“OUT OF THE PAST”: A Epitome of the Mystic Femme Fatale
In Goodis’ novels, the men—both the protagonists and the powerful criminals-- have women in their lives that they obsess over. Even the most vicious forces of evil need them, such as Sharkey (Down There) and Hagan (Street of the Lost). Goodis’ waif-like females are not femmes fatales. But in a famous film, written by the man who also wrote the novel, the mystic power of the woman is taken to a level that might have something to do with Goodis’ work.
In Geoffrey Homes’ *Build My Gallows High* (1946; released the next year as the noir essential film *Out of the Past*), Jeff Bailey is an honest as well as tough P.I., chasing adulterers, blackmailers, embezzlers, and finance manipulators, who has retired from New York to run a gas station in rural California. He is dating a local woman, Ann, who is loving and fiercely loyal. But he cannot free himself from his past, especially a thieving, murdering, psychopathic femme fatale (Mumsie in the book; Kathie in the film) whom he first met on assignment from Whit (Guy in the novel), a version of Eddie Mars with a more varied wardrobe and a handshake like “iron.”
The passion of both Jeff and Whit for Mumsie/Kathie is ambiguous, in that it is more than recovery of money she stole, and more than her erotic promise. It has something to do with her amoral shrewdness, dominance with a gun, and uncomplicated acquisitiveness—all of which make her a prize as an accomplice. They assume she will be loyal; she has an uncanny ability, with her deadpan sultriness, to make a man believe he is the center of her world.
The screenplay, also written by Homes, makes Jeff’s choice of his personal “gallows” over the good girl more clearly a matter of the universe he came from—the city, with its challenges, illusions, seductions, and its belief in “the orgiastic future” of which Gatsby’s friends dreamed. The film, directed by Jacques Tourneur, reminds me—with its images of remote, wide-open spaces without people—of something else in _The Great Gatsby_, about “ that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.” A novel and film about the American Dream. Noir--maybe best delineated in pulp.