OUT OF THE PAST. RKO, 1947. Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Richard Webb, Steve Brodie, Virginia Huston, Paul Valentine. Screenplay by Geoffrey Homes (Daniel Mainwaring) based on his novel Build My Gallows High. Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca. Director: Jacques Tourneur.

   I recently took time out to revisit the ultimate film noir, Out of the Past, (RKO, 1947) and the book it was based on, Build My Gallows High (Morrow, 1946) by Geoffrey Homes.

   I wasted an awful lot of my precious youth reading other books by Homes, thinking on the strength of Gallows that he must be pretty good. ’Tain’t so. In fact, Homes’ book, which suffers from over-complication and a surfeit of stock characters, is perceptibly inferior to the screenplay he adapted from it.


   The film’s plot is still dense and impenetrable, but the characters are more developed and streamlined, the action is well-calculated and surprisingly stark, and though the nature of the story is quite leisurely, momentum never flags, probably thanks to director Jacques Tourneur, who learned early on in his career how to get things moving, and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, who fills the screen with some truly striking imagery.

   Interestingly, though the book Build My Gallows High is written in the third person, the movie Out of the Past is very much a first-person thing; Robert Mitchum narrates most of the first half as he recounts the story of why he has to go to Tahoe and pay a call on gang-boss Kirk Douglas. It seems years ago


Mitchum was hired to find Douglas’ runaway mistress Kathy (Jane Greer) but ended up running off with her and living happily ever etc. until she framed him for murder and ran out on him.


   Well, we’ve all had relationships like that, and all this is told voice-over by Mitchum till he arrives at Tahoe and finds Kathy there, once again sharing Douglas’ bed.

   That, as I say, is the first half. Having brought us up to date,

          (WARNING! Continued.)

the movie gets Mitchum embroiled in a blackmail scheme and involved with a second femme fatale, this one named Meta and played by Rhonda Fleming as a less-classy version of Kathy.

   For this second half of the film, there is no more voice-over, but Tourneur and Musuraca increasingly photograph Mitchum from behind or in silhouette, and they employ more subjective shots, showing events from his point of view, visually forcing us to identify with the character, though he’s no longer narrating.


   And then there’s a moment no one talks about: having been betrayed by Meta, Mitchum makes his way back to her apartment and hides there to wait for her return. The door opens and Kathy comes in, goes to the phone and identifies herself as Meta.

   Now logically, there’s no reason for her character to even be in that part of the country, but dramatically, it makes such perfect poetic sense for the two femme fatales to merge into each other that most reviewers don’t even notice.

   Mention should also be made — and here it is — of an actor named Paul Valentine [above, on the right] who plays Douglas’s sinister gofer. Smooth, balletic, and lethal, displaying an easy-going manner that never seems less than deadly, it’s an outstanding performance that should have led to bigger things. But alas, did not.