47 Years of Student Run Cinema
Student Film Society of the Year 2002, 2005, 2006
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Jacques Tourneur, USA 1947, 97 minutes
Although Build My Gallows High is not the best known of film noir, it is one of the best examples of the genre, and easily fulfils all the right criteria: murder, money, tangled relationships between characters with secrets to hide, a world-weary hero, and, of course, the femme fatale. Mix with betrayals, double-crosses (and triple-crosses), and a very downbeat ending, and you've the makings of a very gripping hour and a half's viewing.
Robert Mitchum gives a tremendous performance as Bailey, an ex-private eye who thought he'd left his previous life behind, but has his world plunged into chaos by a chance encounter with someone from his past. Delivering his lines in a coolly detached, unruffled way we know that Bailey is a smart guy who's able to fend for himself, but he's not as smart as the noir heroes that Bogart plays in The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. He is, in a very real way, someone who's made mistakes that they're going to have to pay for. Whilst Bogart's characters won't let themselves "play the sap", Mitchum here lets himself be manipulated, and that is his one real flaw.
A good deal of Gallows is told in flashback - there is no way to escape from your past, and it can come back to haunt you at any moment. The US title of the movie is actually Out of the Past, emphasising the fatalism of the characters trapped in the film. All their outcomes are predetermined by fate, and they're just able to go through the motions of living out their destinies. Also emphasizing the fatalism of the piece is the way chance shapes the plot. Seemingly insignificant events cause repercussions that determine the fates of those involved. The plot and all it's complex twists and turns is best left unsaid, as the film is much more enjoyable to watch when you don't know what is going to happen - although it's evident from an early stage that fate isn't going to look kindly on Bailey.
A major advantage that the original film noir have over their modern counterparts is the beautiful black-and-white photography. There is no escaping the fact that noirs looks much better this way, and it leaves you wondering what's hidden in the inky shadows. The only movie to recently capture this atmosphere is Se7en, with its noir-like use of darkness.
The fatalism of Gallows can be summed by the exchange between Mitchum and Jane Greer, as she bets large amounts of money on each spin of the roulette wheel.
"Is there a way to win?" she asks.
"There's a way to lose more slowly," Mitchum replies.
"Sizzling ****" - Empire
Review by Jonathan Caryl
Taken from EUFS Programme 1996-97