Noir is a most literary film genre, possessing a headiness, and an often fatalistic headiness at that, with a knack for infusing the viewer into the film, as if one is now tasked with occupying the edges, watching the drama unfold, powerless but hopeful. We are hopeful that things might work out differently, though they rarely do, and for reasons we never see coming. Often these irregular plots, especially those too twisty for a 90-minute movie, are more a reflection of the original novel than filmmaking.
There is much one does not see coming in Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 film, Out of the Past, starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer. This is the heavy of heavies, your textbook case for just how nasty, brutish, and short this life is. Out of the Past is noir at its most classic — fatalistic, but oh-so-beautifully and crisply shot in etched lines of ash and charcoal. It’s a confusing picture, too, with Mitchum getting framed so often you can’t tell when he’s being framed.
I’ve probably seen the film 250 times in my life, and it remains one of my favorites in the genre. So even I’m surprised when I find myself concluding that Geoffrey Homes’s Build My Gallows High, a novel that came out 70 years ago and served as the basis for Out of the Past, is every bit as good as the film. Better, maybe.
In proper noir fashion, Geoffrey Homes wasn’t even Geoffrey Homes, but rather the wonderfully named Daniel Mainwaring, who later adapted the book for screen. He simplified the narrative for the screenplay, which is both true and confounding (and speaks to how much is going on in the novel), because Out of the Past is one of those films where you eventually stop trying to figure out what exactly has happened, and go along with what is happening. Life is like that, which is why one can both be drawn to, and repelled by, noir in ways unlike any other genre.
In the film, Mitchum is Jeff Bailey, who used to be Jeff Markham. In the book, the character is Red Bailey, 42, a retired private investigator with a service station in Nevada, where he believes he has escaped his past and is going to marry a 20-year-old girl named Ann. The film represents the book’s present and past cinematically: Bailey’s life with Ann is idyllic, in a small California town, with open skies and sunny days. In contrast, Markham’s life as a private investigator — the past he, of course, cannot escape — is all rain, big buildings, and dimly lit San Francisco streets.
In Build My Gallows High, Bailey had previously loved a woman named Mumsie McGonigle, a charming sociopath as incapable of empathy as any character you will encounter in 20th-century American fiction, but with an evil ability, in the moment, to make a man such as Bailey think her level of character might even approach his. (As they say, the heart wants what the heart wants.) Mainwaring changed her name to Kathie Moffat for Jane Greer in the film, and when Mitchum, after he’s been betrayed, has to look upon this woman again, I’m always struck by how he can’t so much as say her name without sounding like a cobra needing to spit out a particularly bad mouthful of venom.
In film noir, intensity is sourced from relationships, the studio stars on the marquee, and from 1940s anxieties surrounding cities. But in Build My Gallows High, Mainwaring derives much of his power from, oddly enough, nature. The pine forests, the incessantly babbling brooks — which acquire the quality of grief-drunken mourners having lost their reason — and the weather itself become commenters on, and abettors to, the narrative. If it looks natural, chances are, it is bad. Hell of a way to live, hell of a way to think, and, as it turns out, hell of a way to die.
In the film, the rustic setting is in service to the cinematography. Ravines, with brooks at the bottom, make for rugged framing devices, with a depth of field that suggests you, too, from your couch or theater seat could cast a fly into the water, or sneak up on some would-be assassin from behind a clump of rocks. Nature is pictorial here, but in the book, nature is psychological, a reflection on internal states, with what ought to be beautiful undercut and vitiated: “Lightning repeatedly slit the cloudbanks and the rain seemed to come down faster, as though it was pouring through the holes made by the ragged blades of light.” This is a language suggestive of rape at worst, and non-consent at best, which is not good at all. The would-be picturesque is instead a playing field for violence, and a character like Red Bailey is going to have things done to him that are tantamount to a violation at the level of the soul. And nature itself will reflect that, as if noir has gone a decidedly Shakespearean route.
The novel, if anything, is more convoluted, plot-wise, than the film. The film is confusing as hell, but Kirk Douglas, as the male baddie, helps it hang together. With the book, that one bad guy is cleaved into additional tormentors. Many of the characters think Bailey double-crossed them, when he double-crossed no one, nothing is what it seems, memories are not only long but hugely flawed, and a litany of people are so reviled in what they are that they must destroy Bailey as the guy who provides such a horrifying contrast.
The prose, though, is lean, imagistic, like some of Rimbaud’s best letters. “He wondered if she had a conscience, if she knew what shame was,” Bailey thinks at one point, about McGonigle. It is a mode of reflection that, again, gains power in contrasts, juxtapositions, because he wouldn’t think that way unless he was a person of deep conscience. He feels a pain and a confusion that McGonigle will always be spared, if, indeed, it is sparing to feel less. In the noir world, it often is. But it is also why we pull so hard for someone like Bailey, even when we know that he rushes headlong into his undoing. That kind of character can lodge in the mind in ways those who “get away with it” cannot.
Then again, the notion of getting away with it is a tricky one. The compromised conscience of Mumsie McGonigle doesn’t preclude her from taking her next black-hearted action, but as Bailey knows — and this is why she can’t have anything to do with him — she knows what she is, just as she knows what Bailey is. Their last meeting, one orchestrated by other circumstances, is prefaced by a passage with Bailey thinking about another contrast, that between Mumsie and Ann: “Clouds formed in the north, struggling with a wind that seemed intent on keeping the sky clear.” Nature mirrors drama, as drama mirrors nature, and our natures. One roots for the wind, of course, such that if the clouds do have their day, that’s not really the point in the end.
Colin Fleming is the author of The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss (Dzanc), and is completing a novel about a reluctant piano prodigy called The Freeze Tag Sessions, in addition to a nonfiction volume, Same Band You’ve Never Known: An Alternative Musical History of the Beatles.