Saturday, February 6, 2010

#74: High Sierra (Raoul Walsh, 1941)

Released: January 21, 1941

Director: Raoul Walsh; Screenplay: W.R. Burnett and John Huston, based on a story by W.R. Burnett; Cinematography: Tony Gaudio; Music: Adolph Deutsch; Producer: Mark Hellinger; Studio: Warner Brothers

Cast: Ida Lupino (Marie), Humphrey Bogart (Roy Earle), Alan Curtis (Babe), Arthur Kennedy (Red), Joan Leslie (Velma), Henry Hull (Doc Banton), Henry Travers (Pa), Jerome Cowan (Healy), Minna Gombell (Mrs. Baughman), Barton MacLane (Jake Kranmer), Elizabeth Risdon (Ma), Cornel Wilde (Louis Mendoza), Donald MacBride (Big Mac), Paul Harvey (Mr. Baughman), Isabel Jewell (Blonde), Willie Best (Algernon), Spencer Charters (Ed), George Meeker (Pfiffer)

- “I wouldn’t give you two cents for a dame without a temper…”

Many would argue that High Sierra might be more properly classified as a gangster film, akin to the great crime dramas like Angels With Dirty Faces or Scarface. Raoul Walsh was the director of The Roaring Twenties, one of the greatest of the classic era gangster movies. Writer W.R. Burnett also had a pedigree as being an integral part of those cycles of films, providing either the source material or screenplay for classics like Little Caesar and Scarface. Humphrey Bogart rose to prominence in the 1930s on the strength of performances in support of superstar James Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces and The Roaring Twenties. Even the producer, Mark Hellinger, was behind many of these aforementioned films. So it has the traits of another in the line of classic gangster films. It’s inclusion in this countdown underscores a key point in the development of noir: the natural progression that was made from gangster films into what would come to be known as film noir. There are many similarities between the two. And so the most proper classification of High Sierra would likely be that of a transitional film, and one of the early ones to bridge the gap between the gangster films of the 1930s and the noir that would flourish for the next two decades.

One of the best treatments of the difference between gangster films and film noir is an appendix to Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward (an excellent reference book, by the way). They argue that one of the key differences is that, on the whole, the gangster films maintained a sense of distorted idealism – gangsters like Tom Powers and Rico Bandello using crime as a means to rise above the slums and squalor of city life. Conversely, lead characters in noirs tend to see their demise coming, ruminate on why they are about to take a fall, and oftentimes simply accept it. Although a generalization, and not likely to fit every film that is analyzed, I think that this is a convincing argument and one that certainly applies to High Sierra.

Humphrey Bogart stars as Roy Earle, a recently paroled bank robber who begins working on his next job the minute he secures his crooked release from prison. Traveling to California to lead a robbery of an upscale hotel, Roy meets a family of transplanted Okies on their way west. Roy quickly develops an eye for the granddaughter Velma (Joan Leslie), a clubfooted girl who charms Roy with her innocence. Arriving at the secluded resort where the job will be planned, Roy discovers that his two partners (Alan Curtis and Arthur Kennedy) have a woman from Los Angeles staying with them. Marie (Ida Lupino) is a former dancer who is attracted to the prospects of parlaying an association with the criminals into a better life. Roy at first tolerates her, and then develops a friendship, while Marie almost instantly falls for the famous gangster. Roy also maintains contact with the Okie family, visiting them in order to drop off money to have Velma’s foot fixed. He clearly has plans to marry Velma once he successfully pulls off the robbery. Complications with the heist, followed by Roy being spurned by a now-mobile Velma, leads to Roy and Marie going on the run with the faint hope of cashing in on the heist and then escaping to freedom.

The visual style of the film is certainly not traditional noir, as the bulk of the story takes place in the wide open mountain landscapes of California. There are not the usual light-dark contrasts and shadows lurking at every turn. What qualifies this film as a noir, in my opinion, is what Silver and Ward described in their outstanding essay. Roy is a man who knows that his life is on a path toward destruction, and even tells Marie that traveling with him is a quick way to wind up dead or in trouble. As Doc Banton (Henry Hull) tells Roy, he is the kind of guy who is “just rushing toward death.” Roy acknowledges as much, constantly talking about “crashing out.” He knows his end will not be pleasant, but seems to know no other way to live. In attempting to help Velma and marry an innocent, respectable girl, he makes an attempt at vindication. But as is common in noir, he seems fated to never achieve such respectability.

The historical significance of High Sierra is probably even more important than the actual merits of the movie. Bogart had to finagle his way into the role of Roy Earl by convincing George Raft, who was hoping to break free of gangster typecasting, to turn down the offer. When Raft complied, Bogart got the nod for a role that he had coveted since first reading the screenplay. This is the film that catapulted Bogey to the status of the brightest star in Hollywood. High Sierra would be the last movie in which he did not receive top-billing, and the classic films and roles that instantly come to mind when the name “Bogart” is mentioned would come in the next few years.


  1. Dave, it's one of my favorite noirs with one of my favorite endings of all the noir films! Thanks for including it here.

  2. I never dug Mr. Bogart in dark roles. Prefer him way more when he plays good guys. I wonder if "Dead Reckoning" is gonna be on this countdown...

  3. One of my favorites. Obviously The Maltese Falcon is Bogie's more classic 1941 breakthrough, but I definitely prefer High Sierra. Like much of Walsh's work at the time, it's all over the place (this is even more true of They Drive By Night), and it's very hard to separate its strengths from its weaknesses. And Lupino is gorgeous.

  4. Jeffrey - Glad to here one of your favorites is included here. There are certainly other Walsh and Bogart films that I prefer, but this one is outstanding.

    Quirky Character - I dig Mr. Bogart in all of his roles, so expect to see much more from him.

    Doniphon - I know others that have similar feelings to this - acknowledging that The Maltese Falcon is the "greater" film but preferring High Sierra. I'm revealing no great secret in saying that I prefer The Maltese Falcon... but we'll get to that soon enough!

  5. Excellent Dave! Transitional might just be the right word for this film, one of my favorites, a gangster film slipping into noir territory. Bogart is great and Lupino is such a talent and as Doniphon notes "gorgeous."

  6. One of Bogart's greatest performances in a role with that dinstinct duality, which of course spelled doom for the protagonist. But yes dave, I know that Silver volume well, and I think it's fair to say that HIGH SIERRA can fit in either camp, though I think it is still enough of a noir to validate it on this countdown. Admittedly as you note, the visual style of the film, shot in the open country isn't noirish, but the characters and narrative progression most certainly are.

    Superb review with excellent historical embellishment of a pivitol film for its director and star.

  7. John - Thanks for the compliments. Yes, it seems like I just can't stay away from Lupino... and of of course plenty more will be heard from Bogey as the countdown rolls on!

  8. Sam - Thanks. Definitely a key film for Bogart and Walsh, both of whom are favorites of mine. It's tough to knock a Walsh-Bogart-Lupino combination!

  9. High Sierra may be my favorite Bogart film, but I'm not going to protest the placement because I don't automatically think of it as a noir. Maybe I should since a botched caper is a major noir motif and Roy Earle's accomplices are the sort of losers we often see in noir. But despite Roy's sense of doom and tragedy there's a sort of natural-man quality to him that doesn't quite fit the noir archetype, or my idea of it. I'd rank this higher as a pure film than I would in a noir survey.