Friday, July 03, 2009

High Wall (1947)

High Wall (1947), starring Robert Taylor and Audrey Totter is a little known Noir melodrama currently unavailable on DVD which has received scant and mixed reviews in print. This is too bad because the film is a real treat and in my opinion a fine quality Noir that is definitely worth seeing.

The movie features many of the typical Noir themes; the returning World War 2 veteran having difficulty adjusting to postwar civilian life, the unfaithful wife, mental illness, a murder and the police procedural details in solving the crime as well as the hypocrisy of respected members of society who seem like fine upstanding citizens but who are in reality corrupt and evil.

High Wall is an MGM production which seems a little odd as the film looks like pure RKO to me, although MGM did make many excellent Noirs including two of my favorites The Postman Always Rings Twice and Asphalt Jungle. The movie is competently directed by Curtis Bernhardt, yet another German director who fled Nazi persecution only to enrich the Hollywood Film Noir Canon with Germanic filmcraft. His other Noir credits include Possessed with Joan Crawford and two films with Humphrey Bogart; Conflict and Sirocco. The screenplay was written by Sydney Boehm and Lester Cole. Boehm is perhaps best known for penning The Big Heat as well as many other Noirs including Side Street, Mystery Street and Union Station. Cole is credited with writing the screenplay for movies like Blood On The Sun (with Jimmy Cagney), Objective Burma (with Errol Flynn) and The House of the Seven Gables (with George Sanders and Vincent Price). Cole is probably more famous as one of the Hollywood Ten and was blacklisted shortly after High Wall by The House Un American Activities Committee. Subsequently he was unemployed for most of the 1950’s, although he later wrote the script (under a pseudonym) for the hugely successful family film Born Free. The film score, composed by Bronisław Kaper is surprisingly subdued for the era and provides the right moody atmosphere. To me the real reason to watch the film is the deep, rich blackness of the cinematography. Each mise en scene appears to have been carefully constructed and lovingly photographed by Paul Vogel, who was credited as the cinematographer in that same year, 1947 for the movie Lady in the Lake, which I personally dislike but nevertheless was an original idea for making a movie. Some of Vogel’s other Noir cinematography credits included Scene of the Crime, Black Hand and Dial 1119.


Robert Taylor, once considered one of Hollywood’s most handsome men was mainly known for action type roles in Westerns and War movies but he had just made another Noir with Robert Mitchum named Undercurrent which itself was unique for a Noir in that it was directed by Vincente Minelli and featured Katherine Hepburn, neither of whom are names usually associated with the genre. Audrey Totter needs no real intro to Noir fans and this is one of the few roles I actually feel some sympathy for. Personally I dislike her and find her coarse and unattractive but here, in High Wall she gets an opportunity to ditch the tough talking dame act to play a classy woman with a heart of gold. Herbert Marshall is excellent as the oily and hypocritical villain. Marshall was a workhorse English character actor of stage and screen, among whose many other acting credits include The Letter directed by William Wyler and starring Bette Davis and Otto Preminger’s Angel Face as the father of the truly disturbed daughter character played by Jean Simmons.


The movie starts in a nightclub, swathed in shadows, with a jazz orchestra playing quiet nocturnal music. The camera moves past a Dark City skyline to alight on a pensive Willard Whitcombe (Herbert Marshall) sitting at the bar. This opening shot perfectly sets the mood. Whitcombe leaves and returns to his office, where he pauses at the office door long enough for us to discover that he works at a Liturgical Publishing House. This dichotomy of a loner at a bar working as a manager for a Religion based business immediately tells us that this man is not exactly what he seems. He asks his dutiful secretary if one of his assistants- Mrs Kenet has returned and is told that her husband had come to the office looking for her and that she was not likely to return that evening.

Next the scene cuts to a car moving at breakneck speed, literally. We now get out first glimpse of the protagonist, Steven Kenet (Robert Taylor) through the windshield of an automobile moving at full throttle. The camera focuses at medium range on the driver, a despondent, distraught and disheveled man with eyes full of fury. In the seat next to him is the limp, lifeless form of a woman. We hear the distant cry of police sirens. Suddenly the car veers off the road and flips over into a river bed.

Next we are at the police station where we discover that the lifeless woman is Kenet’s wife and he confesses to strangling her. Unfortunately Kenet is not in his right frame of mind. He is suffering from brain damage and cannot be charged while he is mentally unstable, so he is sent to a Mental Hospital. Enter Dr Lorrison (Audrey Totter), a single, blonde and attractive female physician. The film next develops the characters. We find out that Kenet has a wife and son living with his mother, that he has been in Burma for two years and that the DA is itching for Kenet to have surgery so they can prosecute Kenet for murdering his wife.

We quickly find that Kenet’s mother has died and Dr Lorrison uses the threat of Kenet’s son becoming an orphan to coerce him into the surgery. We also find out the Doctor has taken temporary custody of Kenet’s child without Kenet knowing. Kenet is now consumed with getting through a trial so he can provide for his son.

