FROM THE PEN OF DANIEL MAINWARING

mainwaringgallowsRaymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Dashiell Hammett are the triumvirate of noir writers hailed not only for their hard-boiled novels but also for their work as scriptwriters and script doctors during the Golden Age. No one can dispute their importance and influence, but those hallowed names tend to overshadow other writers who contributed to hard-boiled literature and the film noir genre.

I recently stumbled across an old interview conducted by film programmer Tom Flinn with writer Daniel Mainwaring. I knew little about Mainwaring save for his association with two of my favorite films from the 1950s—Out of the Past and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I didn’t even know his name was pronounced “Man-a-ring,” not “Main-wearing.” But after sifting through Flinn’s interview, I was inspired to poke around Mainwaring’s life and career. While his work was not exclusive to the noir genre, I believe it echoed the paranoia and disillusionment that simmered beneath the bright, shiny surface of the 1950s.

Like many Hollywood personnel who rose through the ranks during the Golden Age, Mainwaring experienced an interesting life, which fed into his writing. As a fresh-faced college grad in the Roaring ‘20s, he worked the crime beat for the L.A. Examiner. Around 1935, he made the transition to the film industry, starting at the bottom in the Warner Bros. publicity department. He always claimed that working in the publicity racket gave him an insider’s understanding of the Hollywood dream factory that served him well.

MAINWARING (left) PREFERRED BOGART FOR THE ROLE OF JEFF MARKHAM, BUT HE WAS UNAVAILABLE.

MAINWARING (left) PREFERRED BOGART FOR THE ROLE OF JEFF MARKHAM, BUT HE WAS UNAVAILABLE.

Mainwaring also wrote detective novels under the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes. He created a detective named Robin Bishop, then replaced him with a tougher P.I. called Humphrey Campbell. In 1943, he landed his first scriptwriting assignment from producer Bill Thomas of Pine and Thomas, an independent B-unit bankrolled by Paramount. The first name of both Pine and Thomas was William, resulting in the nickname the “Dollar Bills” because their movies were economical and profitable. The unit specialized in action adventure films, but in the 1940s, they ventured into crime dramas. As a matter of fact, Pine and Thomas had already produced No Hands on the Clock, a Humphrey Campbell drama starring Chester Morris in 1941. Mainwaring penned an exhausting six scripts for Thomas in one year, causing him to flee Hollywood to write a new novel.

Build My Gallows High was published in 1946. Mainwaring had grown weary of simple whodunits and wanted to inject something more into the hard-boiled format with this new novel. Upon publication, Build My Gallows High was picked up by producer Bill Dozier of RKO, who hired Mainwaring to adapt it for the screen. RKO eventually changed the title of the project to Out of the Past, because audience research suggested the original title was not appealing to potential viewers. Released in 1947, Out of the Past (airing on TCM June 26, 1:00pm) became the quintessential classic noir and Daniel Mainwaring’s biggest contribution to film history.

DICKIE MOORE AS "THE KID"

DICKIE MOORE AS “THE KID”

THE KID SNAGS JOE THE HENCHMAN WHO TAKES A NASTY FALL. NOTE THE HOOK IN JOE'S TRENCHCOAT.

THE KID SNAGS JOE THE HENCHMAN WHO TAKES A NASTY FALL. NOTE THE HOOK IN JOE’S TRENCHCOAT.

Mainwaring penned the first draft, but producer Warren Duff was unsatisfied and hired James M. Cain for a rewrite. Instead, Cain tossed out Mainwaring’s draft and wrote a completely new story with no basis in the novel. Duff disliked it, hired another writer to work on the original, then pulled Mainwaring back in to the project to rework his original script. In both of his versions, Mainwaring kept a great deal from the novel, including the opening sequence in which someone from Jeff Markham’s seedy past finds the former P.I. running a gas station in a small town. Jeff’s only friend and employee is a deaf-mute teenager known as “the Kid.” The Kid is the key character in the scene that really sold the story to Duff: Using a fishing rod, the Kid hooks a henchman and pulls him off a cliff to his death. Differences from the novel include the San Francisco locale; in the book it was New York. And, not surprisingly, the ending was changed to satisfy the Production Code office. Interestingly, in Mainwaring’s original version of the script, the story was told from the first-person perspective of the Kid; in the final version, the narrative point of view is Jeff’s. Telling the story as a deaf-mute’s first-person account sounds innovative and experimental, though film noir is well-known for its narratives with unusual, complex, and even convoluted structures (Lady in the Lake; The Locket; Dark Passage).

THE SCENE IN WHICH JEFF SITS AT A CAFE IN ACAUPULCO LISTENING TO THE MUSIC FROM A MOVIE THEATER WAS A PAGE FROM MAINWARING'S REAL-LIFE EXPEREINCES.

THE SCENE IN WHICH JEFF SITS AT A CAFE IN ACAPULCO LISTENING TO THE MUSIC FROM A MOVIE THEATER WAS A PAGE FROM MAINWARING’S REAL-LIFE EXPERIENCES.

According to Mainwaring in the interview, the title Build My Gallows High came from a line in a poem by an African American author, but he could not remember the poet or the poem. With a little bit of digging, I found a poem credited to Tony Bush called “Will Shepard,” which tells the story of someone who kills the man who shot his dog.

The carpenter with wood and nails,

Who builds my gallows high;

My vengeance has been satisfied

As far as I can see,

For that old dog Will Shepard shot

Meant all the world to me.

MAINWARING CLAIMED MITCHUM SMOKED POT DURING THE ENTIRE SHOOT, THOUGH CINEMATOGRAPHER NICHOLAS MUSURACA DISPUTED THIS.

MAINWARING CLAIMED MITCHUM SMOKED POT DURING THE ENTIRE SHOOT, THOUGH CINEMATOGRAPHER NICHOLAS MUSURACA DISPUTED THIS.

I am not convinced that this is the poem in question; it could be that Bush was also inspired by the phrase, which so perfectly sums up a situation in which a man is responsible for his own downfall or ruin.

More importantly, Mainwaring injected a gravitas into the narrative of Out of the Past and firmly established one of the genre’s key themes: No one can escape the past, meaning redemption is not a possibility no matter the circumstance. The theme is responsible for the sense of foreboding that dominates the film, creating the melancholy mood that defines classic noir.

In the following decade, Mainwaring hit his prime, scripting three films that, according to Flinn, “represent the perfect cinematic realization of the burgeoning middle-class paranoia of the 1950s.” The third in this trio, the sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1957), in which aliens literally take over the hearts and minds of small-town America, became the most famous. The other two fall into the film noir genre and reflect the impact of corruption and crime on ordinary, honest citizens. The Hitchhiker (1953, airing July 10, 1:30am) tells the story of two average family men on a fishing trip who are terrorized by a criminal; The Phenix City Story (1955) pits a forthright attorney general against the organized vice rings that plague the big city. Minor noirs attributed to Mainwaring include The Big Steal (1949) and The Lawless (1950), which he scripted, and Roadblock (1951, July 24, 6:45am), based on his original material. He also penned the gangster saga Baby Face Nelson (1957) and the crime drama The Gun Runners (1958) for Don Siegel.

Mainwaring concluded his Hollywood career in episodic television, showing his range by penning scripts for series as diverse as The Wild, Wild West and Mannix. He died in 1977.

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