Much better than I thought it would be. Robert Taylor plays a convincing wronged husband Steven, accused of killing his wife, and, due to the effects of his war time trauma, subsequently locked up in an asylum. Strangely, that works to his benefit, as Audrey Totter’s Doctor Lorrison (Ann) providers sympathetic support. The plot finds Steve trying to clear himself, with Ann’s assistance. His antagonist, Herbert Marshall as Whitcomb, gives a solid performance as a smug, scheming sadist. Flashbacks flesh things out; and cleverly, the story isn’t given away all at once.
A large part of the story shows a noir romance that fits in well–Ann and Steve begin as doctor and patient, then friends, partners/accomplices, lovers–gradually and naturally. I can’t figure how Steve escaped from the asylum the first time, but ok, at least the second escape is artfully done. Meanwhile, Whitcomb lurks nearby. It fits with Whitcomb’s egotism that he dares to confront Steve in the asylum; a temporary setback for Steve, but Whicomb’s double confession puts Ann unreservedly on Steve’s side.
The asylum atmosphere suits rhe noir genre. Its look of confinement, complete with barred windows, exaggerated lighting, bizarre population, and patronizing staff makes a surreal counterpoint to the dark, dingly rooms, alleys, and streets of noir. The drunk bugging Steve and Ann in their restaurant booth is reminiscent of some of the loopy folks Steve has to deal with when he’s locked up. They’re able to use the guy to mask their entrance to Whitcomb’s apartment where the denouement occurs. Here’s a fitting use of humor in a dark movie; like the romance it’s believable and adds to the plot. Until Whitcomb confesses we don’t know who actually killed Steve’s wife. And if Steve did kill her, we don’t know if he was aware of doing so. By the time all that’s revealed, we have the mystery of how, or if Whitcomb will be caught.
High Wall starts off quickly and never lets off the gas. There’s a lot going on: shadow and iron bar imagery, driving and fumbling through rainy dark nights, murder, blackmail attempts, unhinged behavior in the asylum and in clandestine apartments, truth serum, good guys versus a really bad guy. The sense of good v. evil could’ve been treated with a bit more nuance. Maybe if Steve’s wife’s character had been further developed we might have something more to deal with than a stereotypical bored, straying wife. Or Whitcomb, convincing devil that he is, could’ve been given some upside to make him a genuine rival. Maybe he’s still the murderer, but succumbs to his own touch of temporary insanity…
Having said that, High Wall is a thoroughly enjoyable noir. The elevator operator’s murder is an unforgettable, quintessentially noir scene, its throwaway suddeness like a sort of official stamp. Nice pacing and acting lure the viewer into this leap in the dark. 8/10.