High Wall is pretty close to being my favorite Robert Taylor movie. Then there’s Quo Vadis. Hmm. In any case, High Wall is one of Mr. Taylor’s most unusual performances–and one of his strongest. The central character is a brain damaged World War II bomber pilot who may or may not have killed his wife. His journey to sanity and redemption is assisted by a sympathetic doctor (Audrey Totter) who goes from being afraid of him to loving him. The huge ward with its cots crammed closely together illustrates the bleakness of the mental hospital where most of the action takes place. The outrageous imbalance between patients (2500) and doctors (12) make it obvious that very little treatment takes place. The staff, however, is friendly and conscientious, especially an orderly called Delaney (Ray Mayer).
The structure of the picture is complicated with shifts between present and recent past. We begin the film with the actual murder already done and the real killer (Herbert Marshall) steadying his nerves with a drink. We meet Steven Kenet (Taylor) as he’s driving recklessly sitting next to his wife’s corpse. There are repeated scenes of corridors and elevators acting almost like a chorus between verses. The black and white photography (this picture would be unthinkable in color), dramatic camera angles and ever-present shadows add to the tension.
Robert Taylor usually played characters with a good deal of strength and authority: doctors, soldiers, cops, gangsters and the like. Even as the young lover, he was a survivor and usually came out on top. Steven Kenet, however, is helpless for much of the picture. He is locked up, led around, dragged around, stuck in a bathtub and frequently ignored. The character retains his spirit, however, at one point telling the doctor “don’t give me so much static.” Kenet’s love for his son, his main motivation for everything, is convincing and not overdone.
Audrey Totter is excellent as Dr. Lorrison who moves slowly from accepting Kenet’s guilt and being scared of him, especially during an escape from the asylum, to believing in his innocence and helping to reveal the real killer. She manages to be both professional and feminine at the same time–ducking the advances of a colleague while slowly falling for her patient.
Unlike other pictures in the noir genre, the protagonist Kenet actually is insane at the beginning of the picture. He needs brain surgery before he can get better. I’m not convinced he’s recovered completely at the end either–his beating of the actual killer is a bit too enthusiastic. Kenet keeps threatening to kill people, maybe using his status as a “homicidal maniac” to get what he wants. This ambiguity is probably deliberate. The ending isn’t completely successful, with Taylor and Totter falling into a clinch next to his sleeping son. Up until then the picture retains its tension admirably with a few leavening moments of humor provided by a lawyer (Charles Arnt) and a drunk (Frank Jenks). High Wall is well worth watching and owning.
The frame grabs below illustrate the range of emotions Mr. Taylor portrays in High Wall.