Out Of The Past (1947), is widely recognized as one of the best of movies in the film noir genre. Fine acting, striking cinematography and an engaging story line all add up to make it a must see. The film’s biggest strength may well be its cast, which includes Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas. Often times the strength of a movie lies in its antagonist. Kirk Douglas as Whit Sterling proves to be a worthy antagonist to Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey and Greer’s Kathie Moffatt.
For the bulk of Out of the Past the main characters are fearful of Whit Sterling. It is never explained how Whit earned this reputation. Kathie Moffat spends a portion of the movie on the run from him. She shoots Whit and flees to Mexico thinking that she has killed him. After she meets Jeff Bailey she tells him that she hates Whit, but does not say why.
When Jeff is summoned by Joe Stefanos, one of Whit’s henchmen, he goes to see Whit without hesitation. Joe innocently stumbles upon Jeff in the midst of his new life. Jeff thought that his past was behind him, yet he seems compelled to go to see Whit knowing it is not in his best interest. He knows that if he refuses, Whit will never stop looking for him. Jeff is an extremely nonchalant character. His outward demeanor is cool and calm, in front of Whit. Inwardly he is fearful of Whit. Jeff is a physical presence. He is a bigger man than Whit, so the fear is not a physical one. The fear Jeff feels is due to Whit’s influence and power.
When Kathie and Jeff foolishly fall in love, their plan is to spend the rest of their lives in hiding and on the run from Whit. When Jeff’s former business partner, Jack Fisher, finds he and Kathy, she runs back to Whit. She does not go back to him out of love, but out of fear of Whit. It is better to live directly under his menace than on the run and in fear of it.
Whit Sterling spends the bulk of the movie even keel and well tempered. His speech is controlled, his appearance clean cut. He displays a sense of humor and a strong sense of confidence. In fact, he smiles throughout much of the movie. However, his is a smile that brings discomfort because there is something more, below the surface. Whit may be smiling, but he carries a quiet undercurrent of menace. He is calculating, controlling and vindictive. Perhaps his strongest traits are his pride, his persistence and his influence. At one point he states to Jeff, “I fire people, but nobody quits me.” When he can not find Jeff and Kathy he hires Jack Fisher to find them. When Fisher tracks them down he states, “You know Whit and you know how far he can reach.” Kathie shoots and kills Fisher out of fear of Whit.
As the movie progresses Kathie’s growing desperation is fueled by her fear of Whit. It is implied early in the movie that Whit is physically abusive to Kathie. Whit spends the bulk of the movie operating in a calm, nonviolent manner. It is not until the film’s final scenes that we witness the reason that Kathie is in fear of Whit. One hour and twenty two minutes into the movie we witness Whit’s menace. Whit, in the calmest manner possible, approaches Kathie. His next action, a brief but explosive act of violence, is as much a shock to the audience as it is to Kathie. It is Whit’s next move that truly terrifies her. His verbal lashing of Kathie demonstrates that a great deal of Whit’s menace is psychological. Kathie ultimately ends Whit’s life not because of what he has already done to her. She is in fear of the things that he may do to her. The fear of the unknown, not knowing when, where or how Whit will get her is what powers Kathie’s murderous action.
Out Of The Past is must see viewing for fans of film noir and fans of fine movie making. Kirk Douglas spends a great deal of the movie unseen, yet his presence looms large throughout. In some way, shape or form he controls the actions of the main players in the film. His quiet menace hovers over the movie. For much of the movie there is no reason given as to why everyone is in fear of this man. The fact that everyone fears him is enough for us as viewers to accept this reality. This is a testament to the film’s director, Jacques Tourneur, and the acting abilities of a young, up and coming Kirk Douglas.