Mitchum plays Jeff Markham, a private investigator who is hired by bad guy Whit Sterling (Douglas) to find Whit's girlfriend, Kathie Moffat (Greer), who shot him and absconded with $40,000. Jeff finds Kathie but falls in love with her and elects to run away with her rather than send her back to Whit. Jeff's partner, who lost out on the payment when Jeff ran away with Kathie, tracks them down. Eventually, Jeff goes into hiding and Kathie winds up with Whit, but Whit eventually finds Jeff and demands that Jeff do another job for him. Whit wants Jeff to find and retrieve some incriminating documents—but there's a lot more going on.
Out of the Past is considered a classic Film Noir and a career highlight for Mitchum (a Mitchum bio was subtitled "Baby, I Don't Care", a quote taken from this film). Has a place on the National Film Registry.
Random trivia: When this film was remade in 1984 as Against All Oddsnote with Rachel Ward and Jeff Bridges, Jane Greer played the mother of the character she played in this film.
This film provides examples of:
- Affably Evil: Whit seems to genuinely like Jeff. He also doesn't seem particularly bothered that Kathie shot him.
- Anti-Hero: Jeff wasn't a bad guy, but he wasn't a good one either. He took on Whit's job and go get Kathie, knowing Whit meant to harm or maybe even kill her. He covered up the murder of his partner to give Kathie a chance to get away. But you have to feel for the guy, because of Ann. He really did want to leave his past behind and be with her.
- Asshole Victim: Whit, as well as Kathie.
- As You Know: At one point Jeff summarized the entire framing plot to the villains who obviously knew about it.
- Balcony Escape: Jeff enters Eels' apartment through the balcony and moves the body over to the next room in the same way.
- Betty and Veronica: Jeff winds up having to choose between scheming, murderous, but super-sexy Kathie and sweet, kind Ann.
- Black Mail: Jeff tries this on Whit to clear his name off two murders.
- Jeff's partner Fisher tries this on Jeff for part of the $40,000 but ends up dead.
- Chiaroscuro: Done in classic film-noir style, with lots of shadowy encounters.
- Clasp Your Hands If You Deceive: Whit, who is planning to frame Jeff for murder, does this while breakfasting with Jeff.
- Cleaning Up Romantic Loose Ends: The deaf guy at the gas station says to Ann that Jeff was "going away with her" in order to make it easier for Ann to move on.
- Clear My Name: Jeff tries to blackmail Whit to clear his name off of two murders he didn't commit, but the police ruin his plan.
- Deadpan Snarker: Jeff, being Mitchum. Particularly priceless is when he goes into the office of the target, and knocks the guy out as the receptionist phones in. Then he picks up the phone:Receptionist: Yeah, there's a man coming up to see you.Jeff: Forget it. (Hangs up)
- Disney Villain Death: Just when Stephanos is about to shoot Jeff in the river, The Kid pulls him down to his death with the help of his fishing line.
- Downer Ending: Kathie kills Jeff right before she's gunned down by the cops, and Ann is tricked into thinking Jeff was about to run out on her with Kathie. Though the latter might double more as a Bittersweet Ending, given how the deaf guy (and likely Jeff) knew that this was the only way for Ann to live a life of happiness free from her former boyfriend's shadow.
- Eiffel Tower Effect: Any exterior shot of San Fransisco stars the Golden Gate Bridge.
- Fallguy: Discussed and subverted. Jeff realizes that he was to be framed for two murders he didn't commit. He takes actions to prevent this from happening by blackmailing Whit, but Kathie tries to save herself from being pinned with one of the murders by killing Whit, preventing Jeff from making a deal, ultimately making it a Double Subversion.
- Femme Fatale: Let's see, lying, stealing, committing murder, using sex to get what she wants. Kathie qualifies.
- Film Noir
- Finger-Tenting: In one scene, Whit does this while having breakfast with Jeff.
- Frame-Up: Whit sends Jeff off to get some incriminating documents from Whit's lawyer, but the real plan is to murder the lawyer and frame Jeff for it. Jeff tries to warn the lawyer but he is too late.
- Hardboiled Detective: Tough, cynical Jeff is definitely this.
- The Hero Dies: Since Jeff was more of an Anti-Hero, he couldn't walk under The Hays Code.
- In Medias Res: The film picks up with Jeff keeping a low profile and operating a gas station in a small California town. He tells his new girlfriend Ann the first part of the story (looking for Kathie, then running away with her) in a long flashback.
- Kill Em All: Jeff, Kathie and Whit are killed, along with most of the supporting characters.
- Kung-Foley: The fist fight between Jeff and his blackmailing partner Fisher continues for some time, with each hit in the face emphasized by a loud "sock" — each of which would probably have rendered the recipient unconscious, and/or broken the hand of the hitter.
- Murder Is the Best Solution: Jeff's partner, who wants the $40,000, tracks Jeff and Kathie down to a cabin in the Sierras. Without even trying to make a deal, Kathie pulls out a gun and shoots him.Jeff: You didn't have to kill him!
- No Name Given: Jeff's deaf employee is merely referred to as "The Kid".
- Road Block: The movie's climax.
- Private Detective: Jeff and his partner.
- Private Eye Monologue: Jeff does this throughout the movie, first to Ann in the flashback, and later directly to the audience.
- Smoking Is Cool: Played to the hilt. In one scene, Mitchum enters a bad guy's office, punches him out, and then lights his cigarette with the lighter on the bad guy's desk. Roger Ebert, who put this film on his Great Movies List, called it "the greatest cigarette-smoking movie of all time."Ebert: There were guns in Out of the Past, but the real hostility came when Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas smoked at each other.
- Would Hit a Girl: Whit slaps his moll, Kathie, after learning she murdered a man and lied to him about it.