Created by Geoffrey Homes
Pseudonym of Daniel Mainwaring
“I was at the bottom of the barrel and I was scraping it.”
— Jeff Bailey
“RED” BAILEY (JEFF in the film) is the world-weary, sleepy-eyed private eye who just wants to forget, in the classic film noir Out of the Past (1947, RKO), based on the equally classic 1946 novel Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes.
Tired of death and deception, Jeff heads for the sleepy little burgh of Bridgeport, California, where he shucks the gumshoe game to run a small gas station with the aid of a mute kid. He goes fishing and has even started to court local good gal Ann. He figures the past is past.
But this is noir, baby. Everybody cracks wise, smokes like a chimney and nobody ever escapes anything. Jeff’s past soon catches up with him–a past that features a ruthless mobster out for vengeance, a two-timing and treacherous femme fatale, a load of missing loot and an assortment of thugs, all wrapped up in a morass of lies and double crosses. No wonder Bailey wanted out.
Out of the Past is simply a film noir classic, potent and powerful, the stuff that nightmares, if not dreams, are made of, with the flashbacks playing like fresh salt in old wounds. There are masterful performances by Robert Mitchum as Jeff, Kirk Douglas and his chin as treacherous gangster Whit Sterlin (this was only Douglas’ second film), and particularly Jane Greer as Kathie, the “dame” who once did Jeff wrong (and may do so again), with noirmeister Jacques Tourneur handling the director’s chores, and the play-by-play of the flashback laced script kept straight by Mitchum’s laconic, ah fuck it voiceover.
ABOUT THE WRITERS
Mainwaring did the first draft of the screenplay himself, which stuck pretty closely to the novel, and then James M. Cain (no slouch at noir, himself) was called in for a rewrite, adding several plot elements and a happy ending, most of which were eventually discarded. Cain’s second draft introduced the two-part, flashback-and-present structure that the film would ultimately employ. Frank Fenton wrote the final draft, contributing many of the film’s best lines and several key plot elements. Unfortunately, neither Cain or Fenton received any screen credits.
Cain, of course, was the author of such noir classics as The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, but Fenton wasn’t a strangewr to noir either. A regular writer for RKO’s Falcon movies, he was also involved in the writing of Nocturne, Station West, Walk Softly, Stranger, River of No Return and Garden of Evil, as well as a character actor who had bits in everything from Gun Fury and Buffalo Bill to The French Key and Lady of Burlesque.
Meanwhile, Mainwaring himself, under the Homes pseudonym, wrote two detective series of interest to visitors to this site: one featuring Robin Bishop, a scrappy newspaper reporter, and another featuring milk-drinking private eye Humphrey Campbell. Other successful crime screenplays Mainwaring wrote included They Made Me a Killer (1946), The Big Steal (1949) and Roadblock (1951). He also wrote a ton of gangster flicks and westerns.
THE UNFORTUNATE REMAKE
In 1976, Jerry Bick and John Ptak announced plans to remake Out Of The Past as Build My Gallows High, to be directed by Jerry Schatzberg from a screenplay by Marilyn Goldin, but Hollywood being Hollywood, it only made it back to the screen almost twenty years later as the too-slick-by-half Against All Odds, directed by Taylor Hackford, and starring Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward, with Jane Greer dropping in to add a bit of retro-credibility (personally, I don’t think it worked).
- “… the ne plus ultra of forties film noir.”
— Robert Ottoson in A Reference Guide to the American Film Noir, 1940-1958
A TRIGGER WARNING FROM THE AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY
- “The greatest cigarette-smoking movie of all time.”
— Roger Ebert
- Kathie: I didn’t know what I was doing. I, I didn’t know anything except how much I hated him. But I didn’t take anything. I didn’t, Jeff. Don’t you believe me?
Jeff: Baby, I don’t care.
- Ann (talking about Kathie): She can’t be all bad. No one is.
Jeff: Well, she comes the closest.
- Whit: You know San Francisco, don’t you?
Jeff: Yeah, I was there once for a party.
Whit: And you got around?
Jeff: Like the monkey and the weasel.
- Kathie: Don’t you see? You’ve only me to make deals with now.
Jeff: Well, build my gallows high, baby.
- Build My Gallows High (1946; by Geoffrey Homes) | Buy the book
- OUT OF THE PAST | Buy this video | Buy on DVD | Buy on Blu-Ray | Watch it now!
96 minutes, black & white
Based on the novel Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes (Daniel Mainwaring)
Screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring (James M. Cain & Frank Fenton uncredited)
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Director of photography: Nicholas Musuraca
Starring Robert Mitchum as JEFF “RED” BAILEY
Also starring Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Virginia Huston, Rhonda Fleming, Richard Webb, Dickie Moore
- Out of the Past: Jacques Tourneur’s Classic Film Noir
Excellent 1996 essay by 1996 Michael Mills, complete with a synopsis, credits, and stills.
- The Unsung Godfather of Film Noir
David Handler on Geoffrey Homes (March 2019, CrimeReads)