Robert Mitchum plays the hapless Jeff Bailey (not to be confused with George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life), a man with a past whose attempts to fly under the radar as a small town gas station owner are queered when an old associate rides into town.
Jeff has found love with local lovely Ann Miller (not the dancer), played by Virginia Huston (not Ann Miller). However, Jeff’s past is about to screw that up – maybe. It certainly doesn’t help, at any rate.
After being found out, Jeff reluctantly agrees to meet with an old client from his private eye days – a rich bastard named Whit Sterling (played with bedimpled panache by Kirk Douglas) who had once hired Jeff (except that his name at that time was Jeff Markham) to find his missing girlfriend, Kathie Moffat (no relation to Steven, I assume, and played by Jane Greer) and 40,000 missing dollars that Whit believes she stole. Naturally, the idea is that Jeff (regardless of last name) bring both back to Whit. However, this being a film noir, naturally Jeff and Kathie develop other ideas.
And you find all this out in a big flashback scene, in which Jeff explains his past to Ann “Not the Dancer” Miller, while she’s driving him to see Whit again. Talk about getting a relationship off to a rough start.
When the flashback ends, providing the much-needed exposition one needs to understand anything that comes next, the story continues to unfold in a most convoluted way. The plot continues to be full of double and triple crosses, among the major characters. And throughout, good girl Ann keeps the faith in Jeff, even though local yokel Jim yearns for her and tries to get in her pants steal her from Jeff by planting doubts about him in Annie’s head.
This film is notable for having a plot so incomprehensible convoluted, it makes The Big Sleep look straightforward. It also has the most depressing ending ever. Little wonder. The movie was based on a book called Build My Gallows High. That should give you a clue.
This film stands as an almost prototypical example of the film noir style or genre, depending on how you look at it. It most deservedly earns two thumbs up!