Build My Gallows High (Out of the Past)
Being a big fan of the film Out of the Past, which is rightly lauded as being one of the defining films of the noir era, I decided to seek out the original book it was based on. Surprisingly, it turns out to be harder to get hold of than expected. Given the wide availability of the film, one might expect the book to still be in print somewhere around – but no, instead we have to resort to the good graces of Amazon and eBay to find it.
Given the popularity and recognition of the film, I thought it might be interesting to put a few thoughts down about the original book, rather than regurgitating lines about the film (which deserves the accolades it gets). I have to say, I’m glad I did.
Released in 1946 by Geoffrey Homes (a pen name of screenwriter and crime novelist Daniel Mainwaring), Build my Gallows High tells the story of a former private detective ‘Red’ Bailey (later renamed as Jeff for the film version, portrayed by noir stalwart Robert Mitchum), whose past comes back to haunt him when he is discovered by chance by a former henchman working for a gangster for whom Bailey once was hired. The first part of the story (as with the film) features a retelling of the job he carried out for that gangster, where he was hired to track down the woman who shot him and made away with a hefty sum of cash. Bailey tracks her down in Mexico and, unsurprisingly, falls in love and tries to flee with her, only to find himself betrayed by the same woman. The remainder of the story involves a fairly complex set-up operation with Bailey at the core, resulting in a prolonged game of cross and double-cross before reaching its final blood-soaked climax.
For those familiar with the film, there isn’t a substantial amount of difference between the two story-wise, aside from a bleaker and less redemptive ending which the film softened somewhat. Beyond the addition of a few extra characters and a few name changes (changing the name of the female antagonist from the book’s ‘Mumsie’ to ‘Kathy’ in the film was probably a wise idea), the gist of the plot is pretty much the same. But don’t let that put you off. The book maintains a distinctly dark undertone, perhaps more so than the film, in that you feel throughout the whole thing that Red Bailey is a man heading towards his doom. He himself even says as much. Themes of fate and guilt run high and underpin the overall bulk of the story.
Running at 154 pages, it’s a short and sharp read. Even though it is hard to remove the faces of Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum from your mind, the book is every bit as enjoyable as the film. The story moves at a fast pace and fits in a surprising amount of plot and detail within such a (relatively) short manuscript. Homes’ central character is a cynical detective in the vein of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, but his underlying character is brought more into focus than either of these. Rather than a man living in a permanent state of indifference, taking whatever job comes along, Bailey is a man trying to escape from the life he led and wants to leave the world of a private detective behind him. It’s an interesting take on the detective character, and not one which is always given much thought – what does happen to a detective after he retires? It’s hard to believe that they are just left to retire on whatever pension they managed to save up and slowly live to a ripe-old age. Given that their careers have been made in spying and digging up secrets on rather unpleasant people, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to believe that there won’t be a disgruntled client or two somewhere waiting to catch up with them some day. That is the pinpoint behind this story – a man’s past finally catching up with him. It certainly is a unique take on the detective genre of the time.
It’s not the easiest book to get hold of (depending on the quality of the book you want, anyway), but you could do a lot worse than to get a hold of an old copy of this work. I can only hope that eventually, Homes’ work gets picked up again by some of the current printing houses and given another chance at some recognition. If Build my Gallows High is anything to go by, it’s probably a bibliography well worth discovering.