Curtis Bernhardt’s High Wall stars Robert Taylor as that most venerable of film noir archetypes — the amnesiac combat veteran who may or may not have committed murder.
Bernhardt was one of many German filmmakers who fled the Third Reich to work in Hollywood, and whose dark artistic sensibilities helped create what we now know as “film noir.” So far I’ve seen two other films he made, the excellent melodrama My Reputation (1946), which starred Barbara Stanwyck and George Brent, and the equally excellent psychodrama Possessed (1947), which starred Joan Crawford and Van Heflin.
High Wall lets Bernhardt flex his suspense-thriller muscles a little, and he’s more than up to the task.
At first glance, High Wall looks and feels like any number of similar dramas from RKO Radio Pictures — tight, well-made, black and white flicks designed for the bottom of a double bill — but it was actually produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, a powerhouse of a studio that wasn’t usually in the “noir” business.
High Wall is a pretty lean thriller, but MGM production values are evident in a few scenes, particularly when the protagonist, Steven Kenet (Robert Taylor), is sent to Hamelin County Psychiatric Hospital. The sanitarium features a big cast of extras; there are legions of brusque, businesslike cops and hospital attendants, and dozens of hapless patients lolling around on beds in the open ward. If High Wall had been an on-the-cheap production for Monogram pictures, there probably would have been one night attendant, two other patients, and sets that looked like they were on loan from a theatrical production.
Most of High Wall is shot on sets, so the exteriors are pretty fake-looking, but not distractingly so. Shooting on a soundstage also allows Bernhardt and his cinematographer, Paul Vogel, to create a dramatic rain-swept finale full of rich textures that probably wouldn’t have been possible if they’d been shooting on location.
Also, with such a big cast of loonies, it’s more believable that Kenet has so much difficulty seeing his psychiatrist, Dr. Ann Lorrison (Audrey Totter).
Kenet, you see, looks like the most likely suspect for his wife’s murder. Her strangled corpse was sitting right next to him when he drove his car off a bridge in a daze, after all.
But after Kenet finally gets a few appointments with Dr. Lorrison, she starts to believe that he might be innocent. Lorrison is a no-nonsense salt-of-the-earth gal. (This is evident early in the film when she turns down a male doctor’s offer of a date at the opera because she has Red Sox tickets.)
It’s not just Kenet’s good looks, tragic aura, six-year-old son, and Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star from World War II that attract Lorrison, it’s nagging evidence of his innocence, so she starts helping him escape from the asylum for periods of time so he can investigate upstanding citizen Willard Whitcombe (Herbert Marshall), a middle-aged man who works for Brattle Press Religious Educational Text Books.
Marshall is the perfect villain for this type of melodrama. His bearing is patrician — and his voice is one of the smoothest and most charming you’ll ever hear — but there’s clearly something very wrong with him.
For a good portion of High Wall, it’s possible to be in doubt of the outcome. Kenet looks guilty, even to the viewer, and he suffers from fainting spells. He has a subdural hematoma in the left lobe that’s causing forgetfulness, irritability, and a possible proclivity toward murder and suicide.
High Wall is a fun movie. When it comes to the question of Audrey Totter’s charm and sexiness, I was a little on the fence after Lady in the Lake (1947), but she’s utterly charming in High Wall, and much more natural in High Wall than in Lady in the Lake. (It’s possible that not requiring her to stare into the camera the whole time might have let her deliver a more natural performance.)
I also really like the preview for High Wall. Its claims are actually accurate, too. “So tense. So taut.” That’s true. High Wall is a well-crafted suspense thriller. Also, when the preview says “Robert Taylor — more exciting than in Undercurrent,” that’s an understatement. Undercurrent is really pretty bad, and High Wall is really pretty good: