High Sierra (1941)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Produced by Hal B. Wallis and Mark Hellinger
Written by John Huston and W.R. Burnett, based on the Burnett novel
Cinematography by Tony Gaudio
Edited by Jack Killifer
Music by Adolph Deutsch
TCM Greatest Classic Gangsters – Humphrey Bogart DVD (1:40)
“You know, Mac, sometimes I feel like I don’t know what it’s all about anymore.”
– Roy Earle
It may be true that The Petrified Forest (1936) helped launch Humphrey Bogart’s career, but High Sierra (1941) made him a star. Roy Earle is a much more complex character than Duke Mantee and Bogart’s acting chops had developed nicely in the five years between roles. While High Sierra lifted Bogart to the upper tier of leading men, the film also signaled the demise of the gangster picture, a genre that had seemingly endless staying power in the 1930s.
On the surface, High Sierra is a heist-gone-bad film (although how many film heists go right?), but what’s really going on is far more interesting and significant. Bank robber Roy Earle has just been released from the big house after being pardoned by the governor of Indiana (for reasons I’ll leave for the viewer to discover) and makes quick plans for one last heist. Earle is a legend, but an aging legend, and early on we see that the years have left him both jaded and sentimental. Earle’s two new accomplices, Red (Arthur Kennedy, second from left) and Babe (Alan Curtis, standing, far right) are green and stupid, not like the guys Earle worked with in the good old days. Plus the new guys have picked up a woman named Marie (Ida Lupino, seated, right), and women, says Earle, always spell trouble when planning a job.
Things get further complicated when Earle – a former farm boy – meets a family of failed farmers named the Goodhues, led by the good-natured Pa (Henry Travers, above right). Earle feels for them and their plight, but is quite taken with Pa’s granddaughter Velma (Joan Leslie), a beautiful girl with a clubbed foot, which Earle is certain could – and should – be corrected.
Inevitable tragedy is written all over this film, but it never gets out of hand, even when you think the appearance of a cute dog named Pard (Bogart’s own dog, Zero) will burden the film with unnecessary sentimentality. (Although Ida Lupino’s Marie does get quite weepy, bordering on excess, as we near the end.) High Sierra is filled with richness and complexity coming largely from the well-developed character of Earle. Bogart is able to balance the hard-edged criminal with a softness that’s never sappy. Anyone doubting Bogart’s acting ability should watch the scene in which Earle visits Velma after her operation. The range and control Bogart displays here is remarkable.
Although High Sierra is more a crime picture than a film noir (and an early one at that), it contains a noirish inevitability that certainly belongs to noir. Earle has tasted both the criminal life and life of normal people, and although he’s on the outside, he’s still imprisoned, not only by his crimes, but also by the emotions he doesn’t know how to deal with. He’s not free, not yet. But he’s also found himself in a new landscape, one that has left the gangster community of the 1930s behind. It’s a land that has no room for him; he’s like a sideshow attraction, which is reflected in the circus atmosphere of the last 10 minutes of the film. Earle’s is a life unfulfilled with loves unfulfilled and even while he’s trying to figure this world out, he knows it’s not a world he’ll ever be able to comfortably embrace.
There’s a wonderful scene conveying this as Earle takes Velma outside one night to look at the stars. In any other film, this might be a scene foreshadowing the beginning of a romance, but here it serves as a reminder that a normal life for Earle is as distant as the heavens. The outdoors also serves as a fitting stage for the film’s ending. Filmed on location in the Sierra Nevada Mountains (when location shooting was not all that common), the grandness of the open spaces are too much for a man who’s lived much of his life enclosed behind concrete and steel. The screenplay, Tony Gaudio’s gorgeous cinematography, and Walsh’s expert direction all combine to make the ending powerful and unforgettable.
The novel by W.R. Burnett (who also wrote Little Caesar, a novel whose film version made Edward G. Robinson a household name in 1931) was championed by John Huston, who got to know and appreciate Bogart on the set of High Sierra. And although Ida Lupino’s name appears onscreen first, this was the last time Bogart would receive anything less than top billing.
Photos: Doctor Macro, MoMA, The Bogie Film Blog, A March Through Film History