Friday, July 24, 2009

Mystery Street (1950)

Vivian Holden (Jan Sterling) is having some problems. She’s dead broke, owes her landlady two weeks worth of rent and the mysterious Hyannis 3633 man she keeps trying to reach on the phone is giving her the run around. In desperation, Vivian takes advantage of innocent-bystander Henry Shanway (Marshall Thompson), a sad man drinking away his sorrows in attempt to forget his sick wife current hospital stay. Vivian drives Henry’s yellow Ford down to Hyannis from Boston, abandoning Henry along the way. When Vivian finally confronts the Hyannis man that has been eluding her, she finds herself face-to-face with the barrel of his gun.

Six months later, Vivian Holden’s bones are found at a beach, but only we, the audience, know that those bones are hers. It’s up to Lieutenant Peter Moralas (Ricardo Montalban) solve the mystery of both the crime and to identity the victim. What results is an intriguing film noir, directed by John Sturges, that blends murder mystery with forensic science. If anyone tells you forensic science is a new phenomenon in contemporary entertainment, just direct that person to Mystery Street (1950) and they will be in for a pleasant surprise.

Even decades before DNA analysis and other technological advancements in criminal science, the forensis used in this film are still very advanced and relevant. With very little to go one, besides the partial skeleton of Vivian, the doctor is able to determine age, gender, time of death, cause of death and even the victim’s occupation from his vast knowledge of human anatomy and plant pathology. Even a jaded CSI-watching contemporary could still appreciate the intricacies and the methods used in the film’s forensic study.

Montalban plays Lietuenant Moralas, a local officer who has just been put on his first murder case. This is a considerably difficult case because all the detective is left with to go by are bones, hair and leaves. He works together with a Harvard scientist Dr. McAdoo (Bruce Bennett) who specializes in using his science to solve particularly difficult criminal cases. McAdoo brings an unbiased viewpoint to this mystery. To him, the solving of the mystery boils down to scientific study. He doesn’t make assumptions or come to any early conclusions, rather he allows the evidence and the revelation of the clues tell him the story.

Moralas (Montalban) on the otherhand is McAdoo’s polar opposite. He’s the streetsmart to McAdoo’s booksmart and has developed his detective skills from working with people rather than science. Moralas watches people intently and deals with them on an individual basis. He uses neither aggression nor compliance but basically charms his way into people’s confidence by his own charisma. However, his major flaw is that, unlike McAdoo, Moralas jumps to conclusions and this can alienate key witnesses in the investigation that he could have alternately brought into his confidence.

Mystery Street (1950)
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The dynamic between Montalban and Bennett in their differing temperments and the juxtaposition of their characters makes for an interesting film. However, I would be remiss to not point out the wonderful performance of Elsa Lanchester as the landlady Mrs. Smerrling. Smerrling is a live wire; a neurotic who can easily throw the investigation for a loop. Moralas is suspicious of her motives at the very beginning but is also intrigued by what information she can provide. Smerrling is nosy, money-hungry and uses Vivian’s life and death for her own selfish purposes. She leads a drab life and becomes intoxicated by the power her connection with Vivian and her knowledge has over the various men involved in the case. Lanchester does a superb job tapping into the Smerrling’s neuroses bringing us a character who is both apalling and enthralling to watch on screen.

Besides the blend of forensic science and old-fashioned gumshoe work, what is also interesting about this film is that it is shot entirely on location in Boston, Cambridge, Roxbury, Hyannis and Barnstable, Massachusetts. As a Boston local, my heart went pitter patter when I saw the familiar sites of the gate entrance of Harvard University on Massachusetts Avenue and Harvard Yard. In the short documentary “Mystery Street: Murder at Harvard”, we learn that after WWII, more and more films were shot on location and that Mystery Street might be the earliest example of a film shot entirely in the Boston area. What we get is the added element of real locations becoming part of the story which in my opinion enhances the movie watching experience.

Written by Raquelle
Raquelle blogs about classic films at her always-interesting site, Out of the Past.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Crime of Passion (1957)

“Strange offenses committed by seemingly normal people”: The Subversion of the American Dream in Crime of Passion (1957)

“Don’t call me Angel. I loathe it.”

