Review: Outside The Wall (1950)

Even though it was released in 1950, Outside the Wall feels like it has a foot in the crime pictures of the 1930s. The film opens on the Cherry Hill prison in Philadelphia where we meet Larry Nelson (Richard Basehart), a man who is about to be paroled after doing a 15-year sentence for murder. We find out more about his crime later in the movie, but the film is more interested in showing us how he's been jailed for so long that he has trouble adapting to a world he no longer recognizes. He ends up working in a sanatorium that's far from the city, but it's not so far away that trouble doesn't arrive in the form of a gangster from his past with a tempting offer that could lead him back to the wrong side of the law. Complicating matters further are two women--a proverbial devil (a materialistic blonde played by Marilyn Maxwell) and angel (virtuous, kindhearted brunette Dorothy Hart)--who pull him in two very different directions. 

While this does feel heavily influenced by gangster pictures, it also bears multiple hallmarks of noir. We have the "stranger in town" element, the temptation toward easy money and an easy life that literally comes "out of the past," and we have a two-faced femme fatale that cares more about money than morality. I tend to gauge noir films on how well I can identify with the predicament of the main character; there's a fatalism to film noir that comes from the dark side of our human nature. We all know what's right and wrong, but noir trades on moral compromises made by good people just trying to survive difficult circumstances. By this metric, Outside the Wall succeeds. 

Richard Basehart succeeds at making us believe his conflict. This is relatively early in his Hollywood career, but he already had stellar roles under his belt, namely his debut in Repeat Performance and the exceptional He Walked by Night. For 80s kids who might be reading this and haven't seen Basehart in his many TV and film roles, including a multi-year stretch as Admiral Nelson on TV's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, they will no doubt recognize him as Wilton Knight, the character/narrator who prepared us each week for a shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist on Knight Rider.

I'm on record as saying that at this point in my classic movie fandom, a huge part of the fun for me is not in the plot (there are only a handful of plots, after all), but in seeing how the movie tells the story and who is involved in telling that story. That means actors, writers, and directors are at least as important to me as the film's plot, and it also means that I love connecting dots. Classic movies (and I use the term "classic" more as a reference to the Golden Age of Hollywood rather than a statement of quality, though I find the two often overlap) are jigsaw puzzles of pop culture. When you start paying attention to who made the movie, you start to connect those key figures to other projects and before you know it, they've connected to form a picture much larger than dreamed possible. 

Thus we find ourselves in Character Actor Corner, my favorite portion of any review. In addition to the aforementioned performers, Outside the Wall also features appearances by Harry Morgan (M*A*S*H), Three Stooges and Abbott and Costello alumni Joe Besser, and hawk-nosed John Hoyt (When Worlds Collide, Spartacus, and over 250 other film and TV appearances), whose harsh features and often stern demeanor have always reminded me of my grandfather. The real kicker for me is Joseph Pevney, someone I've talked about repeatedly over the past few years--but for his directing work, not his acting. This is one of only six on-screen film appearances from Pevney, who has high energy and delivers mouthfuls of stylized dialogue effortlessly. If the movie feels like it has a foot in the 1930s, Pevney feels as if he stepped straight out of a Cagney picture circa 1933. It's fun for me to put a personality to a career I've really come to admire. After all, this is the man who directed Foxfire, The Midnight Story, Tammy and the Bachelor, Man of a Thousand Faces (hey, he really did work with Cagney!), and who would spend 25 years as a television director on such recognizable shows as The Munsters, Star Trek, The Virginian, Bonanza, Emergency!, The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, The Incredible Hulk, and The Rockford Files. He's an incredibly important figure for pop culture buffs, but this is the first time I've ever seen him act. 

There's still another very important piece of the jigsaw puzzle remaining: this film was written and directed by Crane Wilbur, a major figure for fans of a certain kind of cinema. Wilbur starting writing all the way back in the silent era, but genre movie fans will recognize his writing in films that include The Invisible Menace, The Amazing Mr. X, He Walked By Night (second mention in this review), and the Vincent Price films House of Wax, The Mad Magician and The Bat, which he also directed.  

Outside the Wall arrives on Blu-ray as part of Kino Lorber's Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema XII, which also includes Undertow and Hold Back Tomorrow. It features a new 2K master and includes a commentary from one of the masters, Alan K. Rode. Any commentary from Rode is not only a delight, it's a free film school course. 

As I'm fond of saying, whether a film like Outside the Wall is any good or not (it is), many movie buffs eventually find themselves paying attention to the pieces as well as the whole. Universal pictures from this era are a goldmine of talent both in front of and behind the camera, since many of the people working on these films were cranking out as many as four or five projects a year. It was an assembly line and while we can bemoan the lack of scope and grandeur on these small little B-pictures, I actually prefer them to larger, more expensive spectacles. In the years before television gave movie theaters a run for their money, there's something wonderful about smaller films built around compelling humanistic stories, rather than Technicolor widescreen epics. This is why I love the Bs and joyfully recommend Outside the Wall


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