A group of convicts break out of prison, killing a guard, kidnapping the warden and forcing a reluctant inmate to accompany them. However, when a car accident kills everyone except the ...
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A group of convicts break out of prison, killing a guard, kidnapping the warden and forcing a reluctant inmate to accompany them. However, when a car accident kills everyone except the warden and the inmate hostage, the warden steals $100,000 of the gang's money, then when police arrive he accuses the inmate of the guard's murder in order to cover up his own crime. Written by
Tom Tully is one of the best examples - possibly *the* best example - of a Hollywood character actor who played prominent supporting roles in many films yet who remains unknown to audiences (even movie-trivia buffs) because he consistently gave understated and subtle performances, refusing to throw a film's storyline off-centre by calling attention to himself. In 'Behind the High Wall', Tully gets a rare chance in a leading role, and he proves himself an actor of great talent and range. Unfortunately, his leading lady here is one of my least favourite actresses: Sylvia Sidney (snaggled of tooth, bulbous of lips, coarse of accent).
Tully plays Frank Carmichael, a prison governor with money problems and a crippled wife (Sidney, not crippled enough to suit me). Some inmates, who have accomplices and money waiting for them on the out, organise an escape... killing a cellblock warder in the process. They take along two hostages: Carmichael and Hutchins, an inmate who wants to go straight. Once they're on the out, the escapees join up with accomplices who have $100,000 in hot swag. A convenient road accident kills everyone except Carmichael and Hutchins. As the loot can't be traced to Carmichael, he decides to keep it, pinning the warder's murder on Hutchins to get him out of the way. But then of course there are complications...
Sylvia Sidney's role here is too similar to her role in 'Fury', a much better movie than this one. In both films, she forces the protagonist to stay honest when I wanted him to benefit from a circumstance of chance that worked illegally in his favour. I have a lot of problems with Sylvia Sidney: I've never liked her in any performance of hers I've ever seen. Yet my all-time favourite director (Fritz Lang) cast her in the lead roles in his first three American films, so he must have seen some merit in her. Damned if I can find it, though.
Shortly after Sylvia Sidney's death, a tribute for her was held at the Players Club in Gramercy Park, New York City (she had lived there on the club's charity, with her yapping little pug dogs). I covered this event as a reporter. One after another, dozens of celebrities related anecdotes about Sidney, but each of those stories boiled down to one of three punchlines: Sylvia wanted some booze, Sylvia said a dirty word, or Sylvia was rude to somebody who didn't deserve it. If you changed the booze to drugs, any of those stories could have been told about John Belushi. The difference was, all the blue-haired dowagers in the Players Club - who laughed merrily at these stories of Sylvia Sidney boozing, cursing and insulting people - would have been profoundly offended by these exact same stories if they had been attributed to John Belushi.
In the key role as Carmichael's fall guy, John Gavin gives a good performance but is miscast. Gavin is so superhumanly handsome, he isn't believable as a small-time criminal. There are fine performances here (in small roles) by Don Beddoe, Ed Kemmer, John Larch, Peter Leeds and satchel-mouthed Barney Phillips. Tom Tully is a revelation, and deserves to be better known. I was annoyed that all the actors kept using the American pronunciation of the name 'Carmichael', with the accent on the wrong syllable, but that's to be expected in a Yank movie. I'll rate 'Behind the High Wall' 7 out of 10. I might have rated it higher if Sylvia Sidney's lips didn't enter the room five seconds ahead of the rest of her body.
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