The subversion of the American dream is the theme in the superb proto feminist film Crime of Passion, from director Gerd Oswald (A Kiss Before Dying, Screaming Mimi). Released in 1957, Crime of Passion is a woman-centered noir--a film ahead of its time in its depiction of a career woman who sinks into housewife hell and is subsequently driven to commit murder.

The American dream may be a happy marriage, a car, a couple of screaming kids and a mortgage on a little house in suburbia, but it’s not the dream of Kathy Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck), tough-as-nails columnist for a San Francisco paper. Ambitious, efficient and all business, Kathy delivers her story in spite of obstacles, and when the film opens, Kathy is at work at her desk. A fellow employee reads her a lonely-hearts letter from a reader that includes a confession of loving a married man. The reader, seeking advice, asks Kathy what to do, and Kathy tartly replies: “forget the man, run away with his wife.” This revealing comment reflects Kathy’s outward attitude to marriage and men: there’s no room for either in her life, but that all changes when a couple of Los Angeles cops arrive in San Francisco to nab a woman who’s murdered her husband.

Kathy expects to work with the police and build a story about the fugitive woman, but the L.A cops, snotty Captain Alidos (Royal Dano) and his quiet partner Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden) don’t cooperate. Alidos’s condescending attitude towards career women shows when he tells Kathy she should be home ‘making dinner for her husband.’ This re-direction to the kitchen leaves Kathy momentarily speechless, but fiercely competitive, she comes out fighting by appealing through a newspaper column for the murderess to contact her directly. The column focuses on the shared female experience:

“There you are deserted by him in whom you have placed all your faith. We are alone. Women tortured by fate, betrayed by all men. Where can we turn except to the heart and the understanding of another woman who knows what you are suffering? I feel for you. I suffer with you. I want to help you. Let me stand by your side in your fight for justice and compassion in a world made by men and for men.”

This commonality of female experience is depicted through cleverly paced scenes that show various types of women reading Kathy’s column aloud. While the female-centered column is directed to the fugitive murderess, lonely housewives, working women, bar girls and a couple of tough female cabbies--women from all walks of life read Kathy’s column and it’s as though she addresses them personally.

Alidos pressures Kathy for information on the whereabouts of the killer and threatens to have her arrested if she doesn’t comply, and she sends him off on a wild goose chase, offering to give the arrest to the gentler, meeker Doyle. But the ambitionless Doyle draws the line at double-crossing his partner, and the two L.A. cops get their fugitive killer courtesy of Kathy’s information.

After acknowledging a mutual attraction, Kathy and Doyle share a candlelit dinner, and during the gooey moments, Doyle asks Kathy if she wants to get married. He believes there’s no better goal in life than to be married and raise a family Kathy replies that she doesn’t think she’ll ever get married. It’s all “propaganda,” Kathy firmly states: “For marriage, I read life sentence. Home life, I read TV nights, beer in the fridge, second mortgage.”

Some time later, Kathy lands a plum job in New York, but while she clears her desk at work, a call comes in from Doyle. He wants Kathy to detour to Los Angeles on her way to New York. At first she puts up obstacles, but then folds and lets Doyle make all the arrangements.

Kathy’s career is put on permanent hold when she marries Doyle. There’s a swift, no frills ceremony before a female Justice of the Peace with Captain and Mrs. Alidos standing as witnesses. Mrs. Alidos (Virginia Grey) breaks the spell by telling Kathy to feel free to come to her with all of her “little problems.” After the ceremony, Kathy and Doyle return to his modest house in the suburbs. It’s a perfectly timed scene, and Doyle’s car pulls in the driveway to the accompanying sounds of children playing, a dog barking and an ice cream van jingle. Yes, Kathy has arrived in housewife hell.

Kathy, narcotized by the promise of sex, is still in her delusional phase--although the sight of the house--exactly like all the others on the street--does seem to take the wind out of her sails momentarily. There’s another gooey scene with Kathy telling Doyle she only has “one ambition,” and that’s to be a “good wife.” She even goes as far as to gushingly confess, “I hope all your socks have holes in them and that I can sit for hours and hours darning them.” The film makes it clear that it’s sex--plain and simple--that binds this disparate pair together, and Doyle, who has a certain crumpled charm, growls that he has “other plans” for his new wife, and with the bedroom door invitingly open, the scene closes with Doyle following Kathy into the passion pit.

