Friday, March 05, 2010

The Book You Have to Read:
“Build My Gallows High,” by Geoffrey Homes

(Editor’s note: This is the 84th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection has been made by Maryland resident Thomas Kaufman, an award-winning motion-picture director and cameraman. His debut mystery novel, Drink the Tea, won the Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin’s Press competition for Best First P.I. Novel. It was released this week by Minotaur.)

Build My Gallows High (1946) was the final published novel by onetime San Francisco newspaper reporter Daniel Mainwaring, writing under the name “Geoffrey Homes.”

Its hero, a private eye named Red Markham, gets a job from a gambler named Whit Sterling to find his girlfriend. That girlfriend, with the improbable name of Mumsie McGonigal, has shot Sterling and taken off with a small fortune in cash. Markham finds the girl, falls in love with her, and attempts to have a life with her, double-crossing Sterling. The two lovers try to hide out, but they’re eventually discovered by Red’s ex-partner, Jack Fisher, who is accidentally shot and killed when he attempts to blackmail Red. Mumsie leaves with the cash, and Red must bury the corpse.

Years go by, and finally Red makes his home in a small California town, falls in live with a nice, quiet girl, and hopes to settle down. But his past catches up with him, in the form of Joe Stefanos, a trigger man for Sterling. Red’s hopes of leading a peaceful existence are crushed by Sterling and Mumsie.

You can’t really talk about Gallows without also talking about its 1947 screen adaptation, Out of the Past, which starred Robert Mitchum and was directed by Jacques Tourneur.

Usually, after I read a book, then see the film version, I’m disappointed. How many times have you left such a movie, hearing murmurs of “the book was better” from your fellow filmgoers?

But, once in a while, a film actually supersedes the novel. Not often. Still, if someone writes a book, then Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler do the adaptation, the screenplay could be better than the source novel. Such is the case with Double Indemnity (1944). Another example is Out of the Past.

I don’t feel bad giving Gallows second place. For one thing, Mainwaring wrote the screenplay for Out of the Past. It seems as though he had been given a second chance to re-imagine his characters. For another, Mumsie McGonigal is now Kathy Moffet, played wonderfully by Jane Greer.

The novel has two principal antagonists: a retired crooked cop, Parker, and a gambler, Sterling. The screenplay combines those two into one badass, played by Kirk Douglas.

(By the way, it’s fun to watch Mitchum and Douglas together--Douglas, who typically chewed the scenery into postage-stamp-size pieces, has to tone himself down to play opposite Mitchum, whose naturalistic underplaying predates by 10 years the bunch from the Actors Studio, who included Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, and James Dean.)

There are also two assassins in the novel working for Sterling/Douglas. The screenplay boils them down into a single person--Stefanos.

Another main difference between the book and movie is the story structure. They both begin the same way, in the “present,” then flash back to when Markham was a private eye in New York City, and Sterling asked him to find the missing girl.

But the flashback in the book ends about one-eighth of the way through. Part of the genius of Out of the Past is its structure. Once Markham and Ann--the good girl he wants to settle down with--begin driving to see Sterling, the film goes into flashback. Markham’s voice narrates the events, and we’re on solid P.I. movie footing. Then, at the exact middle point of the film, the car ride ends and so does the flashback. Markham has Ann drop him off at Sterling’s front gate, and the remainder of the film plays out in the present.

What’s great about this is the way the audience is set up for what happens next--all the characters we’ve met in the flashback now come alive in the present, as Markham tries in vain to figure out the kind of jam Sterling is framing for him. After some cat-and-mouse dialogue, Markham turns down what Sterling has in store for him, but agrees to stay for breakfast. In the background, out of focus, we see a woman approach. Sterling says, “You remember Kathy, don’t you?”

The audience is shocked, but not Markham/Mitchum, who turns his sleepy eyes towards this beautiful woman and says, “Yeah, I remember Kathy.”

