Out of the Past
Filling in the gaps
If you’re anything like me and you’ve seen the 1947 movie with Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas, called “Out of the Past“, you think of it as one of the best of its kind, from an era when making good movies seemed to come easy. You’ve probably watched the thing through more than once, and each time you do, you wind up admiring the mood, the style, the characterizations, the dialog, and the acting; but as turns out to be true of quite a few other films of that time and nature, the plot’s sufficiently complicated that when it’s all over and done, you come away dissatisfied with how much of what was going on you actually understood.
I finally got around to reading the book the movie was based on (Geoffrey Homes’ “Build My Gallows High”), and I took account of the similarities and differences (all to the screenplay’s advantage, it seems to me) and re-watched the last half hour. Having done all that, I’m pretty sure I understand everything of importance. In particular I discovered that there are four scenes that take place in the last 35 minutes of the movie, all of whose implications could have been made clearer with just a few minutes of additional dialogue. Lacking the ability to have that done, I offer the following.
DON’T READ WHAT FOLLOWS IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE.
It’ll only be of interest if you were as stumped by the plot as I was.
Scene 1. Immediately after the encounter between Jeff and Lou at the Sterling Club, where Jeff agrees to give Lou the contents of Eels’ briefcase (the income tax documents) in exchange for Kathie’s affidavit about the killing of Fisher, there’s a scene probably not more than half a minute long, where we see Jeff standing in the shadows.
He’s watching the entrance to the Mason Building, where Eels had his office and where the safe is located from which Meta had earlier stolen Eels’ briefcase and into which she’d put Kathie’s affidavit. Jeff is waiting for Lou to show up to retrieve the affidavit, presumably with Meta’s help in opening the safe. (In the book but not the movie, Joe Stephanos had clubbed Meta to death, and it was her scream that led the police to search Eels’ apartment, find Eels’ and Meta’s bodies, and induce the cops to head to Eels’ office).
A police car shows up. A cop gets out accompanied by Tillotson, the manager of the apartment building where Eels lived. The two men go into the Mason building. Another car arrives a moment later, containing Lou, his henchman, and Meta. Seeing the police already on the scene, Lou drives on without stopping. The next thing we know Jeff is back in Bridgeport.
What we’re supposed to understand is the following. After his meeting with Jeff, Lou did immediately head for the Mason building to get the affidavit. By some means Eels’ body had been found in the meantime though, and Tillotson accompanied one of the policemen to Eels’ office nearby, and they happened to get there just before Lou did. The consequences of all this are that Lou can’t make good on his planned swap of documents with Jeff, and the police will (and in fact subsequently do) open Eels’ office safe and find the affidavit attributing the killing of Fisher to Jeff and supplying Jeff with a motive for killing Eels. When the contents of the affidavit are made known, Jeff becomes the prime suspect in two murders. Having witnessed the arrival of the cops and then of Lou, Jeff takes in all these implications in the blink of an eye; and in spite of the fact that Bridgeport is the first place the police are likely to look for him, he goes there anyway. He wants to see his girlfriend, we suppose, and he’s familiar enough with the surrounding countryside to camp out in the hills in relative security. Mostly though he has to arrange a get-together with Whit at Lake Tahoe, and he knows he can rely on The Kid to help him set that up.
Scene 2. Jeff goes to the meeting The Kid’s arranged, in order to propose a deal in which Whit will give Jeff $50,000 and see to it that the killing of Eels gets pinned on Joe and the killing of Fisher on Kathie, in exchange for the tax documents Jeff still has. (In the context of the story, the two of them take it for granted that Whit can control who gets blamed for the murders!) In the course of their conversation Jeff tells Whit that Joe is dead from a fall into the river. They both realize that Joe had set out to kill Jeff, but that he couldn’t have been doing it at Whit’s instigation since Whit needed Jeff alive at least until Whit got his tax documents back. Kathie happens to be present, and she realizes Whit suspects her of putting Joe up to the deed, so she tells him that Joe’d been acting on his own. After Jeff leaves, Whit slaps Kathie and threatens her. He’s clearly under the impression that she and Joe had been working against his purposes in retrieving the tax documents, in order to protect themselves against possible murder charges.
Scene 3. Jeff returns to Whit’s place at Lake Tahoe for the $50,000 he’d been promised. He comes across Whit’s dead body. Kathie coolly admits she shot the man and took the cash intended for Jeff. With Whit dead, she points out, there’s nobody Jeff can deal with any more except herself; and she could be a convincing witness against him if she chose to. She proposes the two of them go off to a life together in Mexico with the money she’s appropriated. Jeff appears to accept her idea, if grudgingly.
While Kathie retrieves her suitcase from her room, Jeff unobtrusively reaches for the telephone. When Kathie returns, he stalls for time by offering her a drink, then he has trouble starting the car, but Kathie promptly fixes the problem and they’re off.
Just a little way down the road, they see that the police have managed to get a roadblock set up in front of them. Kathie realizes that, in spite of the fact that he’d had to put himself at the risk of being held for two murders, Jeff chose to call the police from Whit’s place to make sure she didn’t get away. Under the circumstances, what would we expect Kathie to do? Keep in mind this is a woman who’d shot Whit several years earlier and he’d survived only by chance. Later she’d shot and killed Fisher. Recently she’d collaborated in the murder of Eels with the intention of getting Jeff blamed for it, and she’d instigated or at least acquiesced in Joe’s attempt to kill Jeff. Just within the last few hours, she’d shot Whit to death. She seems to be following her instincts then, when she reaches into her suitcase, pulls out a gun and shoots Jeff while he’s driving their car at 50 miles an hour along the mountain road.
Scene 4. Back in Bridgeport Jim tries to console Jeff’s girlfriend, Ann. He promises not to talk about what’s happened and he invites the girl, whom he’s obviously in love with, just to go for a drive with him. Ann can’t bring herself to go with Jim though. She has to be alone. She starts to walk away, then sees The Kid sitting by Jeff’s gas station.
She admits to The Kid that he undoubtedly knew Jeff better than anybody else did, and she asks him if Jeff would indeed have gone off with his former love, Kathie. The Kid takes a moment to think about it, then shakes his head yes: he would have. Ann then stands up and makes her way over to Jim’s car while The Kid looks at Jeff’s name on the sign behind him and salutes, acknowledging he’d done what he thinks Jeff would have wanted him to do: lie about Jeff’s intentions in order to spare Ann a lifetime of regret over losing Jeff through his death.