Raoul Walsh, 1941
Starring: Ida Lupino, Humphrey Bogart, Alan Curtis, Arthur Kennedy
The notorious criminal Roy “Mad Dog” Earle is released from prison thanks to the efforts of his boss, Big Mac, a gangster. Mac wants Earle on one last job, a heist near the Sierra Nevada mountains. His companions will be three younger men named Mendoza, Red, and Babe; they have brought an attractive dancer named Marie with them. She convinces Earle to let her stay and becomes attracted to him, though he does not reciprocate her feelings.
During his travels, Earle meets a family whose youngest member, the lovely, innocent Velma, has a clubbed foot. He bonds with the family and comes to love Velma, eventually paying for corrective surgery. He visits Velma after her recovery and she is whimsical, brash, and only interested in her rude fiancé from back east. When he discovers Velma’s true nature, Earle finally opens his eyes to Marie and they fall in love. They begin an impromptu family with a small dog they have adopted. Unfortunately, the heist goes wrong — Red and Babe die and Mendoza rats Earle out to the police. The police begin to hunt him through the mountains, where Marie hopes he will escape.
In the same situation as The Maltese Falcon, Humphrey Bogart’s They Drive By Night costar George Raft was originally intended for the role of Roy Earle. Bogart convinced him to turn it down, because Bogie desperately wanted to play Earle. Along with Falcon, it would help boost him to fame, though he had to convince director Raoul Walsh that he could handle the part. He certainly succeeded, as his portrayal of Earle helps elevate the film from its B-movie status. Earle is likable, tough but sensitive, and is sympathetic despite being a hardened criminal.
Here Bogart also worked his lifelong friend and occasional filmmaking partner, director John Huston. Huston was then primarily known as a screenwriter and co-wrote High Sierra with W.R. Burnett, the original novel’s author. Burnett was also known for Little Caesar and other gangster films. High Sierra has elements of the western to it, despite the fact that it stars a gangster, bears a relationship to early film noir, and is part heist flick. The rural mountain setting, actually filmed in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, is isolated and isolating, though it draws Earle to specific characters. He has something of a cowboy feel about him. He’s a tough yet romantic loner; he’s romanticized by the film and the other characters, though he clearly longs for a pre-urban domestic bliss that does not seem to exist in his world. His character was loosely inspired by the oddly beloved criminal John Dillinger, though the Hays Code insisted that Earle was punished at the film’s conclusion with either death or imprisonment.
This was the last time in his career that Bogart wasn’t given top billing; he was ranked underneath his They Live By Night co-star Ida Lupino, despite the fact that Bogie’s clearly the star. Lupino is excellent as Marie, the good-hearted gangster’s moll. She’s a curiously independent character, asserting herself from the very beginning and proving to Earle that she is smarter and tougher than her male companions. She faithfully, doggedly pursues Earle even though he isn’t initially interested. Lupino did play femme fatale characters throughout her career (as she does in They Live By Night), but more often she chose these unique, independent roles, where she portrayed strong women able to go toe-to-toe with the male characters.
The supporting cast is nearly equally as strong, though Bogart and Lupino eat up most of the running time. Alan Curtis (Phantom Lady) and Arthur Kennedy (Rancho Notorious), not strangers to the film noir world, are mostly forgettable as Red and Babe, partly because they pale in comparison to Lupino. The innocent-looking Joan Leslie (Yankee Doodle Dandy) is likable as lovely, though handicapped Velma. Whether through a brilliant script choice or Leslie’s acting, there’s a wonderful scene where Velma becomes more than just a vulnerable, fantasy woman and, in the process, breaks Earle’s heart. Universal horror veterans Henry Hull (Werewolf of London), as the helpful surgeon, and Henry Travers (The Invisible Man, Shadow of a Doubt), as the lovable Pa, are both very memorable and help flush out some of the film’s other interesting personalities.
There are noir elements to High Sierra, even if this isn’t quite a film noir. There are two very complicated female characters (Marie and Velma), a central heist, double-crossing friends, a deeply cynical antihero, a sense of doomed fate, and a tragic conclusion. All of these elements are critical to High Sierra’s tense plot and depressing after taste, though they would go on to more nihilistic depths throughout the classic film noir period.
High Sierra is available on DVD and comes highly recommended, particularly to anyone who thinks a blend of western, noir, and Bogart is up their alley. The film was remade twice, first as Colorado Territory (1949), oddly directed again by Raoul Walsh, and later as I Died a Thousand Times (1955) with Jack Palance and Shelley Winters (yowza, what a title).