HIGH SIERRA (1941) B/W 100m dir: Raoul Walsh

w/Ida Lupino, Humphrey Bogart, Alan Curtis, Arthur Kennedy, Joan Leslie, Henry Hull, Henry Travers, Jerome Cowan, Minna Gombell, Barton MacLane, Elisabeth Risdon, Cornel Wilde, Donald Mac Bride, Paul Harvey, Isabel Jewell, Willie Best, Spencer Charters, George Meeker, Robert Strange, John Eldredge, Sam Hayes, Zero the dog

Tired old ex-con-on-the-loose theme rejuvenated by an exciting cast and direction.

From The Movie Guide: "With exception of WHITE HEAT, this was the movie gangster's last stand. Bogart plays a graying criminal who's had it, and is in pursuit of one last caper in a changing world. ... HIGH SIERRA romanticizes the Bogie character as much as possible within hardbitten guidelines and, with the exception of the always overeager Leslie [as the lame girl Bogart befriends], it's acted within an inch of its classic life, especially by Bogie, Lupino and a mongrel dog in the gut-wrenching climax. And that fadeout. ... [author's ellipsis]

"HIGH SIERRA is a landmark crime film in many ways. It was Bogart's first solid role as a sympathetic lead, a good-bad guy out of his element and beyond his time. As was the case with his first gangster role --- Duke Mantee, in THE PETRIFIED FOREST --- Bogart is made up to look like John Dillinger, to whom he bore an amazing resemblance. Bogart, who was second-billed under Lupino, showed his ability to play sensitive scenes with depth, and the public responded enthusiastically. He would never again play second fiddle to Cagney or anyone else.

"Director Walsh does a superb job in keeping a nonstop action pace, succinctly pausing to give Bogart setups in which his character is revealed, a masterful balance of movement and repose. Walsh, more than anyone else, was responsible for Bogart's big break in getting the part, suggesting him to Jack Warner when others turned down the role. This was also an important film for screenwriter John Huston; his career took a sharp turn upward following HIGH SIERRA, after which he began his own distinguished directing career. Reworked by Walsh himself as COLORADO TERRITORY."

The following contains information you may not want to know before viewing the film for the first time:

From the Criterion website (www.criterion.com), this 2021 essay about the film, "High Sierra: Crashing Out," by Imogen Sara Smith:

"The jagged peaks of the Sierra Nevada hover like a mirage above a dusty, last-chance desert gas station as the midwestern bandit Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart), freshly sprung from prison, drives into California. He squints in wonder at this wall in the sky, the distant slopes puckered like a sunbaked shroud.

"Earle’s creator, the writer W. R. Burnett, had made his own trip west in 1930 and hit pay dirt in Hollywood, where the studios seized on him as an underworld expert on the strength of his best-selling 1929 debut novel, Little Caesar. He was speedy and prolific, producing dozens of original stories and screenplays, as well as novels that the studios snapped up, sometimes even before they were published. Near the end of the thirties, Warner Bros. assigned him to write a screenplay about John Dillinger, collaborating with Charley Blake, a reporter who had covered the bank robber’s career and been on the scene in 1934 when 'Public Enemy No. 1' was gunned down by federal agents outside a movie theater where he had gone to see a gangster picture, Manhattan Melodrama. When the studio announced the Dillinger project, it was attacked in the press for making yet another movie glorifying a criminal, and Jack Warner hastily pulled the plug.

"Burnett, an Ohio native who was smitten with the 'clean, sharp' air of the West, took off on a fishing trip in the Sierras. Staying at a rustic mountain lodge, he saw in a flash how to use the research for the aborted Dillinger film, and the resort, with its log cabins and clever resident mongrel, became the setting for his next novel. High Sierra was published in 1940, and Warner promptly bought the rights for around twelve thousand dollars. The resulting film, directed by Raoul Walsh and released in 1941, is many things: a hybrid of gangster movie, western, and proto-noir; an elegy for the Depression-era archetype of the noble outlaw, which, like its protagonist, moves easily between toughness and sentimentality; and an overdue breakthrough in the career of its star, Humphrey Bogart, after more than a decade in the purgatory of B movies and supporting roles.

"The one-two punch of High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon, released later the same year, transformed Bogart from a sulky foil --- required to cringe and tremble in a showdown with James Cagney in The Roaring Twenties (1939), and play second banana to George Raft in They Drive by Night (1940), both under Walsh's direction ---into the screen’s peerless embodiment of self-possession, skepticism, independence, and weathered romanticism. Bogart’s still-lowly standing in the eyes of the studio is advertised in High Sierra by his second billing, despite his leading role --- a snub urged by producer Hal Wallis on the grounds that Bogart’s association with B pictures might hurt the film’s prospects, and that Ida Lupino, riding high after her juicy femme fatale role in They Drive by Night, was a better bet for enticing audiences.

