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As holder of the longest tenure of any star at MGM (a phenomenal 25 years, 1934-1959), Robert Taylor enjoyed a long and varied career that deserves evaluation. In the early part of his career, the studio positioned him as a handsome leading man whose good looks were exploited in romantic roles and costume dramas opposite dynamic actresses like Irene Dunne (Magnificent Obsession, 1935), , Greta Garbo (Camille, 1937) and Vivien Leigh (Waterloo Bridge, 1940). Although these films helped to make him a top box-office star, critics dismissed him as merely another pretty face who lacked the depth to do anything else. It wasn't until the early forties that Taylor transitioned into tougher, more mature roles like Johnny Eager (1942) where he played an unsympathetic racketeer, or Bataan (1943) in which he plays a courageous war sergeant who dies heroically with his machine-gun blazing or Undercurrent (1946), where he was cast as Katharine Hepburn's possibly homicidal husband. Yet, despite the dramatic challenges of these films, High Wall (1947) is really the film that set the tone for the best work of his later career - in film noir.
Taylor plays Steven Kenet, a war vet who is suffering from a recurring brain injury that causes him to be overly anxious and paranoid around people. When he returns home from the war, he discovers that his wife (Dorothy Patrick) has been having an affair with Willard Whitcombe (Herbert Marshall), a pious publisher of religious books. One day Kenet wakes up and discovers that his wife has been strangled to death. He's found guilty of the murder and committed to a county asylum where he is treated by Dr. Ann Lorrison (Audrey Totter). At first she's doubtful of his innocence, but eventually she agrees to help him uncover the identity of the real killer.
High Wall is filmed in the classic film noir tradition and director Curtis Bernhardt gives it a strong sense of style, complete with rain drenched streets, claustrophobic apartments, violent whirlpool flashbacks and disturbing subjective shots which emphasize the film's chaotic and often bleak tone. Bernhardt actually got the inspiration for Taylor's character from his own wartime experiences. In an interview with Mary Kiersch, the director recalled how he and a companion "were walking across a railroad bridge. We looked down at a trainload of soldiers returning from the front. It was one of the most frightening sights of my life, because I knew that the entire train was filled with dying people. The noise of that engine, with the steam hissing out, against the deadly silence in those cars. I knew what was in store for me if I went to the front. Taylor's character must have had similar experiences. I think I took employment at MGM because of High Wall. I suddenly saw a chance to bring directly to the American people the experience of the war. In the American pictures, this experience is treated as a kind of ballyhoo concept. The Best Years of Our Lives came after High Wall."
Obviously, High Wall was MGM's attempt to duplicate the success Bernhardt had had with similar material at Warner Brothers like Possessed (1947) in which Joan Crawford played a schizophrenic woman who commits a murder. Studio mogul Louis B. Mayer also figured that if a former romantic lead like Ray Milland could convincingly play an alcoholic on a binge in a dark-themed movie like Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945), then matinee idol Robert Taylor could play a mentally disturbed war veteran. While High Wall is not in the same league as Billy Wilder's film, Taylor gives an impressive performance and he's greatly aided by a superb ensemble cast. As the sympathetic psychiatrist, Audrey Totter (a former radio actress who was always a strong presence in film noirs like The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and Lady in the Lake (1947) - is a reassuring combination of resolve and compassion. The urbane Herbert Marshall uses his cultivated voice and mannerisms to superb effect as the duplicitous Whitcombe and has the film's most memorable scene: He spies a potential witness to his crime, a suspicious elevator operator (Vince Barnett) trying to repair an elevator, its door open to the deep shaft below while he stands on a stool. As Whitcombe saunters by, he extends his umbrella, hooking the handle around one of the stool's legs, jerking it to the ground and sending the elevator man down the shaft to his death!
One of the most fascinating aspects of High Wall is the film's disturbing connection to the House of un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) witch-hunts of the late 1940's and early 1950's. Taylor was a staunch Republican, who along with his then wife Barbara Stanwyck, became the founders of The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. A group of Hollywood players formed as a backlash against the unionization of the industry and a reaction against the left-wing intellectuals of FDR's new deal era and cutting edge leftists sentiments in the arts. Films like Clifford Odets take on the corrupt nature of free enterprise in Golden Boy (1939) and Song of Russia (1943), which praised the Soviet Union (and starred Taylor), had him convinced that the screenwriters had a powerful forum - the movies - to push forth their ideas. It was proved quite the opportunity for Taylor when (HUAC) had subpoenaed him to testify on October 22, 1947 regarding his knowledge of "subversives" in the industry. Taylor made clear that the primary manner by which communism had infiltrated the movie industry was through the screenwriters and that they had to be watched closely. With newsreel cameras rolling, Taylor was asked to name someone, and he did Lester Cole, the screenwriter for High Wall (for more details on HUAC's Hollywood witch-hunts of the era, read Victor Navasky's fascinating book, Naming Names).
By sharp contrast to Taylor, Cole was one of infamous "Hollywood Ten", a group of writers and directors who refused to testify when subpoenaed by the (HUAC) regarding their knowledge of or possible involvement in Communist Party activities. Cole, who was running for re-election of the Screen Writers Guild when subpoenaed, was a hard-line Communist fingered as a subversive screenwriter but stood by the first amendment's guarantee against incursions on free speech and refused to be a cooperative witness. He was eventually found in contempt in Congress and would serve a one-year prison sentence, giving High Wall a sobering footnote in Hollywood history.
Producer: Robert Lord
Director: Curtis Bernhardt
Screenplay: Sydney Boehm, Lester Cole, based on a story and play by Alan R. Clark and Bradbury Foote
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Leonid Vasian
Cinematography: Paul Vogel
Editing: Conrad A. Nervig
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Cast: Robert Taylor (Steven Kenet), Audrey Totter (Dr. Ann Lorrison), Herbert Marshall (Willard I. Whitcombe), Dorothy Patrick (Helen Kenet), H. B. Warner (Mr. Slocum), Warner Anderson (Dr. George Poward), Morris Ankrum (Dr. Stanley Griffin).
BW-100m. Closed captioning.
by Michael T. Toole