May 22, 2016


Takes a Tall Gallows to Hang a Big Man: The Novel Behind "Out of the Past" (Colin Fleming, MAY 21, 2016, LA Review of Books)

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 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.

The key to noir's appeal is that no one ever gets away with it.

Posted by at May 22, 2016 9:48 AM