Not-Quite Noir, But All-Fun With Mitchum & Greer.

The script’s by Daniel Mainwaring and his novelist pen name Geoffrey Homes (which is a neat trick), the names behind the source novel and Jacques Tourner’s infamous film noir Out Of The Past from two years earlier. But, it’s also credited to Gerald Drayson Adams, the writer for James Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning. I mention all this not to suggest that postwar film noirs were made in a creatively incestuous community (they kind of were) as much as to give the often overlooked 1949 RKO crime thriller The Big Steal its well-deserved cred. Since it also re-teams noir icons Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, it ought to be a must-see.

The Big Steal isn’t the dark, provocative and soul-searching kind of noir that Tourneur’s Out Of The Past was. This is more of twisty-turny thrill ride. Here Mitchum’s a soldier wrongly accused of a payroll theft. Greer’s the screwed-over ex of the real thief, and they reluctantly team up to track down the culprit, with Mitchum’s superior officer hot on their trail. Good guys turn out to be bad guys (which keeps the viewer wondering about our two stars as well) and all is resolved through lots of fast-paced chases, abductions, fights and shoot-outs, managing a lot of story and action in just a little over an hour.

A B-movie? Yes, it is. But it’s put together by crime and noir pro’s, stars Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer (never looking lovelier with her bouncy short hair) and the bottom line is, The Big Steal is 100% fun to watch. 

Build My Gallows High.

Geoffrey Homes’ last novel Build My Gallows High (1946) was adapted by the author himself — under his real name, Daniel Mainwaring (1902 – 1977) — for the screenplay for Jacques Tourneur’s classic 1947 film noir Out Of The Past with Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas. (See the preceding post for more about that.)

Name changes between a book and film adaptation are nothing new and often done with no apparent reason besides a screenwriter’s whim. Out Of The Past’s Jeff Bailey was Red Bailey in the book. As for Jane Greer’s Kathie Moffat, who’s rightly considered one of the postwar film noir era’s most iconic femmes fatales, she’s Harriet “Mumsie” McGonigle in Mainwaring/Homes’ novel. Mumsie? Seriously? Somehow, I just don’t see Robert Mitchum’s noir antihero forsaking all hope of redemption for someone named Mumsie McGonigle, even when played by Jane Greer.

There actually was a real-life Mumsie McGonigle in early 1940’s Los Angeles crime lore, a notorious Madame named Rose “Mumsie” McGonigle who ran a 24/7 brothel catering to celebrities and providing freebies to public officials as payoffs. When the law finally shut her down, Mumsie’s bribes must’ve worked, since all but one of 48 counts of pandering, procurement and statutory rape were dismissed. Mumsie’s rumored little black book listing Los Angeles politicians and studio bigwigs (and their various ‘proclivities’) may have also helped to get the charges dropped.

Geoffrey Homes’ Build My Gallows High came out in hardcover and later in paperback as an Ace Double Novel paired with Harry Whittington’s The Humming Box. But book titles, of course, can’t be copyrighted except in some very limited trademark brand name cases. If you’re looking for a copy of Mainwaring/Homes’ Build My Gallows High to compare the novel to the film Out Of The Past, don’t get confused with Roy Benard Sparkia’s 1956 Build My Gallows High, a Gold Medal paperback original about a series of murders in a resort community.

“All The Things I Never Told You”: Out Of The Past (1947).

It was a dreary weekend, saddled with a long list of chores and plagued by cold, drizzly weather. By the time the Sunday evening dinner plates were tucked in the dishwasher, and with few prospects ahead except prime-time cable news shows desperately trying to digest the ongoing national nightmare, I was ready for a double dose of ZzzQuil, Monday’s 5:15 AM alarm the next stop.

That is, till I noticed that Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 RKO noir masterpiece Out Of The Past was on the Movies! network “Sunday Night Noir” feature at 7:00 PM CST. Sure, commercial interruptions and all that. But it’s Robert Mitchum. It’s Jane Greer. It’s Out Of The F—ing Past. 

