How do you define film-noir, does it start with the look, the smoky air, the dark nights lit by a city and the people lurking in the shadows. Maybe it then becomes the story often told via narration which is full of mystery, intrigue and double crosses which make what could seem simple much more complex. Then there are the characters, the detective, the bad guy and the femme fatale all of which can't be 100% trusted. If all these things make up your definition of film noir then "Out of the Past" or "Build My Gallows High" as it is also known will be right up your street.
Now ironically "Out of the Past" starts very un film-noir like as a man stops at a gas station because he recognizes the name of the owner and inquires where he can find him. Oh there is mystery but also a touch of romance as we encounter Jeff (Robert Mitchum - Scrooged) out fishing with his girl Ann (Virginia Huston) with a tone which is as far from film-noir as you can get. But this soon becomes film noir as we discover that Jeff is wanted by a man called Whit (Kirk Douglas - It Runs in the Family) and so in the form of a lengthy flashback we discover why Whit wants Jeff as he tells Ann the truth starting with who he really is.
So this flashback sees us going back a few years and we have Jeff hired by wealthy gambler Whit to track down his girl Kathie (Jane Greer - Sinbad, the Sailor) who not only shot him but absconded with $40,000 of his money. We see Jeff track her down to Acapulco but rather than bring her back to Whit falls for her, dodging tough questions when Whit shows up just before they go on the run together to start a new life as lovers. Except things don't work out as they should, they are spotted by another detective working for Whit and in trying to lose him someone is killed. It is the reason why Jeff has been keeping a low profile working as a gas station owner under a false name in a back water town.
This leads back to the now with Jeff visiting Whit who is not only back with Kathie but wants Jeff to do another job for him as a man he trusted to handle his finances is trying to blackmail him and as Jeff owes him he wants him to steal back his tax documents. Except Jeff is suspicious and whilst he goes along with what Whit wants, which sees him go to San Francisco, he feels he is being set up for the fall. And his suspicions become true as he discovers that not only is he being set up for the earlier death but also for a second death.
That is where I am going to leave things other than to say in classic film-noir style nothing is as it first looks and this is a storyline which is full of twists and double crosses meaning that Jeff can trust no one. Whether or not he gets out of this mess all depends on whether he can work out who is manipulating who and trying to set him up. All of which is jam packed full of film-noir style from dark nights, men lurking is shadows, smoke filled rooms and pretty women that can't be trusted. And because it does become increasingly complicated it is a movie you can't take your eyes off of because there is a chance you will miss something.
Now whilst director Jacques Tourneur does a brilliant job of creating the mood and atmosphere it is Robert Mitchum who makes it so interesting to follow. Ironically Mitchum was fourth choice for the role of Jeff but he delivers it perfectly from being loved up when he first meets Kathie to being cautious and suspicious when the grinning Whit offers him another job. Talking of which Kirk Douglas in only his second movie is top notch as Whit, delivering menace behind the polite smile and in doing so making a small part so much bigger. But then you have Jane Greer as Kathie and not only is she beautiful but also someone who is so in control you just know you cannot trust her.
What this all boils down to is that "Out of the Past" is a top notch film-noir which delivers everything you expect from a film-noir and a little more. Considering it is only 97 minutes long there is a lot packed in but it all works especially the performances of Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas.