Build my Gallows High (1947)

When it’s on: Monday, 27 August (12.40 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

I never saw her in the daytime. We seemed to live by night. What was left of the day went away like a pack of cigarettes you smoked. I didn’t know where she lived. I never followed her. All I ever had to go on was a place and time to see her again. I don’t know what we were waiting for. Maybe we thought the world would end.

If you have never seen Build my Gallows High (or, to give it its US title, Out of the Past), then do yourself a favour – stop reading this, set everything you were going to do to one side for 96 minutes, and watch it. Do yourself a second favour and record it also, because one viewing isn’t enough. Build my Gallows High is darn near a perfect film where this site is concerned, a taut and gripping thriller filled with heart and emotions so powerful they dribble from the screen, one in which barely a moment is wasted and where every shot counts.

Director Jacques Tourneur already had a fair old body of work to his name before taking on the project. Best known for a series of lean horror films made on a shoestring and produced by Val Lewton, he brought a reputation for lean storytelling to Build my Gallows High, packing meaning and imagery into just about anything the camera pointed at. It was written by Daniel Mainwaring, who adapted his own book, whilst Tourneur was fortunate enough to call on a dream central cast. Kirk Douglas was loaned to RKO from Paramount, combining with Jane Greer and relative newcomer Robert Mitchum to incredible effect.

The film’s plot actually starts in the middle of the story. Mitchum is Jeff Bailey, a gas station owner in quiet Bridgeport, California. He’s assisted by a deaf and dumb kid, played by Dickie Moore, and has a local sweetheart, Ann (Virginia Huston). All seems well until a man arrives in town who recognises Jeff from the past and makes him take a trip to meet rich Whit Sterling (Douglas). Before leaving, Jeff fills Ann in on the background. He’s not called Bailey at all, but Markham. He used to be a detective and some years ago he was hired by Whit to find a girl who’d shot him and run away with $40,000. Jeff’s trail leads him south into Mexico, and ultimately to Acapulco, where he not only finds Kathie (Jane Greer) but falls heads over heels for her. For a time, the pair dream about leaving their past lives behind and staying together, but eventually they’re discovered by Jeff’s old partner, who has been hired by Whit in turn and demands money from them. Kathie kills him, flees, and Jess winds up forging his new life in Bridgeport.

But it’s a temporary reprieve, and whilst Jeff tries to get on with things, there’s a sense of fatality about his return to Whit that suggests he knows it. Mitchum is a nigh on perfect fit for the character, expressing naturally his laconic manner, his submission to the whims of fate. His scenes alongside Douglas are just brilliant. They should be natural enemies, especially once it transpires they’ve both been with the same woman, but the film doesn’t go for obvious stereotyping and allows room for Whit’s charisma and gregariousness to shine. Best of all perhaps is Greer. Within the film noir genre, I struggle to think of a femme fatale who has been quite so angel-faced. The film proffers a mysterious energy upon her, dressing her in white when she first appears and making her subsequent dresses get darker throughout until she’s all in black by the end. It’s also worth noting that most of her appearances find her walking out of the shadows and into the light, a stark contrast with Mitchum who oscillates between being bathed in extremes of light and darkness.

The rest is atmosphere. Build my Gallows High develops a sombre mood of impending doom, like all the characters are in a mutually driven spiral of doom. Better still, they all come across as real human beings, ones with deep flaws. For all her badness, Kathie’s basically a survivor, but one who can make mistakes, such as hedging her bets on Jeff. Whit never appears to be the film’s villain; he’s all smiles and easy company, though Douglas gives the impression of steel beneath the grins and the way he blows his cigarette smoke at his opponents surrounds him in unease. And then there’s Jeff himself, the almost maddening way he throws himself to the fates and hopes for the best. But aren’t we all guilty of that sometimes?

In terms of the quintessential film noir experience, it’s at the top of the pile for me, and I imagine most fans would have it on at least the last one hundred metres. There’s a lovely passage in Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy in which he almost leaps out of the body of his protagonist to lavish praise on the film, particularly the very last scene. It’s sublime, yet there’s little within its running time that’s anything less. It even has an influence that lasts in far more recent film making. The lesser remake, Against all Odds, from the 1980s is forgettable, but strong shades of it exist in one of the best films of the last decade, A History of Violence, and that’s no mean achievement. An essential afternoon’s entertainment.

Build me Gallows High: *****

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