High Wall (1947)

High Wall (1947) is a wife-murder mystery amnesia psychiatric PTSD ex-serviceman prison noir starring Audrey Totter, Robert Taylor and Herbert Marshall.

From its exciting opening sequence in which ex-mercenary flyer Steven Kenet (Robert Taylor) crashes his car into a river, trying to cover the evident strangulation murder of his wife with a suicide, to its traversing of the prison system for the criminally insane, up until its drug-induced truth-finding denouement, High Wall is exciting, fantastic, serious, dopey and features a proper film noir evil villain, a cool-blooded bad-doer who commits the most callous killings  — in order to save his chances at career promotion within the business of religious book publishing.

Audrey Totter, one of classic film noir's most versatile actors — plays Dr Ann Lorrison — the super-modern psychiatric doctor who takes an interest in Steve's case — and of course falls in love with him.

Psychiatrist Audrey Totter and patient Robert Taylor in High Wall (1947)

Not only is psychiatry a novelty, but there is novelty too of course in the form of a female doctor. It's a terrific role for Audrey Totter, who has played such a wide variety of film noir roles it's impossible to typecast her. 

Here she is super sympathetic as the doctor in charge, and there is even a scene in which a lawyer enters an office in the hospital and mistakes both men in the room as the doctor —this including the patient himself — before realising the doctor is — a woman.

Psychiatric imprisonment in High Wall (1947)

High Wall is a confident stacking of classic film noir themes. These include the weakened male figure of the returning veteran, as well as profiling of the stark case of PTSD at hand. 

High Wall is also a solid case of amnesia noir, a popular sub-genre within the style, and can even be classed as a prison noir, and one with a twist, as the prison in this case is its own sub-genre of prison film, being set in a facility which holds captive the criminally insane.

It's also a great chance to see Audrey Totter playing a smart and sympathetic character, and not the more common villainous and shallow femme fatale which she did so very well.

Robert Taylor in High Wall (1947)

At the heart of this is another film noir staple — the notion of the innocent or not so innocent man trying to clear his name, a theme which returns continually through the 1940s and 1950s, with an actually alarming regularity. This could be another manifestation of war guilt, and an expression of the feeling that there may have been forces at play against men in the newly forming society of the future — a place where uncertain forces could in fact sweep everything away that a man holds dear.

Either way the male weakened and forced on the run by the unseen crimes of others certainly was a theme for the time, and treated with great seriousness. As one of Alfred Hitchcock's favourite themes, the idea of a man either falsely accused or intellectually drowned in a plot well out with his control, became at times an excuse for a lot of fun.

Robert Taylor in High Wall (1947)

At other times, as here, the gravity of innocence is hard to express, and men are put through the ringer — here institutionalised, drugged and held captive under fairly vile conditions, while bullied by police and manipulated by unseen villains.

The fact of this innocent-man-must-clear-his-name style of film noir does lead to another popular trope of the day, which is the female seeker hero, here in the form of Audrey Totter.  

This is another enormously popular trope which spanned the entirety of the film noir period — the idea that an incapacitated male lead being unable through illness or incarceration to solve his own crime — brings on the female lead who must be the seeker hero who solves the crime on his behalf. The twist in High Wall is that Audrey Totter is not just a growing love interest, but that she uses psychiatry and other tools to solve what is in effect not her crime — to clear the man's name, because he cannot. 

Psychiatry and by extension psychoanalysis is the main theme of High Wall (1947), and as well as the tool which will rescue Robert Taylor's character from his PTSD induced amnesia, it is also the entire setting for the film, which when not within the walls of Steven Kenet's mind, is behind the walls of this rather novel institution.

Villain poised to strike — Herbert Marshall in High Wall (1947)

Most of this was very new in the 1940s, and the science of psychiatry, as it remains today, is not an exact one, and prone to dating, as the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) series of American Psychiatric manuals will prove. Not only do ailments come and go, but treatments do also.

In High Wall, medical patient and prisoner Steven Kenet undergoes "narcosynthesis" — a dose of sodium pentothal to help him remember what happened. Under the influence of this drug, which was perhaps considered in 1947 to be a truth serum and thus a gift to movie scriptwriters — Steven recalls blacking out just as his hands were around his wife's neck and later regaining consciousness to find her dead body. 

