Twice Behind the High Wall; or, It’s Not the Sane on the Radio

Every once in a while I catch a sound and solid studio era thriller that has heretofore escaped me. One such welcome find is the Curtis Bernhardt-directed High Wall (1947) starring the dark and deadly serious Robert Taylor as an amnesic who finds himself in an asylum for the criminally insane for a murder he may or may not have committed. Initially refusing treatment for fear of having his guilt confirmed along with a sanity that could prove the death of him, he is soon faced with evidence convincing him that he is not beyond hope and sets out to mount the titular structure and leave no stone unturned in an attempt to emerge a free, upright man and levelheaded parent. In this process of tearing down the wall that silences him, Taylor’s character is supported by a member of the staff (Audrey Totter), but all the while impeded by the to him unknown schemer who laid those bricks and is determined to make them insurmountable (Herbert Marshall).

In the architecture of High Wall, the three figures operate with the predictability of trained mice. We know—and are meant to know—that Taylor is innocent, that Totter will be so unprofessional as to confess her love for him, and that Marshall has erected the High Wall to cover up his own guilt. Knowing as much makes us the privileged observers of a neat and well-staged rehabilitation drama, a character study of the three mice in a maze that begins to crumble and lose some of its high tension only after the wall has been taken. A solid suspense drama, nonetheless.

Suspense. That is precisely where I had previously hit upon this High Wall, or, as it turned out, some rudiments thereof. The title rang a bell loudly enough to make me check for such a radio connection. Produced on 6 June 1946, eighteen months prior to the release of the film, “High Wall” presents a similar situation but an altogether different outcome. Both radio version and screen adaptation were based on a story and play by one Bradbury Foote (the motion picture also credits Alan R. Clark). Subsequently, the film that was a radio play that was a stage play and story was reworked anew as a radio play. Starring Van Heflin and Janet Leigh, the remake was soundstaged in Lux Radio Theater on 7 November 1949.

Unlike, say, Sorry, Wrong Number, the property remains sound whether it is thrown onto the big screen or pulverized into thin air. Nothing about the motion picture suggests that what we see has been remodeled from a stage set; likewise, the radio play is so much in keeping with the Suspense formula that it might well have been an original radio drama, written especially for the series. Those at work in structuring and reconstructing both High Wall, the film, and “High Wall,” the radio play, clearly understood the limitations and potentialities of the media for which the product was headed. Whatever his initial idea, Foote did not insist that his words were written in stone.

So, rather than arguing which version is superior, I noted the differences between the Suspense drama and the screen thriller. On the air, the story is decidedly more noir than on the screen. It is more concerned with the demoralizing than with morals; less involved in the cure than in the kill. It draws us in, behind that wall, without signaling a way out. No outline of romance and redemption; no hope foreshadowed. Just the shadow of which we are puppets.

Whereas High Wall is concerned with a man’s struggle to clear his name, “High Wall” deals with a man who barely remembers it. That he is telling us his own story does not make him any less suspicious. Why did he end up in an asylum? Or is he merely stonewalling? We need to know that before we can feel at ease about taking his side. The omniscient film narrative provides us with a villain whose workings are clear to us before they become known to the main character. In the radio play, we don’t know any more than an apparent amnesiac whose mental state and progress are uncertain. As it turns out, what he doesn’t know might just kill you!

4 Replies to “Twice Behind the High Wall; or, It’s Not the Sane on the Radio”

  1. Hello! I found your blog today, and had to compliment this entry. It\’s rare to find someone who offers such thoughtful commentary about old time radio. I\’ve heard many Suspense episodes, but The High Wall sounds unfamiliar. Thanks for the recommendation; I\’ll listen to it soon!

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  2. Thank you for your kind words. Your own journal, in turn, reminded me that I have yet to catch up with and share my thoughts on Nightbeat.Now, you list Johnny Got His Gun as one of your favorite novels. What do you think of the radio version?

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  3. I looked up your entry on Arch Oboler\’s adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun starring James Cagney. It\’s been several years since hearing it, but I remember enjoying the adaptation. The radio adaptation\’s ending seemed a bit more more optimistic than Trumbo\’s novel. But Oboloer\’s writing and production style seemed true to the spirit of Trumbo\’s book. I ought to listen to the episode again. I look forward to your entry about Nightbeat. It\’s one of my favorite old radio programs: the writing, acting and production were excellent, and it\’s aged unusually well to my ears.

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  4. As distasteful as the opportunism of Oboler\’s populist message melodramas may be, \”Johnny\” is a technically first-rate production of a play that is both gripping and thought-provoking.I agree, Nightbeat holds up well, especially compared to the creakier but far better known Dragnet. I shall have to find (or make it) an occasion to write about it.

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