Out of the Past
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FAQ Contents

The following FAQ entries may contain spoilers. Only the biggest ones (if any) will be covered with spoiler tags. Spoiler tags have been used sparingly in order to make the page more readable.

For detailed information about the amounts and types of (a) sex and nudity, (b) violence and gore, (c) profanity, (d) alcohol, drugs, and smoking, and (e) frightening and intense scenes in this movie, consult the IMDb Parents Guide for this movie. The Parents Guide for Out of the Past can be found here.

Yes. The movie was adapted by American novelist Daniel Mainwaring (using the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes) from his 1946 novel Build My Gallows High. The movie was originally released in Britain under that title. Out of the Past was subsequently remade as Against All Odds (1984).

Roger Ebert writes:

Film noir is known for its wise-guy dialogue, but the screenplay for "Out of the Past" reads like an anthology of one-liners. It was based on the 1946 novel Build My Gallows High by "Geoffrey Homes," a pseudonym for the blacklisted Daniel Mainwaring, and the screenplay credit goes to Mainwaring, reportedly with extra dialogue by James M. Cain.

But the critic Jeff Schwager read all versions of the screenplay for a 1990 Film Comment article, and writes me: "Mainwaring's script was not very good, and in one draft featured awful voice-over narration by the deaf-mute. Cain's script was a total rewrite and even worse; it was totally discarded. The great dialogue was actually the work of Frank Fenton, a B-movie writer whose best known credit was John Ford's 'Wings of Eagles.'"

- rogerebert.com

No official explanation was offered as to why the novel, Build My Gallows High, was changed to Out of the Past for the movie. Because the "gallows" is the frame which from a person is strung up for hanging, the general consensus is that a title with the word "gallows" conveys the idea of a western, which this movie is not.

Ex-detective now gas station owner in the small town of Bridgeport, California, Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), is approached by previous acquaintance Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine), both once employees of rich gangster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). Five years ago, Whit hired Jeff to find and bring back his girlfriend, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who had shot him and absconded to Alcapulco with $40,000. Jeff found Kathie but fell in love with her and they ran off together until Jeff finally recognized Kathie for the icy and calculating manipulator that she really was. Now Whit has another job for Jeff. He wants Jeff to recover some incriminating tax files and, in doing so, he will release Jeff from his debt. Jeff soon realizes, however, that he's being framed for murder.

$40,000 in 1947 is equivalent to about $440,000 today.

Attorney Leonard Eels (Ken Niles) is in possession of Whit's tax records. Eels' secretary, Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming), invites Jeff to meet her at Eels' apartment under the guise that she is Jeff's cousin and they're going to a party together. While in Eels' apartment, Jeff is offered a drink, leaving his fingerprints on the glass. Jeff and Meta leave together, then Joe Stephanos kills Eels while Meta goes to the office and gets the records from the files. Kathie, posing as Meta, telephones the super of Eels' apartment building, asking him to check on Eels because he's not answering his phone. The plan is for the super to find Eels' body, the police to find Jeff's fingerprints, and Whit to get back his tax records. The only fly in the ointment is that Jeff gets there first and hides Eels' body before anyone can find it.

Jeff was supposedly after an affidavit that Eels was holding. The affidavit was Kathie's signed statement that it was Jeff who murdered his partner Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie), because he located them when they were in hiding together.

Since the affidavit accusing Jeff of the murders was still tucked away in Eels' safe, the press could not have known about it unless they were tipped off. Most viewers, at least the ones who don't conclude that it's a goof, conclude that it was Kathie who tipped them off, as she is the only one to profit by having both Whit and Jeff out of the way. However, another possibility is that, because the police find Eels' body and get to his office first, they also find the affidavit in the safe, believe its contents, and issue a statement to the press.

Jeff hesitates because he has tipped off the police, and wants them to have time to set up the roadblock. He pretends that the car won't start by not adjusting the choke, which adjusts the car's air/fuel mixture. However, Kathie is knowledgeable enough to adjust the choke for him. At that point Kathie is suspicious that Jeff is up to something, since Jeff should know that the car just needed to have the choke adjusted. Back in the 40s, when this movie was filmed, most cars had a choke that needed to be pulled out or pushed in to help start the car.

There are three modes of thought about the answer to that question. One is that The Kid didn't lie and knew that Jeff really did decide to go away with Kathie...to their deaths. Another is that The Kid didn't know what really happened but suspected that Jeff was intending to go away with Kathie. Most viewers, however, go with the third possibility: that The Kid simply told Ann "Yes" so that she could go on with her life and leave the past behind...something that Jeff was unable to do but would most likely have wanted for her.

Jeff makes a deal with Whit...the tax records for the affidavit. He also informs Whit that Joe is dead, that Joe killed Eels, and that Kathie killed Fisher, things that Whit seems to know nothing about. After Jeff leaves, Whit slaps Kathie and tells her that, from now on, she's going to play everything his way or he'll kill her. When Jeff returns to Whit's house, he finds Whit lying dead on the living room floor. Kathie announces to Jeff that she's calling the shots now or she'll testify that it was he who killed them all...Fisher, Eels, Joe, and Whit. What she really wants, however, is to go back to Mexico and start all over...with Jeff. Jeff agrees to go with her because "we deserve each other." While Kathie is upstairs packing her bags and getting some money, Jeff makes a phone call, then they drive off together to meet a plane that Kathie has waiting. Suddenly, they come up against a police roadblock. "You dirty, double-crossing rat!" Kathie screams at Jeff. She pulls a gun out of her briefcase and shoots him in the abdomen. The police then open fire on the car, killing both Kathie and Jeff, and the car plows head-on into the roadblock -- a truck and a police car. In the final scene, Jeff's girlfriend Ann Miller (Virginia Huston) is leaving the funeral on the arm of policeman Jim (Richard Webb), who has been in love with Ann since they were children. Ann walks across the street to Jeff's gas station in order to speak with Jeff's deaf and mute attendant, known only as "The Kid" (Dickie Moore). Was Jeff going away with Kathie, Ann asks. The Kid nods, "Yes." Wordlessly, Ann returns to Jim, and they drive off together in his patrol car. The Kid salutes Jeff's name on the gas station placard and smiles.

Viewers of Out of the Past have mentioned other movies that use the "Acapulco scenario," where a PI is hired to find a woman, falls in love with her, and then reports back that he failed to locate her. In The Lady from Shanghai (1947), a guy is hired to look after a woman on a yacht, but he falls in love with her and winds up being double-crossed. There's Something About Mary (1998) is a comedy in which a guy hires a detective to find his high school sweetheart, but the detective ends up falling in love with her, too. A History of Violence (2005) is about a man much like Jeff...a man living a lie and hiding it from his girl, when a stranger from his past shows up and drags him back to the mob boss he used to work for, and he also gets double crossed. In Body Heat (1981), a manipulative, calculating woman like Kathie also leads an unsuspecting man to his doom. Other film noirs that have been likened to Out of the Past include The Big Sleep (1946) and Ace in the Hole (1951), and Against All Odds (1984).


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