Wednesday, April 14, 2010

High Wall (MGM, 1947)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was High Wall, a 1947 film noir Robert Taylor made right after he was released from the U.S. military (he was in the Naval Reserve and according to his site directed 17 training films; unlike Clark Gable, James Stewart and Tyrone Power, he doesn’t seem to have seen actual combat) — in which he was given the life-imitates-art casting of a returning serviceman, Steven Kenet (the last name makes an awkward sound on the soundtrack because one keeps thinking it’s “Kenneth”), who’s arrested and thrown into a psychiatric hospital to see if he’s sane enough to stand trial for the murder of his wife Helen (Dorothy Patrick).

Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne compared this film to The Lost Weekend — another example of the casting of an actor with a pretty-boy image against “type” in a dramatic role — but the film seems closer to The Blue Dahlia, also about the murder of a servicemember’s faithless spouse and her husband becoming the prime suspect and having to prove his innocence to the authorities. Even the names of the victims, “Helen,” and their sons, “Dickie,” are the same in The Blue Dahlia and High Wall (though the son is dead in The Blue Dahlia and alive in High Wall).

It seems that after the war Steven didn’t return home immediately; after flying bombers and receiving the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star, he couldn’t give up the life and flew for another year or so in Burma, where he cracked up, had his second brain injury and got a diagnosis from a company doctor that he was mentally impaired — and the cops are suspecting he’s trying to use that as an excuse to kill his wife and then plead temporary insanity and win acquittal. To find out the truth, the people running the psych hospital assign his case to Dr. Ann Lorrison (the remarkable Audrey Totter), who by claiming that Steven’s son is in a state orphanage and will remain there even if Steven escapes the law, gets Steven to agree first to a brain operation to cure the damage done in his second crackup (earlier it’s been established that when he was in the official U.S. military he had a similar accident and operation) and then to “narcosynthesis,” which basically means interrogation under sodium pentothal — only once he relives the crime in a drug-induced state under Dr. Lorrison’s questioning, Steven becomes convinced that he didn’t kill his wife at all: he grabbed her and started to choke her, but then let her go and blacked out.

The film isn’t on the level of The Lost Weekend or The Blue Dahlia but it’s still good noir, expertly directed by Curtis Bernhardt (on loan from Warners, probably because someone at MGM realized none of their “house” directors could really do justice to a script like this) based on a screenplay by Sidney Boehm (who’d later adapt two William McGivern novels into the noir classics The Big Heat and Rogue Cop, the latter again with Robert Taylor) and Lester Cole (whom arch-conservative Taylor would later denounce to the House Committee on Un-American Activities) based on a play by Alan R. Clark and Bradbury Foote, and though it suffers from a mid-film reversal in which Dr. Lorrison inexplicably falls in love with Steven and helps him escape and get back to the apartment where the killing took place (and later it’s revealed that Dr. Lorrison had Steven’s son all the time and was keeping him with her aunt), it remains a marvelous thriller that gives us a logical resolution of the plot.

The real killer is Mrs. Kenet’s boss, Willard I. Whitcombe (Herbert Marshall in a performance that would have been a revelation of anti-“type” casting if he hadn’t already played a villain in an even better movie, Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent), who hired her as his secretary at the ultra-conservative religious publishing house where he worked, started an affair with her and then got scared that if she actually divorced her serviceman husband and sought to marry him, the revelation that he’d been having an adulterous relationship would cost him his job. The night Steven came home Whitcombe and Mrs. Kenet were about to run away together, and Steven didn’t see Whitcombe there but did see his wife packing and guessed the truth — and when he conveniently passed out Whitcombe got tired of his girlfriend’s demands and decided to kill her on the spot and frame Steven for the crime.

It ends pretty much as you’d expect — with Whitcombe undergoing narcosynthesis and confessing all (and conveniently getting himself killed in an inept escape attempt to sidestep the issue of the thinness of the legally admissible evidence against him), Steven free and he and Dr. Lorrison together — but it’s been a fun ride along the way and an indication that had he and MGM worked together on it, Robert Taylor could have managed a quite credible transformation from pretty-boy juvenile to noir star (much the way Humphrey Bogart had — with his long detour into out-and-out gangster roles — a decade earlier). As he aged and lost his youthful prettiness Taylor’s features actually hardened into an appealing world-weariness that suited him for noir, and despite his detour into costume dramas (Quo Vadis?, Ivanhoe, Knights of the Round Table and Quentin Durward — all but the last were blockbuster hits but Taylor hated making them, derisively calling them “iron jockstrap parts”) his best movies in the next decade after High Wall were noirs: The Bribe, Rogue Cop and Nicholas Ray’s marvelous Party Girl.