Then there’s the movie dialogue--it’s classic. Since James M. Cain and Frank Fenton were rumored to have worked on the screenplay without credit, it’s hard to know who came up with the dialogue. When Kathy, the gambler’s girlfriend, shows up for a romantic liaison with Markham, she asks, “Did you miss me?”

“No more than I would my eyes,” he tells her. And Jane Greer is particularly beautiful as she touches Mitchum’s arm, and begs him to believe her when she says she didn’t take the gambler’s money. Mitchum reaches for her, saying, “Baby, I don’t care.” That dialogue is not in Gallows.

It’s important to the story, and to Markham’s motivation, for the reader/viewer to understand how deep Kathy/Mumsie has her hooks in. The book doesn’t go into much detail. Instead, we’re given a kind of shorthand--how the detective tails her, how they meet, how they come together, how they break apart--but the movie devotes much more time to this important element of the tale.

One other interesting aspect is the direction of Past. Jacques Tourneur was a contract director for RKO, one of Hollywood’s smaller and more troubled studios. In this film, he creates an unusual shot, right at the start: he mounts the camera in the back seat of Joe Stefanos’ car. Car mounts today are the norm, but back in the 1940s they were out of the ordinary. The effect Tourneur creates is that the car, Stefanos, and the story we are about to see all appear somehow pre-destined, on an unstoppable course, that Markham’s fate is sealed before he even knows he’s been discovered.

Daniel Mainwaring’s first book, published under his own name, was a sort of proletarian novel called One Against the Earth (1932). After that, he turned out a series of hard-boiled mystery novels (including Forty Whacks, 1941) as Homes, and became a screenwriter for such films as The Big Steal (1949) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). He even wrote for the TV series The Wild Wild West and Mannix. Mainwaring died in 1977 at age 74.

If you can find a copy of Build My Gallows High, read it. Then go see Out of the Past--you won’t be sorry.

READ MORE:The Unsung Godfather of Film Noir,” by David
Handler (CrimeReads).


D.K. Soames said...

I saw the film so many years ago I don't remember, but I had no idea it was based on this - or any - book. Thanks or a great review.

Helen Neely said...

I have heard alot about the book, and have not even seen the movie. But I guess I will get a copy of the book this weekend when I go to Foyles.

Nice review btw :)

Declan Burke said...

One of the great crime novels, and arguably the greatest noir movie. A very nice piece, sir ...

Cheers, Dec

Mike Dennis said...

Excellent post, Jeff, with good analysis. OUT OF THE PAST is truly one of the all-time great films, and Jane Greer is one of the top femmes fatales in cinema history.

I'd heard about the novel, but never read it. Now, I'll have to check it out.

Kevin Wignall said...

The film was actually called "Build My Gallows High" for its British release and is still shown on TV over here under that title. I hadn't realized it was a book, too, and will have to check it out. Also agree with Declan about the film, a true masterpiece.

Frank Loose said...

Great post. Thanks for the A/B comparison of the book and film. They are both favorites of mine and together represent a rarity where both the written form and its transfer to film are classics.

The scenes with Douglas and Mitchum and Greer --- doesn't get any better than that!

Thomas Kaufman said...


Glad you enjoyed the piece. Through Jeff's good graces there'll be another soon about Cornell Woolrich and THE BLACK PATH OF FEAR.


Mike Fox said...

When people ask me for a definition of femme fatale, I cue up the scene where Markham is sitting in a bar in Guadalajara and Kathie walks in. Out of complete shadow emerges an angel dressed all in white. I'm getting goosebumps just imagining it!

Thomas Kaufman said...

Mike, thanks for your comment. Jane Greer got this direction from Jacques Tourneur (

"First half of the movie, good girl. Second half, bad girl."

Part of what is so irresistible about Kathie is her innocence. That's what hooks markham.

Thomas Kaufman said...

The director, Jacques Tourneur, told Jane Greer to play the first half as a good girl, and the second half as the bad girl. It's exactly that dressed-in-white goodness that's so perverted it's attractive.