Robert Taylor's first scene in HIGH WALL finds him driving at a breakneck pace with the eyes-wide-open corpse of a woman seated next to him. This creepy scene is not exactly a typical opening for an MGM movie -- or a Robert Taylor movie -- in the '40s. While MGM made some hard-hitting movies, particularly from the late '40s on, it was the most glamorous studio in Hollywood and not typically associated with such visually disturbing images.
That sequence sets into motion a riveting black and white film noir in which Taylor plays a brain-injured amnesiac who is arrested for murdering his wife (Dorothy Patrick). Taylor's character is locked up in a mental hospital, where his only options seem to be life in the insane ward or a murder trial and most likely the electric chair. After brain surgery to relieve pressure from an old injury, Taylor slowly regains his memory and begins to doubt that he really was the murderer. He tries to reconstruct what actually happened with the help of his doctor, played by Audrey Totter. The movie runs 99 minutes and holds the viewer's attention throughout.
The film has outstanding performances by Taylor as the tormented man and Totter as his doctor. They are both simply terrific and carry the film, appearing in most of the scenes. Taylor, who spent roughly a quarter century as MGM's longest-running star, has been written off too often in the past as just a "handsome face" and not received the appreciation he deserves as an actor. As I read various books and websites, I think that may gradually be changing as movie fans and historians take a fresh look at his career.
The few scenes Taylor and Totter aren't in feature Herbert Marshall, an excellent actor himself; his character may hold the key to what really happened to Taylor's wife. The fine supporting cast includes Morris Ankrum, John Ridgely, Moroni Olsen, Warner Anderson, Elisabeth Risdon, H.B. Warner, Jonathan Hale, and Irving Bacon. Familiar faces such as Ray Teal, Milton Kibbee, and Hank Worden can be spotted in bit parts.
An article in a recent edition of the NOIR CITY SENTINEL, published by the Film Noir Foundation, discussed overrated versus underrated film noir, and listed HIGH WALL among the underrated gems which should be seen. Author Eric Beetner approvingly notes Taylor's "subdued slow burn" and also writes that "HIGH WALL gets more and more noirish as it goes along. By the final third, the screen is as pitch-black as the story." The rainy, shadowy climax is as noirish as noir gets.
When I reviewed LADY IN THE LAKE, which Audrey Totter appeared in the same year as HIGH WALL, I linked to an interesting interview she gave in which she discusses her career. It's worth linking to again here for those who might not have come across it in the past.
HIGH WALL was directed by Curtis Bernhardt, who made this film for MGM after making a number of highly regarded films at Warner Bros., including MY REPUTATION (1946), DEVOTION (1946), A STOLEN LIFE (1946), and POSSESSED (1947). Bernhardt seems to have brought a bit of the more hard-edged Warner Bros. style to the production -- particularly that first Taylor scene I mentioned at the top of this post.
HIGH WALL can be seen on Turner Classic Movies. The trailer can be seen here.
I was able to see HIGH WALL thanks to the kindness of Carrie at Classic Ramblings. I have been blessed getting to know so many nice people, including Carrie, thanks to the Internet!
Robert Taylor movies previously reviewed here, listed in the order they were reviewed: WESTWARD THE WOMEN (1951), SADDLE THE WIND (1958), MANY RIVERS TO CROSS (1955), ROGUE COP (1954), PARTY GIRL (1958), FLIGHT COMMAND (1940), SMALL TOWN GIRL (1936), and ABOVE AND BEYOND (1952).
Taylor fans may also want to check out my review of his recent biography RELUCTANT WITNESS.
HIGH WALL provides an excellent evening's entertainment. Recommended.
December 2010 Update: This film is now available on DVD-R from the Warner Archive.
There is also word this month that the Film Noir Foundation will be collaborating with UCLA to preserve the film in a 35mm print, which currently does not exist for this movie.
April 2011 Update: I was very fortunate to see a gorgeous 35mm print of this film at the opening night of this year's Noir City Festival!