Due to some attempted blackmail and some medically induced flashbacks, the truth behind his wife’s murder is slowly revealed and the plot fully developed. We find out that Kenet’s wife was a wartime bride, was greedy, materialistic and not a particularly good mother and that she was having an affair with Whitcombe. Nevertheless Kenet faces huge obstacles in getting justice, some of them self induced. Fortunately he is aided by Doctor Lorrison who begins to fall for Kenet. There are chases and manhunts through rain soaked streets and two small but essential scenes featuring Vince Barnett, known to Noir fans as Burt Lancaster’s cellmate in The Killers and as Mugsy in Brute Force. We find out that Whitcombe turns out to be not only an adulterer but an embezzler as well in a richly ironic way.

There are some interesting plot twists but in the end we do get a Hollywood ending. The code demanded that evil must be punished but the overwhelming tone of the movie is that the world is a dark, foreboding place full of cynical and corrupt hypocrites and the few decent people in it face overwhelming odds in surviving. Like so many Noirs of those years 1946 and 1947 High Wall really shows a world that is out of joint and where betrayal and mistrust are commonplace. Thematically the movie shares some of the same elements as The Blue Dahlia which is also about a returning war hero who is accused of killing his unfaithful wife. Also like Blue Dahlia, High Wall shows a world that stinks with corruption and where everyone has a price. Taylor is a better actor than Ladd and the direction and cinematography is better than Dahlia. Of course the latter has Veronica Lake and has William Bendix who is a familiar and comfortable face for old movie buffs. Both movies are good Noirs and certainly Dahlia has the notoriety of being the inspiration for a real life L.A. murder but I do think High Wall is a slightly better film. The rich, deep blackness that envelops the film is delicious both visually and metaphorically. The only sunshine in the film occurs in flashback. It’s as if a High Wall separates the postwar world of darkness from the sunshine of the past.


Written by Tim Brophy


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10 comments:

  1. I never step into an elevator but that "High Wall" comes to mind. Robert Taylor's work in the 50s is very intriguing to me.

    Note: your finger slipped when typing the director of "The Letter". You meant Wyler, not Wilder.

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  2. thanks for catching that. I, too, always confuse Wilder with Wyler...

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  3. Let's you know I was paying attention!

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  4. your blog is really cool! is this just a hobby or is this your job sort of? great job. ill be back :)

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  5. The High Wall is indeed a worthy Noir, and I share the opinion that Taylor is much more interesting once the glamor started to fade.

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  6. A very hard film to find, I was fotunate to get it taped when it played on TCM back in '02. My ex-wife(a hairdresser) had a client who was in her 90's and one afternoon I asked her who her favorite movie star was. I routinely would loan films from my collection to my wife's clients and believe it or not I was hard pressed to find any films that her favorite (Robert Taylor) was in. I offered her "Camile" but she already had it so I loaned her "The High Wall." In the back of mind I thought that I would never see the tape again with her being of such advanced age and all, but the next time that she was wheeled in to get her hair done she had the VHS copy in her purse. "Not his typical role," she said, "but I liked it a lot." She would pass away less than a week later.

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  7. Lucky for me, the Noir City film fest in San Francisco is starting tonight, and this is the first feature. Can't wait!

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  8. THE HIGH WALL is available through the Warner Archive.

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  9. “...Thematically the movie shares some of the same elements as 'The Blue Dahlia' (1946) which is also about a returning war hero who is accused of killing his unfaithful...”

    Hi Tim,

    Yes, an excellent comparison, "The Blue Dahlia" (1946) and "High Wall" (1947) share many of the same classic film noir themes from the post-WWII period (1946-47).

    Let me also add "Dead Reckoning" (1947) to that same list starring Humphrey Bogart as a returning vet, along with his fellow paratrooper William Prince. The William Prince character is suspected of having killed a rich man who was in love with his wife before the war. The themes are much like those in "High Wall" and "The Blue Dahlia". They have much in common.

    “...Like so many Noirs of those years 1946 and 1947 High Wall really shows a world that is out of joint and where betrayal and mistrust are commonplace...”

    You are so right. This same “out of joint” dark world also appears in a British film noir entitled "They Made Me a Fugitive" (1947) starring Trevor Howard. Again a returning ex-serviceman falsely accused of murder. As you said, “...it shows a world that stinks with corruption and where everyone has a price.”

    Thank you for your wonderful website.

    Enjoy the Movies!

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  10. I got to see this film tonight and agree totally; it is a real treat. Robert Taylor puts in a terrific performance reflecting a great range of emotions. I disagree about Herbert Marshall who I've always considered one of the most boring actors of the period. Yes the character he plays is slimy but he just projects the same image that he does in all his films: a dignified aloof gent.
    I enjoyed having it set in a mental institution and found the climatic rainy scenes very striking.

    Cheers
    Mimaroba

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