High Sierra (1941)

August 3, 2007

highsierra.jpgHigh Sierra is best known for being a pivotal film in Humphrey Bogart’s career. It was the last of his films where he received second billing (co-star Ida Lupino actually had top billing, as Warner Brothers was trying to capitalize on her popularity resulting from the previous year’s hit They Drive by Night), and it was the first film where he demonstrated to studio execs that he had real potential for success as a leading man. This film really captured Bogie on the cusp of super-stardom. In the next year, he would star in The Maltese Falcon, and the rest, as they say, is history.

And yet, High Sierra had so much else going for it as well. The credits for the film reads like a who’s who of studio-era Warner Bros. Legendary director Raoul Walsh was in the midst of perhaps the greatest span of his long career, being in the middle of a run with Warner that included such films as The Roaring Twenties, They Died With their Boots On, and Gentleman Jim. Executive producer Hal Wallis – one of the all-time greats – had already overseen many great films and was about to lead Warner to even greater heights in the early 40s. And as if having these men on board wasn’t enough, the script was written by a versatile and emerging film talent who was about to burst on the scene in a major way, John Huston.

The film itself follows a basic enough plot. Some strings are pulled to get notorious bank robber Roy Earle (Bogart) pardoned and released from jail. An operation is in place to have Earle head west, where he will lead a couple of younger thugs in one last big heist. In the company of his cohorts is a young lady named Marie (Lupino) who winds up being similarly minded to Earle in her yearning for freedom and independence. Such freedom finally looks like it might be attainable for both Roy and Marie, but will it be possible once their big job goes awry?

I often see the film described as an early film noir, but I’m not convinced of that. It certainly has a few noiresque elements and definitely would influence later noirs (consider the parallels between it and Huston’s later masterpiece, The Asphalt Jungle, for example), but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a noir. In fact, to a fan of the hardboiled, tense atmospheres of the noirs to come, High Sierra probably seems somewhat over-sentimental and melodramatic.

I tend to like this film more than your average viewer – it’s one of my favorite Bogie films, in fact – and I think this difference of opinion is likely based upon the first two-thirds of the film. This part of the film is admittedly rather uneven and clunky, owing from a major subplot where Roy befriends a country family (headed up by Pa, played by Henry Travers) and, longing for the simpler life they represent, tries unsuccessfully to woo their daughter Velma (Joan Leslie). These scenes seem somewhat dated and a bit sappy. But to me, it’s this rather awkward subplot that makes the final third of the film that much more effective. Roy’s inability to start over with Velma not only clears the way for a romance to bloom between he and Marie, but it also is just another notch in a long row of disappointments. It symbolizes the rut that both of them feel they are forever stuck in. As a result, when Roy and Marie finally begin their ill-fated run from the police highsierra2.jpg(not to mention from their past lives), there’s a certain desperate happiness to them, as if they understand that all their past attempts at legitimacy were failures and that this is their last shot at freedom. It’s like a breath of fresh air – not only for the characters, but oddly enough, for the viewers too, who are finally free of all those painful sitting room scenes with Pa and family and able to see Bogie and Lupino on their mad dash, which is what they’ve been wanting to see all along anyway.

Looking at Bogie’s screen romances, one might think of the various films he did with Bacall and think about their spark and style, or one might think of Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca and think of the couple’s nobility. Well, Roy and Marie’s romance is notable for quite another reason – its sincerity. The couple’s relationship seems honest and heartfelt and down to earth. You can’t help but start pulling for them. I won’t give away the ending, which Walsh filmed on location in the High Sierra mountains and contains some fantastic shots, but I will say that it’s a powerful ending that gets me no matter how many times I watch it. If you haven’t already, give High Sierra a chance, and you’ll understand how Warner Bros. knew that they had a new leading man on their hands.

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One Response to “High Sierra (1941)”


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