A stranger arrives in a small town and knows who he is looking for. He is Joe (Paul Valentine), and he is out to find a man calling himself Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), although that is not the name he was always known by. Jeff now owns a gas station and Joe asks the deaf mute assistant there when Jeff will be back; deciding to wait, he heads for the local diner. Where is he? He's with his girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston) on a trip into the country and looking ahead to settling down with her in the future... yet it is his past that will grip him and not let go...
One of the quintessential film noirs, Out of the Past had just about every element you could hope for in the genre, from the femme fatale to the doomed hero. It was adapted from his own novel, Build My Gallows High, by Daniel Mainwaring under a pseudonym and was obviously in the long shadow of the Raymond Chandler detective novels with its out of his depth private eye protagonist and twisting, turning plot. On the subject of shadows, director Jacques Tourneur kept the appearance of the film menacing, with more darkness enveloping the characters as the story drew on.
Mitchum was accused of sleepwalking through his films quite often, but here this laconic approach seems entirely appropriate as Jeff is dragged into a nightmare he will never wake up from. The reason he is being sought by Joe is that an ex-client of his from when he was a detective wants to see him again and take up his old profession, one last time, as a "favour". The client is Whit Sterling, played by Kirk Douglas as a grinning shark of a man, perfectly polite but brimming with sinister intent. Whit had been shot and injured by his girlfriend the first time he and Jeff met, and according to him had fled South of the Border with a hefty sum of his money.
The girlfriend was Kathie Moffat, perfectly essayed by the beautiful Jane Greer as a never-to-be-trusted woman, seductively innocent on a surface that belies her wicked heart. Soon Jeff had found her in Mexico and they embarked on an affair that ended abruptly when she killed his partner while Jeff was in a scuffle with him. Betraying him, she disappeared into the night and he was left to start a new life and pray his old one never caught up with him, but as that great title portentously indicates, it's not going to be as easy as all that.
And as this happens, the sense of a noose tightening around the characters' necks grows ever more strong, which might be why Out of the Past has been overrated to some extent. The mood is so well sustained it saps the tension from the movie, and everyone seems to be walking through treacle as Jeff tries to work out - too late - exactly what the plan to frame him is. The ending is predictably littered with corpses, but the fatalism of the whole enterprise doesn't leave you reeling with shock, simply nodding and thinking, just as I suspected. It's a pity because everything is in place otherwise and the acting, the look, the dialogue, should add up. Yet the film seems lifeless, suffocated even. Music by Roy Webb.