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HIGH SIERRA(director: Raoul Walsh; screenwriters: John Huston/W.R. Burnett/from the novel by Burnett; cinematographer: Tony Gaudio; editor: Jack Kllifer; cast: Humphrey Bogart (Roy Earle), Ida Lupino (Marie), Alan Curtis (Babe), Arthur Kennedy (Red), Joan Leslie (Velma), Henry Hull (Doc Banton), Barton MacLane (Jake Kranmer), Henry Travers (Pa), Elisabeth Risdon (Ma), Cornel Wilde (Louis Mendoza), Jerome Cowan (Healy), Donald MacBride (Big Mac), Willie Best (Algernon), Paul Harvey (Carl), Mina Gombell (Mabel); Runtime: 100; Warner Brothers; 1941)
“The Bogie and Lupino performances were razor sharp.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Humphrey Bogart, with both The Maltese Falcon and High Sierra coming out in 1941, went from playing supporting to starring roles. High Sierra was his first leading role, though Ida Lupino received top-billing. This film again reunited him with screenwriter John Huston, and the two remained lifelong friends until Bogie’s death in 1957. Bogie lucked out when George Raft turned down both of those juicy roles and he was chosen instead as director Raoul Walsh went to bat for him with Jack Warner. High Sierra turned out to be a big hit for WB, and it became noted as a landmark crime film that helped change the way such films played. The tortured Bogie character, a good-bad guy with a death wish, gave the film the noir qualities that made it into such a memorable classic. It’s a film that tries to sentimentalize an old way of life that may have only been imagined and not real, as it plays on what’s missing in today’s world–a world pictured as in unending conflict and where a man’s word no longer means something.

It’s based on the novel by W.R. Burnet, who also was co-screenwriter. It isdirected by Raoul Walsh, who was noted for his action-adventure films but who delivers the film’s ultimate message quietly as a personal expression of the individual’s quest for freedom in the beautiful naturalistic setting of the Sierras. The dark shadowy moments of a noir film clash against the wide-open sunny spaces of the Western, as man’s troubled existence is contrasted with the splendors of the natural world. The protagonist has made up his mind that his dark world is rotten and the world of sunlight is decent, but when he reaches out for it he’s rejected and thrown back in the dark hole he can never escape. The film concludes with Bobie being shot by the police in a carnival-like atmosphere, with a large crowd and media gathered to watch while he’s trapped in the Sierras, as his only wish is “to crash out.” His forlorn girlfriend Marie (Ida Lupino), the only one in the world he can trust, is in tears until she asks a newspaper reporter (Cowan) what that expression means, and when he mentions it means to be free, she starts uttering “free” a few times to herself as if reciting an urgent mantra given her by a guru. Suddenly she is no longer crying and starts smiling as she looks up at the sunny sky and believes that her lover boy is now free and that there’s hope in death for her also. It was, indeed, a very beguiling ending, one that gives this bleak film an unforgettable lyricism.

The infamous bank robber ex-farmboy from Indiana, the graying Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart), is given a pardon from an Illinois prison after serving 8 years–and his experience there was so bitter he vows to never return even though he aims to continue his life of crime. He’s sprung by an aging crime boss, Big Mac (MacBride), who wants him as payback to knock off a fancy resort hotel in the California mountains and give him the jewelry from the heist. He’s told this by a crooked ex-cop, Kranmer, as the ailing Big Mac is recouping in LA and has hired Kranmer to look out for the operation in Chicago. Kranmer directs Roy to a fishing resort in the Sierras where the reliable old-school professional gangster is forced to team with young unreliable amateurs Red (Kennedy) and Babe (Curtis). When he meets them for the first time at the mountain cabin camp, he’s ticked off that they bring with them a runaway girl whom they met in a dance-hall, Marie. She’s involved with the high-strung Babe, but Red is jealous and they fight over her. At first, wanting to send her back to LA, he changes his mind when he sees she got smarts and is as tough as nails and he takes pity on her plight and need to run away from her past like him. The heist is being arranged by the nervous and talkative corrupt insider, the desk clerk, Louis Mendoza (Wilde). Thrown into the mix is a small mongrel dog, who is labeled a jinx by one of the cabin camp workers because his previous owners died, but who wins Roy over by always tagging along and acting cute. Also, Roy on his car trip across the country runs into old-timers from Ohio who lost their farm and are moving to LA. Roy becomes friendly with the grandfather (Travers) of the pretty clubfooted Velma (Leslie), a 20-year-old who will reunite with her remarried mother in LA. Attracted by the purity he sees in the girl and her small-town family roots, Roy offers to pay the destitute family the expenses to take care of the corrective operation that he arranges with mob doctor Banton (Hull). When the operation is successful, Velma rejects Roy’s marriage proposal in the name of having fun again. She instead turns her affection to the back home suitor she says she loves. With Roy feeling betrayed, he returns to Marie and cautions her not to fall in love with him because he’s doomed. That prophesy starts taking hold as the heist is successful in securing the jewels but turns sour with a policeman killed and Babe and Red killed in the getaway car that crashes, while Mendoza lives through that and starts squealing. This leads the police on a massive manhunt for Roy and Marie.

Despite Roy’s attempt to shake off Marie so she can save her skin, she attaches herself to him like the dog. When Roy finds Big Mac dead he gives the ring he took in the heist, that was intended for Velma, to Marie, and the two soulmates go on the lam together until the bitter end. Roy finds it ironical that the newspapers are calling him “Mad Dog Earle,” since the burned out criminal is just trying to find a way back to a simple life.

The film is dated as far as its characterization of the gangster types and the insensitive stereotype Negro role played by Willie Best, as the lazy cabin camp employee who believes in jinxes. Also, the acting from the farm family was strictly cornball and took away more from the story mood than it gave in metaphorical meaning. But the Bogie and Lupino performances were razor sharp and created sympathy for these two misfits trapped by their own false visions.

High Sierra was remade by Walsh in 1949 into a Western, Colorado Territory, and it was also remade in 1955 as I Died a Thousand Times.

REVIEWED ON 11/29/2003 GRADE: B-

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”