Robert Mitchum as Jeff Markham, aka Jeff Bailey, laconic gas station owner and former private detective
Bridgeport, California, to San Francisco via Lake Tahoe, Fall 1946
Film: Out of the Past
Release Date: November 25, 1947
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Costume Credit: Edward Stevenson
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Regarded among the best of classic film noir, Out of the Past showcases the genre’s quintessential elements: shadowy cinematography (thanks to Nicholas Musuraca), a story of double-cross and intrigue told in flashback, a charismatic antagonist, an alluring and ultimately deadly femme fatale, and—of course—a tough-talking, chain-smoking private eye light on words and sentiment:
Baby, I don’t care.
A native of Bridgeport, Connecticut—as opposed to Bridgeport, California—Robert Mitchum wasn’t yet 30 when production began on this adaptation of Daniel Mainwaring’s novel Build My Gallows High, which Mainwaring had adapted himself with uncredited revisions from Frank Fenton and James M. Cain. The dangerous love triangle at Out of the Past‘s core was rounded out by then-newcomer Kirk Douglas and the 22-year-old Jane Greer as the mobster and moll, respectively, from whose influence—try as he might—Mitchum can never escape.
Kathie: Can’t you even feel sorry for me?
Jeff: I’m not going to try.
What’d He Wear?
When we meet Jeff Bailey, he’s dressed down for a fishing date with Ann Miller (Virginia Huston), a surprisingly wholesome fiancee presumptive for a noir hero though—to her credit—the wide-eyed Ann seems considerably uninterested and unbothered by the circumstances of Jeff’s shady past. After all, Jeff seems to have hung up his trench coat for good, clad in a comfortable suede jacket layered over a work shirt and V-neck sweater.
A visit from gangster Joe Stefanos (Paul Valentine) is enough to bring the past crashing back and, with it, Jeff’s former identity as private eye Jeff Markham with his trademark garb of a trench coat and dark felt wide-brimmed fedora, finished with grosgrain edge binding and a dark grosgrain band.
“Ah, same guy! Time-proof, weather-proof,” the nattily attired Whit declares, greeting Jeff with a pat on his trench-coated arm before offering: “Cigarette?” (“Smoking,” Jeff answers, holding up his smoldering cigarette; Mitchum’s line was reportedly an ad-lib after Kirk Douglas had continued with the scripted offer a cigarette despite Mitchum already having one in hand.)
Whit’s simple observation of Jeff’s “weather-proof” while patting his trench-coated arm may be one of the most explicit references in classic noir to its most signature fashion staple. Indeed, Whit’s comment also addresses why Jeff would be dressed for rain despite it being a sunny morning in the Sierra Mountains; particularly when dealing with the Whit Sterlings or Kathie Moffats of the world, Jeff knows he has to be prepared for anything. Thus, he dresses for the proverbial trenches of his past in the resilient outerwear that had been originally developed to withstand warfare, wickedness, and muck: the classic trench coat.
In the chronology of Out of the Past, Jeff first wears his trench coat in flashback while working under the radar as a San Francisco private investigator until his life is shaken by Kathie killing his blackmailing ex-partner Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie). Years later, as Jeff is called to account at Whit’s Lake Tahoe estate, he sports the same threads.
Almost certainly made of khaki cotton gabardine in the tradition of the military trench coat standardized during World War I, Jeff’s coat has the classic double-breasted front with five rows of two buttons gently tapering down from top to bottom, a keystone-shaped arrangement of ten large four-hole buttons in mixed tan plastic. When not wearing the coat fully open, Jeff either fastens all ten buttons up to the neck (still leaving the double hook-and-eye closure undone) or leaves the top few rows undone.
Jeff’s trench coat has raglan sleeves with a storm flap—also known as a gun patch when its wearers carried heavier artillery than a .38 snub—that extends onto the chest and, should he need it, can be fastened onto a smaller button under the left lapel that’s only seen when the coat is worn fully buttoned. The back has no flaps. The belt has the requisite D-rings added during World War I as well as a buckle, which Jeff almost always ignores as he consistently just knots the belt like a sash.
Aside from the surprising lack of a back vent, the coat is otherwise detailed and styled consistent with the traditional trench with shoulder straps (epaulettes), belted cuffs, and hip pockets below the belt that each close through a slanted single-button flap.
