This is one of the quintessential film noirs.
(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)
Robert Mitchum is Jeff Bailey, an auto repair shop owner living in a small town. He has a girl, Ann Miller who is in love with him and a deaf-mute boy who helps him with his shop. But he is hiding from his past. He was Jeff Markham, a private detective that was sent on an assignment by underworld boss Whit Sterling (played with good natured panache by Kirk Douglas) to find a girl who stole $40,000 from Whit and shot him for good measure. The girl, Kathie Moffat is hiding out in Mexico and while staking her out Jeff falls entirely in love with her and the two run away to live their lives far from Whit Sterling.
But Jeff’s partner Jack Fisher, hunts them down and demands the $40,000 to keep from telling Sterling about their double cross. During a fistfight between Jeff and Fisher Kathie shoots Fisher dead. While Jeff buries Fisher’s body Kathie skips out on him. Jeff decides to take on the new identity as Jeff Bailey and settles in the small town of Bridgeport, California.
But now one of Whit Sterling’s men arrives in Bridgeport and recognizes Jeff. He summons Jeff to Whit’s summer house on Lake Tahoe. When Jeff gets there, he finds Kathie has reconciled with Whit and now it’s Jeff’s turn to square accounts with the underworld boss. There is a complicated scenario where Jeff is supposed to recover some tax documents that Whit’s accountant is using to blackmail him. But it’s really a set-up whereby Jeff will be the fall guy for the accountant’s murder. And, of course, Kathie is part of the double cross too. There are a number of reversals but finally Jeff arranges a deal with Sterling such that Kathie will be on the hook for Fisher’s murder and Jeff will be cleared of all the various crimes he’s been framed for in return for the return of the tax documents.
But Kathie decides to upend the deal by murdering Sterling. Now she and Jeff are on the run for the various murders that have been committed and Jeff realizes that he’ll never have that small town life he tried to escape to. He and Kathie die in a hail of bullets as he drives their car into a police ambush.
Interspersed between the action scenes we have the love story between Jeff and Ann. She’s a gentle woman who believes that Jeff has a good side that exists beneath the tough persona that he projects to the world. And her belief in him propels him to try and escape from the criminal existence that Kathie has drawn him into. But fate eventually claims his life and leaves Ann to mourn him.
As with all good film noir, the plot is an awful mess. All of their terrible choices propel the protagonists to their bleak fates. But the movie is a pleasure to watch. Mitchum is at the top of his game with a tightly knit plot and lots of great lines to toss off. Kirk Douglas is an affable crime boss and adds a lot to the film. Kathie is a wonderfully dishonest femme fatale and is constantly double-crossing everyone in sight. And the rest of the supporting cast is fine too. I highly recommend this movie for film noir devotees and basically anyone who likes a good story.