"Raoul Walsh, one of Warner’s top directors, was a natural fit for this project: a master of both gangster movies (he had pioneered the genre with The Regeneration in 1915) and westerns, known for rousing adventure and rowdy comedy but equally at home with darker strains of fatalism, and clear-eyed about America’s perverse love affair with violent men. Walsh’s style is robustly physical; his is a warm cinema that invites you in, sometimes breaking the fourth wall to do so. Watching his films, you are caught up in the movement --- the boisterous swirl of a crowd or the hurtling flight of a fugitive --- and you do not admire his compositions so much as feel them, as though you were sharing the same space as his characters. The energy in Walsh’s films does not come just from sweeping action, but from intimate conversations and exchanges of gaze; from people flirting and arguing, as much as from brawls or derring-do. Of all the Hollywood directors associated with classically masculine genres, Walsh may be the one whose female characters most convincingly live and breathe on-screen, and whose men are least afraid of showing their need for women. They know the value of loyalty and affection in a world dominated by fighting, rivalry, and betrayal. Below the surface in many of Walsh’s films, an undercurrent of melancholy tugs at his characters like an ebb tide.

"Roy Earle has little of the dry, scathing wit and needling intelligence that would later become Bogart’s trademarks, but the character illustrates how disenchanted middle age suited the actor better than youth. Famously, the patrician Humphrey DeForest Bogart had sealed his tough-guy credentials with his performance as the snarling, on-the-lam gangster Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest, a role he played on Broadway in 1935 and reprised on-screen the next year. With that convincingly brutish performance, he cast off the last shreds of his early typing as the juvenile second lead who bounds onstage with a tennis racket (a past slyly alluded to when Roy Earle, casing a country club for a heist, picks up a racket for camouflage). But as Duke Mantee he is still trying too hard: glowering furiously, his hands clutching his sides like rigid talons, rapping out shrill dese-and-dose dialect. By High Sierra, he has acquired ease, economy, and a repertoire of idiosyncratic mannerisms that convey a stylized naturalness: hitching up his belt, twitching his upper lip back from his teeth, slurring his words. Most importantly, he has found his essential stance as an observer; he dominates the scene by watching, listening, and reacting to others with the precision of a seismograph needle. Walsh is often associated with kinetic, physical performers such as Cagney and Errol Flynn, but he uses Bogart’s stillness and potent minimalism to set the film’s grave pace and give the story ballast.

"Bogart was only forty when he made High Sierra; his temples were bleached to evoke Dillinger’s signature look, the film’s way of thumbing its nose at those moralizers who had shot down the earlier biographical project. But Roy is already an old-timer, commiserating with other grizzled veterans over how times have changed, how, as the boss Big Mac (Donald MacBride) says, 'all the A1 guys are gone.' Now they are stuck with 'young twerps, soda jerkers, and jitterbugs,' like the hotheaded punks Red (Arthur Kennedy) and Babe (Alan Curtis), who squabble over Marie (Lupino), the 'dime-a-dance girl' they picked up in Los Angeles. The movie gangsters of the early thirties were young and hungry, blasting their way to the top with raw aggression, while High Sierra looks ahead to the valedictory tone that would take over the genre after World War II, filling it with rueful, aging men looking to pull one final job and retire. Roy is an old-fashioned, gallant desperado who has outlived his time: softhearted toward dogs and women, sneeringly tough with a crooked ex-cop or a nervous small-timer.

"Nostalgia pervades the film, for both a lost world of agrarian innocence and a vanished age of outlaw glory. The bandits who roamed the Great Plains during the Depression --- Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker --- became media obsessions and folk heroes partly because they preyed on the banks that people blamed for their economic distress, but also for their refusal to suffer the humiliating deprivation that was robbing so many Americans of their pride. In the public imagination, they became Robin Hoods --- like Roy Earle, who robs haughty country-club swells of their jewels and pays for an operation to cure a young woman’s clubfoot. Just as, in 1950's The Asphalt Jungle --- another film cowritten by John Huston from a novel by Burnett --- the hooligan Dix Handley yearns for a lost horse farm in Kentucky, Roy dreams of returning to his Indiana home, a bond between him and the family he meets headed to California in a jalopy after losing their Ohio farm. (They cross paths after a near collision when a jackrabbit runs out on the road --- perhaps a descendant of the jackrabbit that flew through Walsh’s windshield when he was driving in the desert in 1928, costing him an eye.) Roy’s foolish reverence for middle-class respectability and 'decency' inspires a grotesque fantasy of marrying the daughter of the family, Velma (Joan Leslie), who is happy to accept his charity but repelled by him as a suitor.

