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The working title of this film was Build My Gallows High. In September 1945, RKO outbid Warner Bros. for the rights to Geoffrey Homes's as yet unpublished novel, according to a Los Angeles Times article. The same article observed that the story was a "natural" for Warner Bros.' contract star Humphrey Bogart. Modern sources note that Homes did, in fact, request that Bogart play the part of "Jeff," but Warner Bros. refused to lend him to RKO. Modern sources also claim that James M. Cain rewrote Homes's script with Frank Fenton. Fenton is credited as a contributing writer by Screen Achievements Bulletin, but Cain's contribution has not been confirmed by contemporary sources.
Hollywood Reporter news items and RKO production files contained in the UCLA Arts-Special Collections add the following information about the production: Pat O'Brien was first considered by RKO to play the film's lead. In October 1945, John Garfield was signed to play the lead as part of a one-picture per year contract with the studio, and the script was reportedly rewritten for him. Two months later, Dick Powell was announced as the film's star, and Edward Dmytryk was announced as the director. Because of a scheduling conflict with the British co-production So Well Remembered (see below), Dmytryk was replaced by Jacques Tourneur in the summer of 1946. In November 1945, J. Robert Bren was announced as producer, although Warren Duff, who is credited on screen in that capacity, had already been slated to produce. Lex Barker was tested for the role in the production. RKO borrowed Kirk Douglas from Paramount for the picture. Some scenes for the film were shot in San Francisco, the Lake Tahoe area and other parts of the High Sierras of California and Nevada, including Twin Lakes and Gull Lake. Other scenes were filmed in Bridgeport, Sherwood Lake and Sequit Point, CA, and at the RKO Ranch in Encino, CA. (Modern sources claim that background shooting was done in New York and Acapulco, Mexico.) As a result of Out of the Past, Tourneur was given a new term contract by RKO in April 1947. Out of the Past was the final collaboration between Tourneur and director of photography Nicholas Musuraca, who worked together on such films as RKO's 1942 Cat People . In mid-October 1947, United Artists Corp. purchased the rights to Out of the Past and Station West, another RKO film.
According to MPAA/PCA files at the AMPAS Library, PCA director Joseph I. Breen rejected early drafts of the script in which "Kathie" is shown living with both "Whit" and "Jeff" without benefit of marriage. Noting in a June 12, 1946 letter that "such a brazen portrayal of gross illicit sex is in violation of the Code," Breen strongly recommended that the novel not be filmed. By October 1946, however, after changes had been made in two different scripts, Breen softened his objections and stated that, as long as Kathie does not appear to be living with Jeff, the story would be approved. In the film, Kathie and Jeff's living arrangements are left rather vague. Breen also objected to Jeff's "deliberate suicide" at the end, but agreed that his demise was morally necessary.
Many modern critics consider Out of the Past to be a quintessential film noir picture. Modern sources credit Linwood Dunn with the film's optical effects. In 1983, Taylor Hackford directed Jeff Bridges, Rachel Ward and James Woods in Against All Odds, an updated version of Homes's novel. Jane Greer played Kathie's mother in the later version.