I’d like to pose a genuinely serious question to you: Is Geoffrey Homes the unsung godfather of film noir?
Name doesn’t ring a bell? Don’t feel bad. He’s not very well known. In fact, a lot of fans of the interconnecting worlds of crime fiction and film noir have never heard of him. Some years back, I exchanged several e-mails about an anthology project with a very prominent crime writer and film noir aficionado. When I mentioned the name Geoffrey Homes to her she had no idea who I was talking about.
Just to complicate matters, Geoffrey Homes didn’t actually exist. Well, he did but he didn’t. Geoffrey Homes was the pen name of Daniel Mainwaring, who was born in Oakland, California in 1902 and started his career as a journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle. During the 1930s and ‘40s, writing under the pen name of Geoffrey Homes, he published two excellent hard-boiled private eye series that were set in small towns in Northern and Central California. One series featured a detective named Robin Bishop, the other the team of Humphrey Campbell and Oscar Morgan. Both series are what I’d classify as highly obscure today, although they shouldn’t be. Geoffrey Homes was a top-flight detective novelist. His prose was terse and clean, his plots tight and his dialogue cynical and razor sharp.
I first stumbled upon Homes’s novels in the 1970s. In those days I was a young newspaperman and aspiring crime writer who lived on New York City’s Upper West Side a mere half-block down West 87th Street from a tiny, world-famous mystery bookstore called Murder Ink. The bookstore, which I swear wasn’t much bigger than a large telephone booth, was perched next to the sidewalk underneath a parking garage. To the soothing sounds of screeching tires, I would spend endless hours there combing through Dilys Winn’s stacks of vintage used books. I was already a devoted fan of the famous hard-boiled authors of the 1930s such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain. What I was hungrily searching for were other Depression-era hard-boiled voices that were less well known. I found plenty of them there. I found Horace McCoy. I found David Goodis. I found Cornell Woolrich. And I found Geoffrey Homes, whose novels were so good that I couldn’t imagine why he wasn’t better known. I snatched up every one of them that I could find. Collectibles they were not. I bought a hardcover first edition of my favorite Robin Bishop, The Man Who Murdered Goliath, for $3.25. Still have it. Still re-read it.
Geoffrey Homes wrote his final and best book, which also happened to be his only thriller, in 1946. It was called Build My Gallows High and was made into a movie by RKO that he adapted for the screen himself. The movie is pretty faithful to the book. The story, which bounces back and forth between the past and the present, is that of an honest New York City private detective who’s been hired by a gangster to find his no-good thieving girlfriend who, it seems, just ran off with $50,000 of his money and put a bullet in him on her way out the door. The detective picks up her trail and follows her all of the way to Acapulco—only to fall hopelessly in love with her himself. The poor guy gets in way over his head and barely manages to extricate himself. Or so he thinks. He hasn’t. His past has caught up with him and now there’s a price to be paid. In adapting the novel, Homes tightened the plot by consolidating a couple of characters and settings. He also changed the name of the lead character from Red Bailey to Jeff Bailey and the femme fatale from Mumsie McGonigle to Kathie Moffett, whom Homes describes in the novel as “a slim, lovely little thing with eyes too big for her face and the serene look often seen on nuns.”
The studio ended up changing the title as well—from “Build My Gallows High” to Out of the Past. That’s right, I’m talking about THE Out of the Past, the 1947 Robert Mitchum-Jane Greer noir classic directed by Jacques Tourneur that many fans, myself included, consider the ultimate American film noir. Director Billy Wilder’s brilliant 1944 adaptation of Cain’s Double Indemnity, starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Barbara Stanwyck’s gold anklet, is generally acknowledged by movie scholars to be the first film noir. But as far as I’m concerned Out of the Past is the greatest. Why? I can’t explain why. There’s just a magical quality to the chemistry between Mitchum and Greer, and you can’t explain magic. All you can do is feel lucky to have a chance to bask in its glow.
I first saw it on late night TV in Los Angeles when I was a teenager in the 1960s. After having been weaned on a steady diet of Doris Day, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, Out of the Past was a life-changing experience for me. I hadn’t realized that people could behave the way Mitchum, Greer and Kirk Douglas behaved. I had no idea that the world could be such good, treacherous, dirty fun. Hell, if it hadn’t been for Out of the Past I might very well have ended up going to dental school and sticking sharp objects in peoples’ mouths all day instead of resorting to a life of crime fiction.
Out of the Past has a special tug on a lot of fans’ hearts. If you get a half-dozen crime writers together over a late night glass of single malt at a mystery convention the conversation will inevitably turn to it. Log on to Twitter and you’ll discover gazillions of passionate film noir geeks who’ve found each other there discussing the movie constantly. I speak from experience. I’m one of them.
Yet, somehow, the name Geoffrey Homes never comes up. I honestly have no idea why. So I pose the question again: Is he the unsung godfather of film noir?
Homes became a full-time screenwriter after that. He wrote The Big Steal in 1949, a twisty, terrific caper picture that re-teamed Mitchum and Greer and was directed by the great Don Siegel. And then the name Geoffrey Homes ceased to exist. Daniel Mainwaring stepped out of the shadows and took to writing scripts under his own name. He worked on some tasty little thrillers such as director Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker in 1953 (uncredited) and The Phenix City Story for director Phil Karlsen in 1954 (credited) before he re-teamed with Don Siegel in 1956 to write the script for Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which was based on Jack Finney’s wondrous novel The Body Snatchers. If you’re keeping score at home, that means he wrote the scripts for two genuine Hollywood film classics that we still revere more than 60 years later. That’s not too shabby for someone whom very few people have ever heard of.
He died in 1977, which was just when Out of the Past was starting to show up at revival houses in New York City and Los Angeles and develop a strong cult following. He never lived to see a whole new generation of fans fall in love with his greatest creation, which is a sad thing because if he had then perhaps the name Geoffrey Homes would be at the forefront of the crime fiction world the way it deserves to be.
So I’d like to take this opportunity to give Geoffrey Homes, aka Daniel Mainwaring, a richly deserved shout out. Also pay homage. As a fellow practitioner of the not-so gentle art of murder I can only bow down to the man who wrote what is my favorite exchange of dialogue not only in Out of the Past but in just about any movie I’ve ever seen:
Kathie: “I don’t want to die.”
Jeff: “Neither do I, baby, but if I have to, I’m going to die last.”
* * *