered a classic of the genre. 1941’s The Maltese Falcon may set the guidelines but it’s Out Of The Past that defines them. It has almost every hallmark that goes into a noir. The private detective main character, the beautiful and deadly femme fatale, narration, extensive flashbacks, heavy use of shadows, hard boiled dialogue, a bleak tone and dark undercurrent pulling at the main characters.  Most noir leads are doomed almost from the outset. In this case the movie begins with another hallmark of noir someone who’s reformed being visited by a figure from their shady past only to suck them back in.

In this case Robert Mitchum portrays are main character, Jeff Bailey who owns a gas station in nowheresville California. The movie starts off with such an upbeat musical score with him in the arms of his lady love high in the Sierra Mountains. You would never dream anything could go wrong. Cue a man dressed to the nines in all black rolling into town to pay Jeff a visit. This is Joe Stephanos, we find out very quickly he and Jeff have a history.

Stephanos very succinctly lets him know that his employer Whit Sterling (played by a terrifyingly electric Kirk Douglas in his second movie) requires his presence in Tahoe. Bailey knowing he has to go and drives with his girlfriend and via flashback fills her in on his past life. A former private detective in NYC, Bailey and his partner were hired by a wealthy gangster (Sterling) to find his girlfriend Kathie. Apparently, Kathie recently shot Whit and disappeared with $40,000. “Some dame had taken four shots at him with his own .38 and made one of them good”.


The story continues and we watch Bailey tail Kathie to Mexico and then helplessly fall in love with her. “And then I saw her, coming out of the sun, and I knew why Whit didn’t care about that forty grand”. She convinces him she never stole the money from Whit, but Bailey doesn’t seem to care either way. They decide to buck the odds and disappear together into San Francisco. It all goes well, until Jeff’s old partner shows up and Kathie shoots him for dead and run outs. Leaving him with a corpse and a bank book revealing she did indeed have Whit’s $40,000.


The story catches up to the present where Whit needs Jeff’s services again (since he screwed him over originally) and brings Kathie back into the fold. What follows is a labyrinth of double crosses murder and revenge that rivals the Big Sleep’s complexity and confusion. Yet it never really matters, it’s the fun of getting there and watching it unravel.

Mitchum has never been better as the cool, laconic private eye. You don’t see him get frustrated or fly off the handle when he’s wrapped up in these insane situations (part of that might be Mitchum’s legendary weed habit) never breaking a sweat or his stride no matter what. When he is angry it’s a calm and controlled sleepy-eyed anger which in a way is almost scarier. It plays out as an interesting dynamic since he has such a hulking frame but he’s so relaxed.


For my money though, it’s Kirk Douglas that steals the show. He owns every scene he’s in. As Whit Sterling he exudes sliminess as soon as you see his million dollar smile and expensive suit. (In fact, I have a theory that he’s actually Roger Sterling from Mad Men’s father. Think about it). Many of the more memorable scenes throughout the film involve his verbal sparring with Mitchum. It’s a like a contest of iron wills wrapped up in subtlety and linguistics. Roger Ebert noted in his review that “Mitchum and Douglas smoked at each other” throughout the film. Indeed you will likely never see more cigarettes smoked in a 97 minute running time than in Out Of The Past.


The dialogue is what helps elevate this movie to another level of Noir, it has some of the best and most memorable lines of the genre. Not to mention its biting humor sets it apart. Lines like:

Kathie Moffat: I’m sorry he didn’t die.
Jeff Bailey: Give him time.

Jeff Bailey: Let’s go down to the bar. You can cool off while we try to impress each other.

Kathie Moffat: Oh, Jeff, I don’t want to die!
Jeff Bailey: Neither do I, baby, but if I have to I’m gonna die last.

Ann Miller: She can’t be all bad. No one is.
Jeff Bailey: Well, she comes the closest.

Kathie Moffat: Oh Jeff, you ought to have killed me for what I did a moment ago.
Jeff Bailey: [dryly] There’s time.

Jeff Bailey: You can never help anything, can you? You’re like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another.

This is only scratching the surface, there are just so many.


The new Blu-Ray looks outstanding and was worth the wait. So if you’ve never seen this movie and you’re thinking about giving it a try or worried about the Blu-Ray transfer or whatever, now is the time. Pick it up, mix yourself a drink and indulge in some fine noir. You’ll be happy you did.

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About Biff Tannen

Film Noir, Pulp, Comic Books and Hitchcock.

Posted on September 12, 2014, in Features, Movies, Pulp Corner, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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