Classic film noir plots and locations are so similar from movie to movie that after a large consumption of noir it starts to feel like you’re having the same recurring nightmare – but with different faces. Femme fatale, con men, disillusioned war vets and over-the-hill pugilist populate the small towns, diners, dingy offices and wet city streets.
Prison is certainly a popular location in crime films from the 30’s to today. The grey walls and heavy shadows coming from the barred windows seem to be a natural location for noir. Some excellent noir have taken place in the big house: Brute Force, Caged (the best women’s prison film, for what that’s worth), and proto-noirs like Fury and I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang help define noir.
Film historian Foster Hirsch in “Film Noir: the Dark Side of the Screen” argues that prison – like the boxing ring-- may be too literal a location for “dramatizing stories of noir victims whose lives seem to be closing in on them.” He goes on to praise Dassin’s Brute Force.
When I sat down to watch Behind the High Wall last week I suspected that the B-movie was going to be cheap clone of Brute Force or I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. When, early on, the warden began his speech about how good recreation and food is “key to keeping prisoners happy” I was hoping it wasn’t going to turn into a sappy “warden with a heart-of-gold helps a prisoner wrongly convicted” dud. (Glenn Ford and Broderick Crawford in Convicted is the worst of that bunch. John Garfield in Castle on the Hudson being one of the best). Luckily, Behind the High Wall takes the story over the wall and tells the story of a warden who may not be as pure as he first seems to be.
Frank Carmichael, the interim prison warden with a crippled wife at home, is kidnapped by convicts during a breakout. A prison guard is killed and ex-con Johnny Hutchins – innocently arriving at the meet-up location in hopes that the garage owner would help finance his business -- is forced to go along with the escapees. The get-away car speeds into a ditch with Johnny at the wheel killing all but one prisoner, the warden and innocent Johnny. The warden shoots the remaining conscious prisoner as he runs from the crash spilling $100,000 in stolen bills over the hillside. The warden scoops up the cash and buries it to pick up later (in a scene that will remind film buffs of Private Hell 36). Johnny comes to just in time for the police to arrest him. Days later, Carmichael allows Johnny take the blame for the guards death – because proving him innocent would prove his own guilt. Carmichael – who was just about to be fired prior to the breakout – now gets made permanent warden because of his celebrity status after the escape. Johnny is not so lucky. He’s sentenced to be executed but escapes. Will Warden Carmichael take the money and dream job or will he try to clear Johnny’s name before he’s hunted down?
Like most B-movies, there are a few things you could nitpick about. The movie would have been much better if the warden’s wife (Sylvia Sydney) wanted her husband to keep the money and was wicked about hiding it from the law. Instead she plays the obvious role of her husband’s conscience. The film does play out to a fatal conclusion but it would have been more satisfying if there was no redemption.
The cast is interesting. Former sex symbol Sydney – years from her 30s film roles in movies helmed by Fritz Lang and Hitchcock – looks like every cigarette she smoked took a small slice of her beauty resulting in her being almost unrecognizable in Behind the High Wall. She was no stranger to prison films. In the 1930s she appeared in a handful of truly great crime films: Fury, You Only Live Once, Dead End and City Streets. After Behind the High Wall Sydney would focus on the stage and TV—not appearing on the big screen for another 17 years.
Tom Tully plays Warden Carmichael. Tully is probably best remembered for his Oscar-nominated role in The Caine Mutiny. Noir fans probably know him as Gene Tierney’s unlucky dad in Where the Sidewalk Ends. Tully rarely got a starring role and with his hair slicked back he kind of looks like Emile Meyer -- a look I would imagine no one would be going for in 1956.
Phil-Karlson regular John Larch is good as one of the cons.
Johnny is played by John Gavin. This was beefy Gavin’s first film role. He’d later be one of the stars of Psycho but is probably best remembered as the answer to a trivia question. Gavin was hired to play James Bond after George Lazenby left the role. At the last minute, Connery decided to don the tuxedo again for the first Bond in the 1970s: Diamonds are Forever. Gavin was paid but never got the part of 007. He was later the Ambassador to Mexico under Ronald Reagan.
I admit I’m a sucker for noir (or any movie for that matter) set in or around prisons. Behind the High Wall is a satisfying one of you can look past the short coming of cheap film making that dominated crime films in the 1950s.