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Dated in many ways, and deriving its emotional kick from a structure that begs credibility, High Sierra remains a bold, entertaining gangster epic with a strong talent pedigree and perfect performances. It made a solid star of the studio-abused Humphrey Bogart, and officially marked an end to the five-year ban on sympathetic gangster characters.
In High Sierra, Bogart got to make good on the rather phony gangster he played in his first Hollywood success (on his second try), The Petrified Forest. The source material here is a solid crime caper from veteran W.R. Burnett, and the studio allowed Raoul Walsh to film much of the tale on remote locations in Lone Pine and other places on route 395.
Forget the stagebound romantic gangsters of The Roaring Twenties and Angels with Dirty Faces, in High Sierra Bogart is finally allowed to sell his natural toughness. Just his Marine Corps haircut and surly expression in stills is enough to raise one's interest; Roy Earle is an experienced, alienated tough guy in a world of chislers, punks, and clueless civilians.
The corny, dated aspect comes with the basic concept that Roy, one of the nastiest stick-up men of the depression (is this supposed to be 1932, as we see on his parole document in the first scene?) has a big softie inside who wants to come out. He goes for a walk in the park on release, checks out the old farm and takes a liking to the Goodhues, a family of rubes come to the big city. Pard the dog has no trouble finding its way into his heart, and bad girl Marie Garson comes creeping in not far behind.
The script has our hardboiled hero spending a lot of his time acting like Albert Schweitzer, playing the benevolent sweetie to young Joan Leslie. Then he starts breaking the gangster rules with Marie and the dog, and we think all hell is going to break loose. Remember that in a classic gangster movie, the moment the gangster lets down his guard or shows sentimental weakness, it's all over. 1
Scripters John Huston and Burnett mine audience sympathy by playing up the melodrama, but they make sure that nothing in the crime story is affected by the personal one (until the very end, that is). Roy's deal in LA going bad has nothing to do with his dalliances with the Goodhues, and when he goes soft by letting Marie and Pard accompany him, no blame is assigned. Of course, the movie is a bit cockeyed when it gets emotional mileage from showing Roy victimized by greedy motel operators, etc., wanting to cash in on him. By the end the unflattering picture of militant cops and opportunistic radio announcers makes Roy seem like an innocent guy.
The 'Bonnie and Clyde' formula extends to Ida Lupino's rather sanitized version of a 'dime a dance girl', who we have to presume is meant to suggest a pickup dame and maybe even a prostitute. Marie's no Madonna (in the old-fashioned sense), but she comes close. Naturally she suggests all good things and positive values to Roy. Interesting, however, that Roy's rough background (killings, brute force robberies, threatening and being threatened) barely show themselves in his relationship with her. Dagwood Bumstead couldn't be more domestic.
High Sierra, then, gets to have it both ways. You Only Live Once made its fugitive couple ridiculously innocent to the point of fairy-tale simplicity. This movie certainly lays on the bit about 'the forces of society closing in' with impressive cruelty. Even noble-looking Park Rangers all now seem to have high-powered rifles. With frequent reminders of how tough Roy Earle can be, Huston and Burnett satisfied the softies and the hardboiled audience at the same time.
Thanks to the great playing and the realistic locations, it all works. 2 Ida Lupino gets top billing and earns it by keeping the soft side of the story interesting and emotionally credible. Young Arthur Kennedy and Alan Curtis (Phantom Lady) are a little clean-cut but acceptable as the punks along on the caper, and and even younger-looking Cornel Wilde is Mendoza, the untrustworthy inside man on the hotel caper. Once again, there's a prominent black character that mars the film, PC-wise. Interesting that in 1941, the makers of this picture probably felt they were being 'big' by giving Willie Best such a large role - but his Algernon is still a stumble-bum who sleeps all day, gets laughs from a wandering eye and carries less importance than the dog Pard. Joan Leslie is adorable as ever, although the script requires her to transform from a sweet selfish and hurtful - all because she doesn't want to marry a man twice her age. Give her a break, already.
Two almost irrelevant notes: Earle seems to be forever traveling between Lone Pine, some fictional Vegas-like resort out in the Mojave Desert (they can't mean Palm Springs, can they?) and Los Angeles. In 1941 (or 1932, if that date is to be believed), there were so few roads that three deputies posted out in the desert could ID and snag anybody trying to go from A to B in California. Or maybe they had few deputies, too.
Warners remade High Sierra in Warnercolor and Cinemascope in 1955, and it's not bad, with a fairly subdued Jack Palance and Shelley Winters starring. It copies many of the chase angles shot for shot in the exact same locations, and omits some of the opening montage stuff. The desert opening looks particularly good in widescreen, and the stereo sound is good too. Lee Marvin has a small role, if I remember.
And a lackluster Bogie followup, The Big Shot, re-uses High Sierra's action chase as a straight stock footage lift.
Warners' DVD of High Sierra has what we want to see, a nigh-flawless, brilliant transfer of this classic with a punchy soundtrack. I remember old TV broadcasts edited for time that lopped off the opening prison scenes, and they're all back now.
The brief featurette docu is to the point, using critics and historians as interviewees, considering that everyone directly associated with the picture passed away decades ago. They stick to the basic facts, but manage to editorialize some; Leonard Maltin is particularly good at putting his spin on Hollywood history without making things up, as some 'experts' seem to.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, rates:
Supplements: Theatrical trailer, Curtains for Roy Earle featurette
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: November 8, 2003
1. I remember discussing this with UCLA graduate film student Joe MacInerney in 1973, on the way to seeing for the first time a screening of the uncut The Wild Bunch, which he claimed was more of a gangster movie than a Western. I resisted, until in a re-instated scene, Robert Ryan goes to answer a door without his gun because William Holden tells him to relax. It's the law outside, of course ... a classic gangster faux pas. Joe, wherever he is now (anybody know?) was right.
2. I wonder if associate producer Mark Hellinger was impressed by the impact of the real rural locations for this show - he later made his mark re-inventing the police story in The Naked City and becoming famous for shooting on real locations.
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