Jacques Tourneur’s riveting 1947 film noir, usually ranked as one of the best of the genre, was adapted from Daniel Mainwaring’s evocatively titled novel Build My Gallows High (published under the name Geoffrey Homes by Mainwaring, later blacklisted). Late in the film, world-weary gumshoe Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum) quotes this phrase to Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), one of the most fatale of cinema’s femmes. When he realizes she’s behind a series of murderous maneuvers that have smashed any chance of hope or happiness in his life, he looks at her and quietly remarks, “You built my gallows high, baby.” As grimly appropriate as the original title is, the changed version has its own resonance. It’s the past’s death-grip on the present that dominates this film and its doomed characters, threatening the lives of Jeff, Kathie, and the third member of what becomes a lethal triangle, wealthy gambler Whit Stirling (Kirk Douglas).
Structured as a present-tense narrative with a long flashback sequence, the film opens with Jeff hiding in an obscure town where he operates a gas station with the help of a devoted deaf teenager (Dickie Moore). Jeff has good reason to hide, as we learn. He was hired by Whit to find the “dame” who shot him and skipped for Mexico with $40,000 of his money. Jeff agrees to track her down, but when he does, she proclaims her innocence and they fall in love. His pursuit and impromptu courtship of Kathie, their brief Mexican idyll, and his betrayal of Whit comprise most of the flashback. When Jeff brings her back to California, they go into hiding. Romance ends abruptly and violently when Kathie kills Jeff’s partner, who’s discovered them. Without warning, she flees, and Jeff learns that she did indeed steal the money. In a series of dizzying double-crosses–almost too many to keep track of–Jeff attempts to stay one step ahead of Whit and Kathie, who’ve now teamed up against him.
As in many a noir, these characters seem to be in a perpetual state of flight: Jeff from Whit and Kathie, Kathie from Whit, and Whit from a turncoat accountant and the IRS. Unlike in some noirs, however, much of this drama is played out not in the customary cramped corners of a dark city but in broad daylight and natural settings. Director Jacques Tourneur follows Hitchcock’s approach in finding terror in the everyday, in this case the majestic backdrops of Lake Tahoe and Puerto Vallarta. This is not to say there aren’t recognizably dark “noir” scenes, but, again as in Hitchcock, the darkness emanates mainly from within the characters. This gives even a scene shot on a bright afternoon at a woodland river an atmosphere of bleakness and horror, when a fishing trip ends in a gruesome murder. It also shows the limits of Jeff’s world. Finished with Kathie, he falls in love with a sweet girl from the town where he’s been hiding, but while most of their scenes together are shot during the day, in natural locations, it’s clear from their nervous, almost desperate exchanges that there are stronger, darker forces that will prevent them ever coming together.
In another deviation from the noir prototype, Tourneur keeps most of the action quiet and low key, with none of the verbal and visual bombast that’s so common to the genre. While the film is beautifully shot by Nick Musuraca, the visuals are elegant and restrained, not flashy. Tourneur carries this strategy from the visual to the aural. One of his strengths is a sense of ominous quiet; he has said in interviews that he insisted his actors speak in low, normal tones, and the strategy pays off as the tension in these trapped characters builds inexorably.
Some feminist critics have denounced Out of the Past for its portrayal of Kathie Moffat as “a personification of the bitch-goddess archetype.” And in a sense, they’re right. After all, how different is she from Whit? Both are thieves and killers, yet the film “endorses” Whit far more than it does Kathie. The difference is that both Whit and Jeff have a personal code of honor they observe (if in varying degrees), a trait that Kathie seems to be missing entirely. If Jeff is the moral center of the film, even Whit shows he’s capable of personal loyalty and devotion to another when he takes Kathie back after she’s shot and robbed him. Whit’s act is more than the slavish readmittance of the alluring femme fatale into his life. It points to the kind of deep allegiance that binds these characters together. In the film, the worst crime is not stealing or even killing, but personal betrayal.
Kathie is a fascinating construct typical of the times. Like other of noir’s “deadly females” — Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy, Ann Savage in Detour — she embodies postwar fears that women, having contributed mightily to the war effort and moved into “men’s work,” might abandon the domestic sphere entirely, causing all manner of social mayhem. She’s the culmination of the self-consumed, anti-domestic, anti-social female as evoked by Stanwyck in Double Indemnity and Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven, and even the most powerful men around her can’t comprehend or control the violent forces she represents.