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1947 was a peak year for socially conscious movies about veterans returning from war and experiencing "personal adjustment problems." But film noir thrillers easily adapted the theme to encompass guys with more serious adjustments to make. Often these centered on unfaithful wives, or mental problems brought on by battle wounds as in the classic The Blue Dahlia. And dime-store psychology got into the act with a number of pictures about G.I.'s stricken by that all-purpose dramatic motivator: amnesia.
One of the more intelligent thrillers of this kind, MGM's High Wall gives star Robert Taylor a decent part to play and pairs him with Audrey Totter, one of the more effectively ruthless femme fatales. Unlike some other MGM noirs of the time, namely The Bribe, High Wall does more than go through the motions and throw a lot of dark shadows across the screen. Director Curtis Bernhardt taps the story and performances for all the suspense he can muster.
On the day pilot Steven Kenet (Robert Taylor) returns home, his wife Helen (Dorothy Patrick) is strangled. He's found with the body under highly compromising circumstances. Steven sustained a head injury in the war, underwent one brain operation and is still prone to headaches and mysterious blackouts. Although he claims not to remember what happened, he agrees that it looks like he probably killed his wife. The court psychiatrists insist that Kenet be kept under observation at an asylum, a move that convinces Assistant D.A. Wallace (John Ridgely) that his suspect is working up an insanity defense plea. Convinced that the odds of clearing his name are nil, Kenet refuses to have another operation or to submit to narcosynthesis. Then his mother dies and he learns that his motherless son will be put up for adoption. Doctor Ann Lorrison (Audrey Totter) secretly takes charge of the son and works to convince Steven to at least try to clear his name. That's when Helen's previous employer Willard Whitcombe (Herbert Marshall) shows up at the asylum to see Steven -- and indicates that he knows more about the killing than he's told the police.
Curtis Bernhardt became something of a psychological thriller specialist with his movies Conflict and Possessed. The strongest scenes in High Wall show Bernhardt and cameraman Paul Vogel selectively using subjective camera technique to heighten Steven Kenet's flashback sequences. Kenet tries to remember what happened by allowing Ann Lorrison to give him sodium pentothal, the 'truth drug'. We only really meet Steven's wife Helen in these subjective testimonial flashbacks. It's not difficult to solve the film's mystery, but Sydney Boehm and Lester Cole's script makes the hows and whys of Kenet's traumas more interesting.
Matinee idol Robert Taylor sometimes had difficulty portraying ordinary guys with bad problems, as we expect the handsome Steven Kenet to prevail by raising his voice or arching an eyebrow higher (his piercing eyes and exaggerated brow was the model for the Italian comic character Diabolik). Steven puts his energy into being stubbornly uncooperative. Although he can't remember anything, Kenet seems as resigned to the likelihood of his guilt as is the D.A.. This fundamental negativity nudges his character just over the line into noir territory.
Audrey Totter had already played "wrong dames" in three noirs and would continue to her darkest man-killer part in 1949's Tension. Here her supportive professional helps Kenet to break some major asylum rules -- they sneak out at night to visit the scene of the crime -- and she never has to pay for her indiscretions. A more stringent noir would exploit the idea of a good woman risking her career for love. Totter's accumulated screen image is such that we're half-waiting for her to be unmasked as a betrayer.
The normally gentle Herbert Marshall is an interesting antagonist. All he wants is his promised promotion to partner in the religious publishing firm where he works, and the demanding Helen Kenet is ruining everything. Marshall is also blackmailed by the superintendant in his apartment building, played by actor Vince Barnett, the little guy who can barely talk straight or use the telephone back in Howard Hawks' classic Scarface. Here Barnett is eliminated in a way almost identical to a killing in Fox's The Dark Corner from the year before. A coincidence is always possible, but the scenes are awfully similar.
A modern neurosurgeon might be amused by the film's carefree attitude about hematomas, the success of brain surgery and the use of sodium pentothal as a short cut around amnesiac symptoms. Even though he's all but confessed and is a ward of the court, Kenet has the option of refusing "medical treatment". He uses that choice to prevent the state from gathering more evidence against him for a possible murder trial. But later in the movie, Ann Lorrison administers sodium pentothal to extract a confession from another suspect. This second suspect's right to privacy is invaded on a completely involuntary basis, and nothing is mentioned about whether his confession will be admissible in a court. Nobody so much as offers a complaint!
Impressive MGM production resources enable almost all of High Wall to be filmed right on the studio lot. Even a key shot showing a car delivering Steven Kenet to the asylum (past a high wall) is a clever effects composite. The exteriors of Robert Taylor gunning a car down rural lanes are always at night, and just after a recent rain. The special optical effects to represent Kenet's blackouts are done with finesse and style.
We can imagine Louis B. Mayer shaking his head in confusion and disapproval at these noir movies, along with other postwar MGM thrillers: many of them present the American Family as threatened from all sides. In contrast to Mayer's preferred Andy Hardy fantasy world, family men were getting involved in murder, suffering payback for wartime crimes (Act of Violence), having their children kidnapped and dealing with family tragedies that had no place in the movies before the war: 1951's downbeat Night Into Morning begins with Ray Milland losing his wife and child to a house fire. In High Wall Steven Kenet's life becomes a nightmare in just a few hours. He discovers that he's a dangerous maniac and may have killed his wife. His mother dies from the strain and it looks as if he will lose his son as well. The only hint of the old MGM way of solving problems comes when we find out that Ann Lorrison has taken Kenet's son into her home while his case is pending. No matter that this seems an obvious breach of ethics, or a conflict of interest... at that point we know things will turn out okay.
The venerable H.B. Warner is a pitiful ward patient, while Warner Anderson, Moroni Olson and Morris Ankrum play additional asylum doctors. Dawn-of-cinema comedian George Bunny has a bit in a diner, along with "Mose Harper" Hank Worden.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of High Wall is a crisp and sharp B&W transfer with a flawless picture and audio. The full range of light and shadow shows off Paul Vogel's cinematography, making those brief moments of wide-angle subjective shots really stand out. Also included in Warners' package is an amusing original trailer. Hyped dramatic text proclaims that Taylor's character is a brute and Totter's doctor a seductive man trap.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
High Wall rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.