Sometime later, Kathy is immersed in her life as the wife of a policeman. Her evenings are spent in an endless round of meaningless chatter with the other wives as the men, segregated from the women, engage in cop talk, discuss pensions, swill beer and play cards. This leaves Kathy with the mindless wives, and like geese, the squawking women flock around Sara, the captain’s wife, in a circle jerk of gushing, fawning compliments. The obnoxious Sara Alidos holds court amongst the Stepford wives while they compete to see who can be the most obsequious. Kathy, desperate for some intelligent conversation, tries invading the male domain a few times, but even though she breaches the walls, she’s rapidly put in her place. Surrounded by nauseatingly silly women obsessed with hors d’oeuvres, television sets and dress patterns, it looks as though Kathy is being driven to the point of insanity, but then she hatches a scheme….

Kathy chafes at her husband’s lack of ambition without realizing that this frustration is just sublimation of her own thwarted career. Kathy plays hardball in order to secure a relationship with the woman she sees as being the most influential female on the totem pole of power, Inspector Pope’s wife, Alice (Fay Wray). Sara Alidos has made it perfectly clear to the other wives that as the captain’s wife she’s on a exclusive first name basis with Alice Pope, and so Kathy tricks her way into the Popes’ elite social circle. Soon Kathy and Doyle are rubbing shoulders with the Inspector and the Commissioner. There’s one great scene where Pope (Raymond Burr) is serving drinks when he witnesses Mrs. Alidos wrestling for the limelight with Kathy Doyle. Kathy, whose newspaperwoman sharpness has finally resurfaced, delivers a cutting remark that leaves her adversary speechless. Pope is intrigued and he makes a point of singling out Kathy.

While Doyle is out of his league with Kathy, never understanding the depths of her character, Pope spots Kathy a mile away, and he isn’t fooled one minute by her fake wifely persona. Pope and Kathy understand each other perfectly, and there’s a charged sexual attraction simmering from the first time they meet. The relationship, laced with innuendo, will inevitability lead to a coupling of intellectual equals.

Crime of Passion is an amazingly bold film for its time. Not only does the plot effectively eviscerate the American Dream, but it also laces the drama with two contrasting visions of female relationships. On one hand, there are the wives of the police department--giddy, silly, bitchy vacuous women who seem bred for lives of conspicuous consumption (note the lengthy manicure session Kathy has with Alice Pope), and then there are ‘other’ women--the hard-edged kind who struggle and fight their way in the male-dominated workplace: Kathy, the female justice of the peace, and two female cab drivers, for example.

As a columnist Kathy appeals to the linear experience of women--the shared lot in life--whereas with the police wives, she’s forced into the position of an underling in a fiercely hierarchical system. In this male dominated world, the police wives cannot affect their husbands’ careers other than offer endless support while they ‘fit in’ to the intensely political social evenings. While the policemen’s wives support their husbands’ careers with mega-sessions of ass kissing, paradoxically they also shorten their husbands’ careers with their emotional and mental demands. Ultimately these women--designated to the kitchen and sock darning--seem sadly stunted in their boxed-in roles of happy housewives.

Criticism of the film is often directed to the implausibility of career-minded Kathy marrying Doyle in the first place, and indeed the film does present ‘two Kathys.’ It’s easy for us to predict disaster for Kathy and Doyle as their wildly disparate values are laid out very early in the film. He wants marriage and a family, and she wants a career. Kathy even notes Doyle’s lack of ambition and comments that while he’s a “nice guy,” he won’t go far in life, and yet in spite of all the evidence that screams against these two ever maintaining a successful relationship, they plunge headlong into marriage with disastrous results. This is Kathy’s first mistake. Her second mistake is her decision to take a short cut to power through Inspector Pope. Both of these mistakes are guided by sex. While Kathy wanted a career and didn’t want marriage, she hadn’t placed sex in the equation. She marries Doyle thanks to a strong sexual attraction and she hunts Pope for the same reason. While Kathy claims that her relationship with Pope is guided by her desire to further her husband’s career, the air between Pope and Kathy is too electrically charged with sexual anticipation for Kathy’s ‘sacrifice’ theory to fly.

Kathy should have ripped off her apron and gone back to the newspaper.