The coat is lined in a two-toned plaid that may provide a key to its manufacturer as leading outfitters like Aquascutum and Burberry would differentiate their respective coats by lining them in their house check patterns. Mitchum would wear an almost identical coat nearly 30 years later as Philip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely.
Jeff peels off the trench coat to reveal his two-piece suit constructed of Donegal tweed, a homespun Irish fabric characterized by the irregular nubs of colorful yarn woven among the differently colored warp and weft and, as Hardy Amies describes in ABCs of Men’s Fashion, “given a slight twist to hold these flecks of color in place.”
As Out of the Past was filmed in black and white with a dearth of color photography from the production, the true color of Mitchum’s screen-worn suit may be lost to history, though I suspect a light brown, gray, or taupe based on how frequently those colors have been used for Donegal tweed suiting. Especially layered under a trench coat for most of the action, a lighter-weight tweed like Donegal would be a smart choice for a transitional season like fall in the cool San Francisco climate.
The Donegal suit’s tailoring is consistent with 1940s trends, cut with plenty of drape for an ample but not baggy fit. Perhaps portending the fashions of a half-century later, the single-breasted jacket’s notch lapels have low gorge and roll to a low 3/2-roll button stance. The ventless jacket has a welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, and three-button cuffs.
The double reverse-pleated suit trousers rise to Mitchum’s natural waist, where he holds them up with a slim tan leather belt that closes through a well-polished single-prong buckle. They also have side pockets and the bottoms are finished with turn-ups (cuffs).
Jeff’s light-colored (but not white) cotton shirt has a plain “French placket”, breast pocket, button cuffs, and a soft and unruly spread collar that often refuses to remain within the confines of his suit jacket. The thickly crocheted knit tie widens out to its short, flat bottom and provides a harmonious textural compliment to the tweed suit.
Jeff balances his overall lack of informality with a pair of semi-brogue cap-toe oxfords, likely black calf leather, worn with dark socks. Though brogued footwear is now widely acceptable for business, at the time Out of the Past was filmed, the brogue were still considered an informal “country shoe” that would have been considered appropriate with his tweed suit, knitted tie, and less-than-businesslike profession and behavior.
What to Imbibe
Meta Carson: Would you like a gin and tonic?
Jeff Bailey: Oh, that’d be nice.
Meta Carson: I may have whiskey, if you’d like.
Jeff Bailey: That’d be even nicer.
Years after his beer-soaked days and bourbon-laced nights in Acapulco with Kathie, Jeff finds himself enjoying straight whiskey with Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming), the luscious legal secretary working for the man he’s been tasked to find.
Later that night, Jeff joins Meta and her boss, the targeted tax attorney Leonard Eels (Ken Niles), for a round of Martinis, served in coupes and garnished with a single olive skewered on a wooden toothpick.
Leonard Eels: All women are wonders because they reduce all men to the obvious.
Meta Carson: And so do martinis.
“Keep the martinis dry, I’ll be back,” Jeff advises after letting Leonard in on the real reason behind his visit to the Golden Gate City, adding the parting words: “Mr. Eels, you make a great martini.”
How to Get the Look
“There is a reason the detectives of 1940s and 1950s film noir always seem to wear a trench coat,” wrote Josh Sims for The Rake. “In film noir, it always seems to be threatening to rain.” In Out of the Past, Robert Mitchum’s “weather-proof” ex-gumshoe dresses for the proverbial trenches of his dangerous past by slipping into the familiar coat and hat that got him this far.
- Donegal tweed suit:
- Single-breasted 3/2-roll jacket with low-gorge notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Double reverse-pleated high-rise trousers with belt loops, side pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Off-white cotton shirt with spread collar, plain front, breast pocket, and button cuffs
- Medium-colored thick-crocheted knit tie with flat bottom
- Tan leather belt with well-polished squared single-prong buckle
- Black calf leather semi-brogue oxfords
- Dark socks
- Dark felt wide-brimmed fedora with dark grosgrain band
- Khaki cotton gabardine trench coat with shoulder straps/epaulettes, right-side storm flap, 10-button double-breasted front, belt with D-rings, raglan sleeves with belted cuffs, and ventless back
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
In case I didn’t do enough to make a compelling case for this #Noirvember essential, I invite you to read these complimentary analyses from Movie Diva and 1000 Monkeys, the latter approaching Out of the Past from a fashion-focused perspective.
Build my gallows high, baby.