Connect with us
Film Noir Out of the Past
Image: RKO Radio Pictures


Revisiting Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past

— A guy without a fortune! A girl with too much past!

Out of the Past asks whether a man can escape his future…

I never saw her in the daytime. We seemed to live by night. What was left of the day went away like a pack of cigarettes you smoked. I didn’t know where she lived. I never followed her. All I ever had to go on was a place and time to see her again. I don’t know what we were waiting for. Maybe we thought the world would end.”

In Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the PastJeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) owns a gas station, in a small California town. He has been courting local girl, Ann (Virginia Huston), despite the disapproval of her parents. Out of nowhere, Jeff’s past comes knocking in the form of a henchman, who orders Jeff to meet with gangster, Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). Forced to reveal his true past to Ann, Jeff tells her about his former love Kathie – the kind of woman no man should trust.

Can a man truly ever escape his past? Out of the Past grapples with this question by interconnecting Jeff’s past, present, and future in non-linear fashion. The film begins with Jeff in the present. He hopes to have a future with Ann. Yet soon, Jeff’s future relies on whether or not he can deal with his past. With the introduction of Whit and Kathie, it is clear that Jeff has been stuck in limbo for three years (his temporal present), waiting to see if his time with Kathie and his betrayal of Whit would catch up with him.

Image: RKO Radio Pictures

The film continues to answer this question of escaping the past with smaller details. The first is the introduction of Joe Stephanos (Paul Valentine), who randomly sees and recognizes Jeff working at the gas station. The implication is that Jeff will always have the same face. He cannot run away from this. Ann’s mistrustful parents also play a small role. Although they are never seen, their distrust of his behavior and past foreshadow Jeff’s inability at redemption. Finally, Jeff’s involvement with Kathie is key.  Femme fatales drag men down with them, whether they like it or not. They are not something male protagonists can ever physically or psychologically (or both) escape from.

However, Out of the Past’s message about escape is more complicated, when taken into the context of 1940s Hollywood. Jeff’s past is his undoing because he has been involved in murder. No criminal – however unimportant – can get away, unpunished, with anything in code era Hollywood. Despite the fact that Jeff has seemingly reformed and owns an honest business, his involvement in his partner’s murder and his betrayal of Whit (though Whit is also not an honest man) are still black marks against him. His association with Whit and Kathie’s corrupt world also drags him back in. Furthermore, it is unclear what Jeff has done in the past, as a private eye. The fact that he has worked for Whit shows that his morals used to be second to his love of cash. When it comes time for justice to be made, Jeff cannot escape this.

Image: RKO Radio Pictures

Whatever Jeff has done, he is nothing if not a sympathetic character. Most of his involvement with Whit and Kathie deals with Kathie’s lies and betrayal of him. At the same time, Kathie is one of the most sympathetic femme fatales. Her hatred of Whit and wanting a new future are not unlike Jeff’s desire for a fresh start with Ann. The only difference are Kathie’s methods at achieving this independence from Whit. She chooses murder, while Jeff chooses to run away. If Jeff cannot escape his past, neither can Kathie.

– Karen Bacellar

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight.

Now Streaming

Written By

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.



Anti-War Anti-War

Three Bestselling Anti-War Novels, Three A-List Film Adaptations…Three Flops:  Castle Keep, Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five


Vesper poster Vesper poster

Vesper: Sci-Fi That Thinks Big With Limited Means


Unforgiven movie review Unforgiven movie review

Unforgiven Ushered the Western into its Afterlife 


Your Full List of All Upcoming Marvel Movies Your Full List of All Upcoming Marvel Movies

A Full List Of Upcoming Marvel Studios Film And TV Releases


Robocop 1987 Robocop 1987

RoboCop is a Social Satire That Gets More Relevant With Age


Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: The 10 Greatest Comic Issues Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: The 10 Greatest Comic Issues

Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: The 10 Greatest Comic Issues


Nope Nope

Jordan Peele’s Nope Explained: A Spectacle of “Bad Miracles”


Alex's War (2022) Alex's War (2022)

Alex’s War, a Documentary Study of Alex Jones, Misses the Big Picture 


Signs movie review Signs movie review

M. Night Shyamalan Signs Finds Comfort at the End of the World


All Out 2022 Predictions All Out 2022 Predictions

Way Too Early Predictions for All Out 2022


Biography: WWE Legends’ Look at Goldberg is One of the Best Wrestling Documentaries Ever 


Detective vs Sleuths Detective vs Sleuths

Detective vs. Sleuths: Buckle Up for a Bumpy Ride


Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop 1987 Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop 1987

Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop is an Anti-Fascist Classic 


Marvel at San Diego Comic-Con Marvel at San Diego Comic-Con

Marvel at San Diego Comic-Con 2022: A Full Recap


High Noon at 70: When Time is of the Essence


Bullet Train movie review Bullet Train movie review

Bullet Train Makes All the Wrong Stops