Written by Guy Savage


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Laura (1944)

Once you're dead, every inch of you will be searched. Not just your body, but all your belongings. The things you have hidden in your house or apartment; the things you prize, and the things you're ashamed of. Stuff you believe safe, that no one else in the world will ever see. Your most private possessions. Journal pages. Secrets. And every concrete detail to who you were as a human being before you died.

Whether it's pilfered through by your next of kin, or by the police, depends on whether or not you get murdered.

According to Lt. Mark McPherson, "Murder victims have no claim to privacy."

But what if the detective, in charge of finding your killer, makes a second home of your apartment? Enjoys pilfering through your belongings. What if he falls in love with you! Simply from staring at your portrait? And one stormy night, while sleeping with too much scotch in his veins, he imagines you resurrected and walking through the living room.

Mark McPherson -- played by Dana Andrews -- is a young detective who's never met the woman of his dreams. And now that's he's found her, she's already dead!

But Laura Hunt is more than just the murder victim in McPherson's latest investigation; and more than just a pretty face in a painting: she's also in the memories, and on the lips and pen of famous New York columnist, Waldo Lydecker -- played by the equally effeminate, well-dressed, and clever, Clifton Webb.

Waldo: and his precious, razor-sharp tongue and wit. Currently writing Laura's story in the bathtub, as the film opens, with Lt. Mark McPherson pawing at delicate antiques. Unaware that he is being studied by Waldo, who purposely left the bathroom door ajar...

Now despite his love for the deceased Laura Hunt, I believe Waldo -- like Webb -- is essentially asexual. Too refined to let loose sexually with ANY gender; physically though, I think Waldo craved men; but emotionally and mentally, he wanted Laura.

And every time she fell in love with another man, Waldo would dismiss him as unworthy of Laura; since Laura was Waldo's Pygmalion-esque creation, and obviously the world is unworthy of glorious HIM.

So yes, Waldo thinks himself superior to everyone, regardless of gender. But observe how fond he is of Mark in the opening scene. Of how comfortable he is, in washing himself, dressing himself, even rising from the tub, in front of Mark.

Upon realizing who Mark McPherson is -- a few years prior, McPherson gained a hero's reputation by taking down a gangster, and receiving a leg full of lead in the process -- Waldo says, "I always liked that detective with the silver shinbone."

Ha. I'll bet he did.

Though I assure you, McPherson isn't interested.

The handsome and subtle detective, like Dana Andrews himself, is very masculine.

So desperate not to lose his temper, Mark plays with a handheld baseball game throughout the film. "It keeps me calm," he says.

But upon seeing it for the first time, Waldo begins with his 'usual pattern' of emasculating any and all men who surround him; the unworthy -- If Waldo can't be a real man, no one can! -- but is amused by Mark for being something of a realist; a purist detective who cares only about getting at the truth.

Mark, on the other hand, is rarely amused, and never impressed by the likes of Waldo and Laura: high-society New Yorkers with fancy apartments, luxurious belongings, and seemingly-platonic relationships. [Yawn]

Speaking of platonic, Mark agrees to have dinner with Waldo. This is when the flash-backs begin. And where we finally meet Laura, as played by the gorgeous Gene Tierney.

Investigating her murder, but also delving into this rich world that McPherson is unfamiliar with, this world he believes is false, and snobbish, Mark becomes fascinated. Perhaps not by the shimmering edifice of the world itself, but of how it's former resident, Laura Hunt, could have been suckered into it! She sounds like a nice girl, and here's Waldo Lydecker, talking about how he added a layer of gloss to her, and made her as well-known as his own walking-stick.

A possession.

A lump in the coal that slightly revealed itself -- that day in the Algonquin hotel, where Laura approached the famous Lydecker, in hopes of his endorsement of an advertising campaign she created herself -- and he saw this naive, fresh-faced young beauty, also with brains and talent. But Waldo mainly saw Laura's potential. He plucked the untouched diamond from the earth. He dusted it off (or so he thought) and made a bracelet of her! Polished her. Gave her a sense of culture and breeding.

In reality, Laura's upbringing and beliefs were more akin to Mark's. But Waldo knew Laura was capable of rising up to HIS lofty level. He could never find another human-being he felt was as good as him, or deserving enough, to be near him. At least Laura was close enough...he used her career as a starting point, as an excuse! Waldo then molded Laura into his ideal woman.

