Noirvember: High Wall
Portraying insanity in the movies is a pretty tricky proposition, particularly when it comes to protagonists. You want to make your characters crazy enough to be interesting to the audience, but not so vividly mad that they become impossible to identify with, or that they seem to be cruel caricatures of the mentally ill that will drive sensitive audiences away. Even well-meaning films botch the procedure; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for all its good intentions, holds up pretty abysmally in its portrayal of mental patients. And as hard as it is even today to achieve this balance between color and caricature, between stimulation and sympathy, it was even harder during the classic noir period, when mental illness was far less understood than it is today, treatment options were few and often brutal, and the social stigma attached to psychiatric disorders was even greater. (This, not incidentally, is why Psycho is so frequently cited as the watershed film that ended noir: before 1960, mentally ill characters were infrequently depicted and handled with kid gloves, and afterwards, they began to replace the more commonly motivated crooks and criminals.)
1947’s High Wall was an early attempt at dealing with the specifics of mental illness in a noir context. There are others, and many are more successful; aside from better-known cases like Spellbound and Gaslight, there were outliers like Whirlpool and Blind Alley. The pivotal wartime noir This Gun for Hire was one of the first noirs to investigate childhood trauma as a predictor of antisocial behavior; its essentially rinky-dink diagnostics are salvaged by Graham Greene’s strong story and a sharp performance as the psychotic hit-man by Alan Ladd. A little-seen 1948 Columbia noir, The Dark Past — itself a remake of Blind Alley — was a pioneering work in depicting a psychiatrist’s attempt to find the psychological triggers behind a sociopath’s behavior, again buoyed by two sharp performances from Lee J. Cobb and Bill Holden. High Wall is in the league of these last two, not entirely successful and seemingly terribly naïve by modern standards, but with good enough performances to make its fumbling attempts to deal with insanity worth watching.
Robert Taylor, in a performance of much more depth and heaviness than his usual breezy fare, plays Steven Kennet, a high-strung man with an all too obvious mean streak. When Taylor finds his wife, Helen (Dorothy Patrick), in the arms of her boss, Willard Whitcombe (a powerfully oily Herbert Marshall), all hell breaks loose, and when it’s all over, Patrick is strangled and Taylor has driven his car off a bridge in an apparent attempt to commit suicide over killing her and leaving their 6-year-old son without a mother. The fall doesn’t kill him, though, and soon enough he’s locked up in protective custody, ravaged with guild and under the supervision of Dr. Ann Lorrison (Audrey Totter), who also takes custody of Taylor’s son in one of the movie’s many instances of playing pretty fast and loose with the law.
One thing it gets right, though, is the conflict between the medical profession, represented by Totter, who are genuinely interested in helping Taylor and determining what may have driven him to commit a terrible murder, and the law, represented by John Ridgely’s district attorney, who are only interested in Taylor’s sanity insofar as establishing it will allow them to put him in the electric chair. A scene where Ridgely patiently explains to Totter, as if to a slow child, that he has zero concern about what’s wrong with Taylor, just in figuring out how much the state will be allowed to punish him. Taylor, for his part, is agonized over his crime and seems to want to die, either at his own hand or the power of the state — anything to avoid facing up to the fact that he has destroyed his son’s life.
But as things start to not add up, Totter plants seeds of doubt; she seems to be guiding Taylor at first, but later he accesses some part of himself that wants to live, if only to prove to himself that he really is a murderer and deserves whatever fate awaits him. Many details are cast into doubt, some of which can equally be interpreted as making Taylor seem more innocent or more guilty, depending on who’s looking at them. A maintenance worker in Whitcombe’s building suggests enigmatically to Taylor that he knows something about the killing; he then disappears himself. It’s not until Totter tries an experimental procedure she calls “narcosynthesis” — essentially, pumping Taylor full of sodium pentathol — that his innocence is finally established, and an improbable happy ending forms after he uses an equally unethical trick to get a confession out of the true killer.
As directed by Curtis Bernhardt, High Wall has a lot of problems. Aside from its dubious plot and questionable treatment of mental illness, it often seems uncertain what kind of movie it wants to be; much of it plays like straight-up melodrama, and the end is more or less basic detective-thriller stuff, with most of the noir elements coming from Taylor’s desperate, self-loathing performance in the lead. The script (from noir vet Sydney Boehm and soon-to-be-blacklisted Lester Cole) asks little and gives little in return. The performances are largely what sell it; in addition to the leads, it’s jam-packed with familiar MGM contract players like Warner Anderson, Moroni Olson, and Charles Arnt. Another bit part, almost a cameo, reveals the essential problem with period films about mental illness: when Taylor arrives at the mental hospital, he meets some of the long-term inmates. This scene is a trope in every such picture, with the arrival heralded by a parade of colorfully mad character actors; it’s been seen in everything from Cuckoo’s Nest to The Ninth Configuration to The Dream Team to the most obvious noir analogue, Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (which at least has the intensely over-the-top tone that earns its collection of absurdist loonies). High Wall handles the scene with a surprisingly light touch; the most memorable figure we encounter is Mr. Slocum, a man with what we’d recognize today as Alzheimer’s disease, played with subtle dignity by the venerable H.B. Warner. Giving the peanut-gallery scene short shrift shows admirable restraint — but, ironically, it also renders most of the scenes in the mental hospital pretty forgettable in comparison with other, less gentle films.