I love Robert Mitchum. I’ll happily watch Hollywood’s 1940’s-50’s bad boy as a cop, a killer, a sheriff, a soldier or Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Mitchum’s deep, resonant voice laced with a knowing cynicism, the hulking build buried inside voluminous postwar era suits and impossibly huge topcoats, those sleepy bedroom eyes barely peeking out from beneath a wide-brimmed fedora…it’s just pure dark magic come to life on screen. Newcomer Kirk Douglas? Oh, he’s suitably slimy throughout, even if his offscreen demise is a little frustrating. And Jane Greer? Well, what can anyone say about Greer’s iconic Kathie Moffat, surely one of the classic film noir era’s preeminent femmes fatales? Here she’s a vision in white, then later, the most dangerous of dames, mysterious throughout, her grim backstory always implied but never revealed. Within the postwar era’s limitations, Greer’s violent end is as riveting as the bloody slo-mo shootout capping Arthur Penn’s 1968 Bonnie And Clyde.

But her memorable femme fatale is no mere schemer. Like many great protagonists, antagonists and antiheroes from the classic film noir era, this villainess has some baggage we never get to hear about. But we know there’s much more to Greer’s Kathie Moffat than just greed or lust. Near the film’s end, when Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey/Markham realizes that any chance at redemption and a new life is irrevocably gone, Kathie Moffat tells him:

“We’re starting all over. I wanna walk out of the sun again and find you waiting. I wanna sit in the same moonlight and tell you all the things I never told you…until you don’t hate me. Until sometime you love me again. “

“They’ll always be looking for us,” Mitchum replies. “They won’t stop till we die.”

“I don’t care. Just so they find us together.”

“All the things I never told you…” That’s the key, isn’t it? We fill in the blanks throughout the film, certain that in addition to being a crook, Kirk Douglas’ gambling kingpin was a sexual sadist and abuser, but unsure if his mistress, Greer’s Kathie Moffat, endured the pain and humiliation out of fear, avarice or…what? The great film noir femmes fatales are much more than succubi with a snubnose. Scriptwriters and directors left details, backstories and motivations murky, times being what they were. But the viewer knows. We all know. They were who they were because of what they’ve seen, done and endured. 

Out Of The Past was adapted by Daniel Mainwaring from his own novel Build My Gallows High…his last novel (writing as Geofffrey Homes), in fact, Mainwaring switching to scriptwriting full-time thereafter. In fact, the film went by the novel’s title in the UK, so you’ll see some posters and lobby cards online with that name. (The gorgeous illustration at the top of this post is from an Italian poster by Marino.) I’m embarrassed to admit that Mainwaring/Homes’ novel is one classic that’s still on my to-be-read list, a mistake I’ll remedy soon. It’s my understanding, though, that it’s a real textbook example of colorful hard-boiled banter. As is the film’s screenplay. Yet I’ve read that Mainwaring shared little of the dialog from his own source novel.

The film has too many accolades to list, but famed film critic Roger Ebert called Out Of The Past “the greatest cigarette smoking movie of all time”. See for yourself if that isn’t true during your next (or first) viewing. Vintage Hollywood films are often a smoking orgy, but you’ll never see characters smoke so much and so purposefully as you will here. Ebert explained, “the trick, as demonstrated by Jacques Tourneur and his cameraman Nicholas Musuraca (the talented team on 1942’s Cat People) is to throw a lot of light into the empty space where the characters are going to exhale. When they do, they produce great white clouds of smoke that express their moods, their personalities and their energy levels. There are guns in Out Of The Past, but the real hostility came when Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas smoked at each other”. 

And Jane Greer, I might add.

Confession: I still downed a shot of the ZzzQuill Sunday night. But by the time I started snoring, I was already deep in dark dreams about “all the things she never told us“.

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