And Laura allowed it, because it would skyrocket her beloved career. But in going along with Waldo's 'renovations' of her -- improving her looks, her wardrobe, her social status -- Laura began to feel less human. More like one of the cold, glass ornaments in Waldo's collection.

But then she met Shelby Carpenter -- in whom Laura found her chance to be WOMAN again, for a cold glass ornament can't have sex with a big handsome man! -- as played by Vincent Price.

Waldo brags to Mark how he was always capable of destroying Laura's affections for undeserving men, but with Carpenter, Waldo failed to dissuade her. And at the time of her death, Shelby and Laura were engaged.

But Waldo assures Mark that Laura was having second thoughts. She made more money than Shelby. Her career was above his, and she was strong and independent. Perhaps due to his Southern heart and mindset, Shelby soon felt insecure, and less of a man. He had to PROVE he was a man! The same way Laura proved she was a going out and screwing around; Shelby cheated on Laura, not only with an attractive young model, named Diane Redfern, but also with Ann Treadwell, Laura's own aunt!

Scandalous: yes.

But I don't think Laura truly enters Film Noir territory until Waldo relinquishes the film's narration, allowing Mark to become the official view-point character.

After that, everything gets a little darker...

The painting of Laura watches over Mark as he drowns his sorrows. In the bedroom, he inspects her closet, smells her perfume, and fondles the contents of her dresser drawer -- delicates? Sure, but where's Waldo to tell him not to! -- besides, they're not breakable.

Neither was Laura.

Alone in her apartment. Only a few feet away from the spot where she was murdered! The rain pours, and the clock chimes, and after one last glimpse of Laura's portrait, Mark drinks himself to sleep.

It's debatable whether or not the remainder of the film is actually real or Mark's dream.

When Laura Hunt enters her own apartment, she automatically becomes a suspect for killing Diane Redfern, the girl that was actually shot last Friday night; she was also the model Shelby Carpenter had sex with!

Gee, why would Laura want to kill her?

Mark doesn't care; Mark's thrilled! Not because Laura might be guilty of murder, and therefore sent to prison, or worse! But because his dream woman is a reality now -- flesh and blood, and all that goes with it! -- and by walking into her apartment. By returning to the scene of her own death? No! To the scene of the crime. By stepping down from her own painting; by finally leaving the pedestal built for her by Waldo Lydecker, Laura also finds Mark. A man not here to worship her, but protect her. A man with a capital M. Wanting to make love to her, for she is giving, and optimistic, warm and friendly; not fodder for a platonic relationship! Like with Waldo...her sardonic and possibly sadistic Henry Higgins, to whom Laura always felt indebted.

To Mark, Laura owes nothing.

And Mark doesn't feel insecure, like Shelby and Waldo. Mark is one hundred percent man, with nothing to prove! No reason to make Laura into living proof that he deserves an attractive woman. He wants to take her out of that glass cabinet, and remind her that she's human! A real woman: not a trophy, or a status-symbol, or an old diamond bracelet never worn.

Laura likes finding Mark in her apartment.

"As if he were waiting for me," she says.

So once the crime of 'Who killed Diane Redfern while mistaking her for Laura Hunt' is resolved, Mark and Laura can live happily ever after!

Or maybe not.

Perhaps Laura IS a dream, a ghost, a vision from too much Scotch! The beautiful idea of Heaven while McPherson has succumbed to alcohol poisoning -- someone cue the Twilight Zone theme!

And of course there's always the major problem of whoever tried to murder Laura Hunt, RETURNING to murder Laura Hunt! Now that she's returned from the grave.

But at least this will give Mark McPherson the chance to save his dream woman: and that's more than he could ever do for her portrait, or her ghost.

If you don't know who the killer is, I'm not gonna outright spoil it -- I've already ruined the 'twist', the least I can do is salvage the ending -- but even knowing the killer's identity, the finale is shocking to see.

And surely the ghost of Diane Redfern will enjoy the ironic sight of her own killer dying in the same spot, in the same apartment...

I'm guessing Mark sent someone else to pilfer through Diane's apartment? It must not have included a giant portrait, and a bottle of scotch...

Ha. But who needs it? Mark has Laura, and the music swells, and I could watch it a million times over!

Laura. A unique, romantic mystery. Perhaps not a strict film noir, but a classic: unforgettable.

Written by Ginger Ingenue
Her website is must read.


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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