An entire series of excitements comprise this classic film noir however, and this includes a prison break in which Steven hides in Dr Lorrison's car to escape from the hospital, then breaks into Whitcombe's apartment and recreates a scene resembling that revealed under the drug. His plan works and with Dr Lorrison's support, the crime is solved, with the police playing very much the background role, almost there for local colour in fact, as they remain fairly passive throughout.

Yes, the police are happy to lock up Steven Kenet, especially after he confesses to his wife's murder at the head of the movie — but their frustration is tangible when they find there is a new class of criminal in the form of those struck with mental disorders — annoying because confession or not, these people are not to be held responsible for what they do.

Film noir in the 1940s and also to a lesser degree, into the 1950s, retained a strong fascination for all things psychiatric. This includes showing (as here) psychiatrists, asylums and treatments, amnesia, neuroses and psychoses. 

The film noir psychiatrist became a common figure in film noir, articulating for both men and women of the 1940s the feelings of repression and displacement, paranoia and even pathological doubling.

Psychiatrists feature constantly in film noir and this did mirror the growing popularity of psychiatrists and studies of the mind. However there is more to it than that, as film noir was the only style of its day which could adequately express the dark and unseen currents that drove people to shocking, unexpected and dramatic actions. 

While there was not a genre of horror so much in the 1940s, which offered fear to audiences, there was in fact film noir which could express deeply-seated fears through subjective camera work, the clinging and shifting use of shadows, as well as ambiguity and sexual passion, or murderous passion if need be.

All of these actions fitted well into the film noir style, which offered many ways to express the confusion of the mind on the screen.

Socially, there was within the public a growing fascination with asylums and the treatment of mental problems and in noir there is in the 1940s and even the 1950s a proliferation of stories about traumatised soldiers and the solutions to their stress disorders, which were being developed by military and civilian doctors.

The theme of amnesia also plays a common role in noir, as it presents something beautifully existential insofar as it is a literal loss of self — an ideal blank slate perhaps for scriptwriters to create a person for the times — a person attempting to function in society, or a person who is either partially or entirely maladjusted.

German émigré Curtis Bernhardt did make several such films noir with these psychological themes, including Conflict (1945) and Possessed (1947). In High Wall, he goes deep into the personal psychology of the main character, placing him as an isolated figure on rain-drenched streets and an overall atmosphere that is superlatively film noir.

Herbert Marshall in High Wall (1947)

The amnesia is an important part of this storytelling, as we can then see the murder scene re-enacted, slowly rebuilt, guessed at and re-created several times over until all the pieces are in place. This piecing together of a crime is so entirely modern that although the year is 1947, the structure is still used to this day to build murder stories.

This murder story too is punctuated with a second murder committed by villain Herbert Marshall, which is an entirely different affair — cast best perhaps as murder as an offhand gesture. 

Though not held high by noir aficionados, there is still yet so much to unpack from this noir melodrama and that includes the ongoing bunk of psychiatry — which suggest that both truth serum and brain surgery can cure the complex disorders it describes.

Streets of noir well rendered in High Wall (1947)

Robert Taylor’s conservative political views led him to become involved in 1947 as a so-called ‘friendly witness’ for the House Un-American Activities Committee looking into Communist subversion in the film industry. Taylor named actor Howard Da Silva as a disruptive force in the Screen Actors Guild, leading him to be blacklisted for many years. 

Herbert Marshall in High Wall (1947)

Being thrown into a mental institution was at least one film noir fate, and whether it represents a reality of American life or not, film noir was all over this concept, for what it offered in terms of depth and detail.

Director Curtis Bernhardt made films in Germany from 1925 until 1933, when he was forced to flee the Third Reich — which briefly had him arrested because he was Jewish. Bernhardt directed films in France and England before moving on to Hollywood to work for Warner Brothers in 1940 — and as is common in the noir story — Hitler's loss was as always, the noir canon's gain.

Peek over the High Wall (1947) at Wikipedia

No comments:

Post a Comment