The Car in Noir: High Wall (1946)

The car in the film noir is a complex symbol expressing the various kinds of escape its protagonists attempt. It is also a tool of death… But as a symbol of the modern urban landscape, the car comes to mean much more: it functions as the symbol of all that has brought America to this ambiguous state of spiritual anxiety. Taunting us as the apex of industrial achievement with its commercial appeal and status, the car in the film noir has been transformed into an object of dubious distinction, like a desperado of sorts, an accomplice. Whether noir characters use it to escape their pursuers (legal or criminal) or their past, the automobile symbolizes that dangerous flight into the unknown that contrasts with its other importance as a symbol of established success in modern American culture. Desperate people steal perfectly reputable vehicles, transforming them into getaway cars, and in the act they sully the very status of material success that these object represent… In its transformation into an escape device, the car carries out one of the narrative goals of noir cinema: to bring the illusion of freedom for its characters up to its dead end—right up to the place from which they can no longer escape, and where they usually die.

– Andrew Dickos, STREET WITH NO NAME: A History of the Classic American Film Noir (The University Press of Kentucky, 2002), pp 176-177

High Wall (MGM 1946) is a film noir where cars are integral to the story and to the noir aesthetics: fast cars screeching to nowhere, dark streets, rain on asphalt, roadblocks, escape, entrapment… ‘crashing out’. Directer Curtis Bernhardt and his DP Paul Vogel in the many scenes with cars in this picture have fashioned indelibly mystic images of the noir car, as these selected frames from the movie attest:

8 thoughts on “The Car in Noir: High Wall (1946)”

  1. Boy, creativity really knows no bounds at this site. From every nook and cranny and from every angle this form is examined and with a sense of symbol and purpose. I have not alas seen this particular film I’m sorry to say, but I positively love the way you used it as a valid example of this significant film noir prop that does indeed serve the qualifications you assert at the outset. The ‘spiritual anxiety’ contention is brilliant. Of course there are so many examples of the symbolic use of the car and one that always comes to mind is the famed back-seat-of-the-cab scene in ON THE WATERFRONT, not that this really has all that much to do with the particulars of this post.

    Fantastic stuff!


  2. Hi! Tony and Sam Juliano…

    Tony, what very nice screen-shots from one of my favorite film noir High Wall and your avatar is very nice too…
    It compliment your upgraded blog very noirish in nature.

    Film noir + night scenes + cars=“The Big Sleep,” “Out Of The Past,” “Cry Of The City” “The Chase” “Armored Car Robbery,” and “Desperate.”
    There wasn’t chase scenes in all of these films, (per se)but I think that cars play a prominent role in each film.

    Thanks, for sharing!
    DeeDee 😉 🙂


  3. …Tony, Please let me add the film “Angel Face” to my list too!
    It seems as if actor Robert Mitchum, femme-fatales, and cars don’t mix…Even though I have never watched the film “Angel Face” I know about the ending of the film.
    DeeDee 😉 🙂


  4. Another excellent post-on a different subject what can you give us on Australian Noir-someone suggested to me that The Interview was worth a watch -a movie i’ve never seen


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