High Wall (1947): Curtis Bernhardt’s Film Noir Melodrama, Starring Robert Taylor and Audrey Totter

Directed by German immigrant Curtis Bernhardt (Possessed with Joan Crawford), High Wall is a film noir, both thematically and visually, starring Robert Taylor and Audrey Totter.

The script by Sydney Boehm and Lester Cole* (who was blacklisted), based on a play by Alan R. Clark and Bradbury Foote, revolves around the perennial noir notions of adultery, amnesia, lunacy, and paranoia.

Steven Kenet (Robert Taylor, well cast) catches his unfaithful wife Helen (Dorothy Patrick) in the apartment of Willard I. Whitcombe (Herbert Marshall), her boss, and she is strangled to death. They have a young son, but it doesn’t prevent him from attempting to commit suicide by driving his car into the river.

After surviving, he is sent to psychiatric hospital for evaluation to determine if he is sane enough to stand trial.  He has no memory of what exactly happened that night, a condition attributed to a pre-existing brain injury from WWII.

Dr. Ann Lorrison (Audrey Totter), taking special interest in him, offers that surgery could cure Kenet’s brain injury, but he refuses to consent to it, favoring life in the asylum to murder conviction. However, when Lorrison informs him that his son will be sent to orphanage (as his mother had died), Kenet changes his mind.

Henry Cronner, the apartment’s janitor, tries to blackmail Whitcombe. After being rebuffed, Cronner tells Kenet he can save him –if Kenet pays. Whitcombe then sends Cronner to his death down the elevator shaft.

Kenet undergoes “nacosynthesis” aimed to help him regain his memory. He then recalls blacking out just as his hands were around Helen’s neck.  Kenet escapes from the hospital, taking a reluctant Lorrison along. He is able to recreate the scene, jogging his memory.

Whitcombe provokes Kenet by confessing to the two murders; as he had hoped, he is attacked by Kenet, making the latter look like a homicidal lunatic. In desperation, Kenet breaks out of the hospital again. He gets Whitcombe and subdues him. Under sodium pentathol Lorrison administers, Whitcombe recounts how he had tried to part ways with Helen Kenet after finding her husband unconscious, but she threatened to ruin his becoming a partner in the firm.

Noir with happy ending: Whitcombe is taken into custody, while Kenet becomes a free man again.

The film contains one impressive and lengthy flashback, depicting Kenneth as a flyer during the War and his loving relationship with his mother (Elisabeth Risdon).

Though utilizing the stylistic vocabulary of film noir, narratively, High Wall is essentially a dark psychological melodrama, and not very convincing on that level either; it’s too glib and predictable.

Made by MGM and (strangely) released for Christmas (in late December) of 1947, the picture was not commercially successful.

About Lester Cole:

Cole became one of the Hollywood Ten, who refused to answer questions before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) about their Communist Party membership.  He was convicted of Contempt of Congress, fined $1,000 and sentenced to confinement at the Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, serving ten months.

Between 1932 and 1947, Cole wrote more than forty scripts that were made into pictures. After being blacklisted, only 3 screenplays were made into films, based on help from friends Gerald L.C. Copley, Lewis Copley, and J. Redmond Prior, who used their names. His best-known scenario was for the 1966 blockbuster Born Free, formally credited to Gerald L.C. Copley.

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