Climbing the Noir Walls

“Murder! Infidelity! Brain damage!”

That could’ve been the tagline for the MGM (yes, they made dark stuff too, not just glossy musicals) noir High Wall (1947).

Y’see, High Wall is a terrific example one of a fascinating film subgenre … the damaged vet/re-establish life and family noir, sometimes with amnesia thrown in as a sideline (others include The Crooked Way (1949), The Blue Dahlia (1946), Somewhere in the Night (1946), and last week’s Cornered (1945)).

Amnesia was a staple of films, particularly with war veteran heroes — check out Random Harvest (1942) for a quintessential example–but in the hands of the noir masters, these films weren’t about amnesia as much as they were about wiping the slate clean.

Think about it: after the cataclysm and upheaval of the world’s biggest and bloodiest conflict–one that forever reshaped this country, overthrew Empires and remade the Superpowers–redefining one’s place in the New World Order was imperative … and frightening. Dramas like William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)–which certainly possessed a few noirish touches–helped reestablish normalcy in a forever changed and abnormal world. But noir … well, it tackled the anxiety head on.

Wartime marriage? Afraid you married a slut? Get in line, bub. Having trouble sleeping? Nightmares? Head injury? We know just how you feel. And thanks to the era’s fascination with and confidence in psychiatry, we’ve got a cure, too, and she sometimes looks like Ingrid Bergman (Spellbound, 1945) or Audrey Totter (High Wall).

These films said it was OK if you got hurt and you can’t remember and nothing is what it seemed like in 1942. They said it was OK if you married in haste and she’s been cheating on you with a black market 4-F. Don’t murder the bimbo–just divorce her and move on to Veronica Lake. The films typically offered cures, either through therapy or a dame or both, and ended with the vet establishing a new family, location in a dislocated environment.

And that brings us to High Wall. Directed by the under-appreciated Curtis Bernhardt (Conflict (1945) Juke Girl (1942) and Possessed (1947)), it stars Robert Taylor as a brain damaged flier who suffers black-outs … and who has apparently strangled his greedy, adulterous wife (Dorothy Patrick). Enter Audrey Totter, in a rare non-femme fatale role, as devoted and caring psychiatrist Dr. Ann Lorrison, who treats Taylor while he’s locked up in the looney bin. The once sleek and sophisticated Herbert Marshall plays the bimbo’s boss (he’s a publisher of a religious books) with a certain degree of both debauchery and pathos, and even H.B. Warner (It’s A Wonderful Life, 1946) shows up in a small role.

Taylor turns in an able performance, proving he was more than just a pretty face. Like John Payne and Dick Powell, who made successful second careers playing tough guys in noirs, his film roles had been light comedies or romantic melodramas like Camille (1937), and High Wall gives him something sturdier.

Totter, however, steals the show–as she usually did. And this time without being the bad girl! Paul Vogel’s stunning cinematography (he filmed the Chandler adaptation Lady in the Lake (1947), also with Totter, and a little gem with Marsha Hunt and Van Heflin called Kid Glove Killer, 1942) makes me wish he shot more noir and less films like Jupiter’s Darling (1955).

Sydney Boehm worked on the script, which is crisp and fast-paced, if not at the deliriously baroque levels of his masterpiece, The Big Heat (1953). He later wrote Rogue Cop (1954), another noir vehicle for Taylor.

All in all, High Wall is a terrific film, and a magnifying glass on the very real anxieties and social issues of the immediate post-war era. Unfortunately, you can’t find it on DVD, but watch for it on TCM or try The Danger and Despair Knitting Circle, the best source for noir on the planet. So … what have you been watching lately? 😉