“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Flick Lit # 21: Build My Gallows High / Out Of The Past

“He didn’t hear the gun when Guy shot him because he was dead.” – Geoffrey Homes, Build My Gallows High
Build My Gallows High (1946) opens as fly-fisher Red Bailey is joined by his fresh-faced amour, Ann Miller, high in the idyllic Rocky Mountains. Within three pages, however, blackmailed into repaying a favour to an ex-cop gangster, former PI Bailey is prowling the shadowed canyons of New York and San Francisco. There he encounters more of his old associates: the partner he duped, the gangster he double-crossed, the woman who left him for dead. Quickly realising that the gangster, Whit Sterling, is framing him for murder, Bailey struggles to escape. But there is no escaping the past: “Even if he was a worthy citizen full of good deeds and honours, it wouldn’t matter.” Geoffrey Homes’ (aka Daniel Mainwaring) terse prose represents the epitome of pulp fiction’s hard-boiled style. The laconic delivery and fatalistic tone encompass the existential ennui employed by the genre’s writers as a perverse counterpoint: that of the futility of action in a milieu defined by action. Jacques Tourneur (Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and Nightfall (1956)) and his cinematographer Nick Marcuso invested the 1947 movie with the ominous, unsettling undertones of a nightmarish hallucination. The flashback sequences, for which the film is justifiably famous, were already an essential element of Homes’ novel; the writer – with uncredited help from James M. Cain – adapted his own story to screenplay format. As was the case with Casablanca, Out of the Past was a routine B-movie, made on a small budget by a team working under contract, in this case to RKO. That team included Tourneur, Marcuso and Jane Greer as femme fatale Kathie Moffit (nee Mumsie McGonigle); it also included Kirk Douglas, who played Bailey’s nemesis Whit Sterling, and the peerless Robert Mitchum. The role of Red Bailey catapulted Mitchum into superstardom; with the possible exception of his role as the depraved preacher in Night of the Hunter (1955), it remains Mitchum’s finest performance. The combination of his nonchalant delivery, minimalist exposition and droopy-eyed, world-weary expression remains the template for the role of a man sleepwalking his way into hell. Out of the Past boasts a labyrinthine, complex plot, described by Time Out as “one of the most bewildering and beautiful films ever made.” It also features some of the sharpest dialogue in movie history, a textbook example of the oft-ridiculed voice-over narration, three masterful performances, and – in a scene involving death by fishing-rod – one of the most improbable murders you’ll ever see.- Michael McGowan

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