"Despite Walsh’s association with two-fisted, knockabout adventure, the first half of High Sierra is far from action-packed. The characters kill time waiting around for the go-ahead for their big job; a savage brawl between Babe and Red happens offscreen. These scenes at the mountain lodge are marred by the egregiously racist characterization of Algernon (Willie Best), a Black employee who lazes around the place. In his longest scene, when Algernon tells Roy about the jinxed dog Pard, Best reveals glimpses of a more natural, relaxed, and sly charm behind the demeaning stereotypes of minstrelsy. Some other details grate on modern eyes and ears, such as the word cripple, applied to a mildly disabled woman; or the way men fling orders, insults, and clouts at women. In the last case, however, one can find an implicit critique of misogyny, since the most abusive men also turn out to be the weakest and most untrustworthy. (Curiously, although the censors of the Production Code office submitted reams of objections to the script, they seem to have missed the implications of the menage a trois between Marie, Red, and Babe, or of the fact that she leaves them to move into Roy’s cabin.)

"Under Walsh’s direction, actresses such as Lupino, Ann Sheridan, and Virginia Mayo played women who have been both toughened and tenderized by life, weary from fending off male aggression, yet unabashed in their yearning and generous in their devotion for the right man. In 1964, Walsh told Cahiers du cinema that, in all his films, 'the whole story revolves around the love scene.' These scenes range from the hilarious, freewheeling, affectionate verbal sparring between Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett in Me and My Gal (1932) to the moving simplicity of the reunion between the aging outlaw John Wesley Hardin and his wife (Rock Hudson and Julie Adams) in The Lawless Breed (1932), their restraint intensifying their overwhelming emotion. In High Sierra we see long before Roy does that he belongs with Marie, a fugitive from an abusive home who understands the longing to 'crash out,' and the way this dream of escape 'keeps you going.'

"A slip of a woman with big, smoky eyes and a charcoal-soft voice, Lupino played a lot of hard-luck waifs for Warner Bros. There is always a hint of steel in these bruised flowers, and the steel would show more and more in coming years, both on-screen and off-. Lupino adored Walsh, who directed her in four films, including one of her best showcases, the noir melodrama The Man I Love (1946). He also let her shadow him on set and in the cutting room, picking up the skills she unexpectedly revealed in 1949 when she took over from the ailing Elmer Clifton to direct Not Wanted, the first of her seven films. She emulated Walsh’s no-fuss, clean, and direct style, and for her greatest movie, The Hitch-Hiker (1953), she returned to the Alabama Hills, where some of High Sierra was shot. So did Stuart Heisler, when he directed I Died a Thousand Times (1955), another adaptation of High Sierra scripted by Burnett. Walsh himself helmed a looser remake, the superb Colorado Territory (1949), which recasts the story as a western, a natural genre shift that deepens the elegiac tone, with a ruined ghost town serving as the main setting. Star Joel McCrea anchors the film’s graceful action and mood of stoic melancholy, and the lean, stripped-down script adds a bitter twist to the tragic ending. Again, the outlaw makes his last stand in a fortress of rock, from which there can only be one way down. The same year, in White Heat, Walsh literally exploded this romantic trope of the defiant outlaw who meets his inevitable end on 'top of the world.'

"An austere purity takes over High Sierra as Roy flees into the mountains, pursued by the police. The long car chase is not goosed by music, only accompanied by the monotony of sirens, wheels screeching on switchback dirt roads, and yells echoing through the mountains. The bare slopes and sharp-toothed pinnacles of the Sierras form a landscape of harsh beauty, mercilessly indifferent to people. There is no refuge in this wilderness; the fugitive is treated as a wild beast, to be picked off by sharpshooters as though he were a coyote or a mountain lion. But Roy is lured out by his human ties: betrayed by the fanatic loyalty of his dog and his own reckless impulse to call out to the woman he loves.

"This spectacle is witnessed by gawking crowds and narrated in purple prose by a radio announcer, turning the scene into a metacommentary on the American myth of 'the gangster as tragic hero,' as Robert Warshow titled his 1948 essay. Outlaws, chasing freedom and success in their purest form, are really 'just rushing towards death,' in words that Doc Banton (Henry Hull) attributes to Dillinger. They are romanticized, demonized, and commodified, packaged as entertainment and edifying moral lessons. Roy is irritated by the moniker 'Mad Dog,' the inspired invention of some city-desk editor, and belittled in death by a cynical reporter (Jerome Cowan). The big shot’s downfall is a kind of ritual, a collective reminder not just that crime does not pay but that 'crashing out' is only a fantasy that keeps you going as you serve your time. From the safety of their living rooms, listeners to the radio broadcast can vicariously savor the bitterness of fate and the cold, pine-scented air of the mountains."