Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947) A stranger comes into town looking for a guy. He's not from around here. The fancy suit gives it away at a glance—city-clothes, where the jacket doesn't zip up. And the manner. Tough, not friendly. Not altogether polite. In a hurry. Plus, everybody knows everybody else in a small town like Bridgeport. And everybody knows everybody's business. Nobody asks questions because everybody already knows the answers.
But, this guy's asking for Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum). You know, Jeff, "the mysterious Jeff Bailey" who owns the local gas station. What does he want with Jeff?—he's a guy on the level. Treats people decent, even the local deaf kid (Dickie Moore). Plus, Jeff is gone for the day, out fishing with Ann Miller (Virginia Huston), who's sweet on him. Her folks don't approve, though. Neither does Jim (Richard Webb)—you know Jim, he's been trying forever. Then, Jeff came into town and Jim's been playing second fiddle ever since. And this guy's asking for Jeff.The Kid finds him while the city-guy pokes around the diner, and even though The Kid can't hear/can't speak, Jeff merely has to see him to know that something's up and the fishing has to be curtailed. The fishing in the lake, anyway. Jeff can relate. To the fish, I mean.Turns out the guy is an "old chum from old times." And he has a message for him. Whit wants to see him. In Tahoe. Jeff's not a guy to telegraph what he's thinking or say what he's thinking. "I never found out much listening to myself," he says once. But, this...this is something he left miles out of the way. And Out of the Past.Out of the Past came from a novel by Daniel Mainwaring, who used to be a private eye and a reporter before getting into pictures. He was a prolific writer of books and pictures and he was the natural go-to to adapt his novel "Build My Gallows High" (written under his pseudonym Geoffrey Homes). Humphrey Bogart read the script and liked it, but his bosses at Warner Bros. didn't. RKO bought it and were pleased enough with it to attach a good budget and a guy who knew his way around noir, Edward Dmytryk, to direct. But, there were conflicts with his schedule and so Jacques Tourneur (late of the Val Lewton horror unit) was brought in. Robert Mitchum was set to top-line and the script was punched up for him by Frank Fenton—who'd put words in Mitchum's mouth before—and James M. Cain, the godfather of noir, who'd written the novels of "The Postman Always Rings Twice," "Double Indemnity," and "Mildred Pierce." Together, these writers would craft dialog of a quality that was top-notch noir, that at its best is verbal shadow-boxing with its metaphors, its feints and jabs and dead-ends (but no knock-outs), a kind of gutter-poetry that evokes gruff chuckles or haunted thoughts.So, Jeff has an appointment in Tahoe with a thing of his past. Best to take care of the present, so he goes to see Ann, maybe for the last time, and square up accounts and speak the truth, not avoiding it, even though "some of it's going to hurt". First, she tells him that the man she knows isn't him. He's Jeff Markham, and he was a private detective at one time, who had a reputation for being smart and honest, and a partner (Steve Brodie) who was neither. He'd been brought in by a "big op"—"an operator, a gambler" named Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas, in only his third film) about "some dame (who) took four shots at him with his own .38. Made one of 'em good." Whit's only slightly wounded, but what really smarts is she took $40 G's with her when she beat feet. Her name is Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), and he wants the money back, the girl is just interest.After some digging and some hoofing, Jeff found her in Acapulco...and found her fascinating. Maybe it's the heat, or the waiting, or the anticipation, but when she walked into a bar, she walked away telling him were he might find her again...and walked away with his heart. He knew he was being a sucker, taking her side just because it was a nice place to be. And, as the waitress who works across from his future garage is given to say: "Seems like everything people ought to know, they just don't want to hear. I guess that's the big problem with the world." Jeff puts it more succinctly to Kathie: "Baby, I don't care."
"Baby, I don't care"
Famous last words. Jeff stops being smart, and he stops being honest...at least with his employer, Whit, who comes down to Acapulco to check on his progress. He doesn't tell him that he's found Kathie and that he's planning on leaving town with her that very day. They run to San Francisco, but the ends of the Earth wouldn't be far enough. He and Kathie are found by Jeff's old partner, Fisher, who tries to blackmail them for keeping quiet. Kathie shoots him, then runs out, leaving Jeff to dispose of the body. He never sees her again, and that's when he made his way to Bridgeport, to Ann, thinking he'd left his past behind.
Later, he'll say "You know, sometimes a bad memory is like what they call an ill wind. It can blow somebody luck." He doesn't specify whether it's good or bad. But, he leaves Ann to drive back to Bridgeport while he walks in to confront his past, too much of it, it turns out, knowing full well that it may doom his future. His talk starts to turn fatalistic, as he's led through a series of traps, trying to get ahead of it, but, seemingly, with his back always against something, hiding in the shadows trying to see his way to the light. But, he knows that this journey began with a bad step and like he told Kathie once "You're going to find it easy to take me anywhere." Even against his better judgment.Out of the Past is one of the definitive film noir films, if not the epitome of the genre. But, it's not the world, or the machinations of the Universe, that's bad here, it's people, and how their influences on the world can drag you down, throw you off-course, even if you're smart, even if you're honest, even if you want a better life. It's your choices under their influence that make the difference and once you've made them, you can't escape them, whether physically or mentally. Past is prologue goes the saying, attached like a chain that binds you to it, and from which there is no escape, despite your best intentions. And no matter how nostalgic you may feel about them, it's best to not revisit old haunts.That's why the ending to the film is so good. A lot of would-be film noirs will "cop out" the ending, tacking on the glimmer of hope, a way to redemption, and a warm hug. Out of the Past does that, but stays true to its cautionary theme, providing a moment of wisdom and of grace, a gift that jettisons the past and makes a clean start, free of regret. It deliberately brings hope and the good luck that an ill wind could toss. Mourning the past never did anybody any good. Leaving it behind and running towards the future is always the best path.