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.

Across the Pacific (1942)

November 21, 2006

The landscape for classic DVDs has improved dramatically in the past couple of years, with many old films which I have never seen (but always wanted to) finally being released. This trend combined with mail-service DVD providers like Netflix (a lifesaver in a town where the local cable line-up inexplicably does not include Turner Classic Movies and the video stores have non-existent to negligible classics sections) means that older films that were hard or impossible to find mere years ago are now readily available. A case in point – the many lesser-known Bogart classics that have been released in the past year or two.  While I have seen all of the bonafide Bogart classics and even many of the not-so-classics, there always remained those elusive few films that I wanted to see but simply could not find anywhere. Admittedly, Humphrey Bogart made some bad films, which he was quick to admit himself, but some of his films that one never hears about are actually quite good (such is the case with Conflict, which I was pleased to discover a couple years back). At any rate, this is just a longwinded way of introducing the fact that this past weekend I finally got to see Across the Pacific, Bogart’s 1942 action piece which I never could find before on the shelves of my local video store.

pacific.jpgNot only did Across the Pacific come out the year following The Maltese Falcon, but it also reunited much of the cast, which probably somewhat appeased those Warner executives who were pushing at the time for a Falcon sequel. Like its predecessor, Across the Pacific was directed by John Huston and starred Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, and Sidney Greenstreet. Bogart plays Rick Leland, an artilleryman who, following his dishonorable discharge from the army, boards a boat heading to Asia to try his luck finding work with the military there. Also aboard the boat are Dr. Lorenz (Greenstreet) and Alberta Marlow (Astor), both of whom seem to be harboring secret motives as to why they’re taking the voyage, as is the crew and even Leland himself. When the boat gets delayed at the Panama Canal, these secrets start coming out and a tale of international intrigue unfolds.

Across the Pacific is a fairly standard wartime action film. The story, while it keeps you guessing, is not overly complex, and there’s not a great deal of depth to the characters. All the same, it’s a fairly exciting, interesting story that takes you to exotic locales, and the acting, as would be expected from such a cast, is excellent. Astor and Bogart do well together, and the dialogue between the two has much more comedy than you find in a typical Bogie drama.

I was somewhat apprehensive going into the film about how it would portray Asian-Americans, considering that it was released so soon after Pearl Harbor. Indeed, one of the passengers, Joe Totsuiko, is a Japanese-American who has completely adapted and assimilated a western way of life, yet secretly is plotting against the U.S. and its allies. Such a characterization seems to reflect a wartime fear of an enemy hiding in our midst (it is interesting to note that Warner had to hire almost all Chinese-American actors to play the parts of the Japanese crew). However, besides this rather notable exception, the film shuns stereotypical portrayals and overall has a fairly balanced view of Asian Americans.

There is some interesting trivia surrounding this film, including how John Huston had to leave to join the Signal Corps before the end of filming had taken place. pac.jpgThe Hollywood legend has it that he abruptly left the studio at the point in the script where Bogie was being held seemingly helpless at gunpoint and told his replacement director, Vincent Herman, to figure out a way to get him out of the mess (most today agree this is likely just a myth). Even more interesting is the reason why they had to change a major plot point partway through filming (I don’t want to spoil parts of the film, but you can find it listed on the film’s IMDB trivia page).

I would not really call Across the Pacific a top-flight classic, but it’s a pretty solid film. I found this link to an original New York Times review of the film in 1942. It’s a positive review from a prominent publication, indicating that the film was likely somewhat well received, but for some reason, you hardly hear anything about this piece anymore. It just goes to show that old movies are so much more than just those few classics you always hear about. I’m excited that films like this are once again becoming readily available for a new generation to enjoy.

Key Largo (1948)

August 22, 2006

largo2.jpgOne thing that will become evident as this blog continues is that I am a big Humphrey Bogart fan. I was thus understandably excited the other week when I came across one of his more underrated films – Key Largo – on sale for a very good price. The film is the only one that pairs Bogie with both the costar (Lauren Bacall) and the director (John Huston) with whom he is most closely associated. Not only that, but the rest of the cast is stellar, with Edward G. Robinson, Lionel Barrymore, and Claire Trevor. The basic story follows Frank McCloud (Bogart) a WWII veteran who travels to a hotel in Key Largo to visit Frank and Nora Temple (Barrymore and Bacall), the surviving father and widow of one of his deceased war buddies. The hotel, however, is overrun by a group of gangsters (led by Johnny Rocco – played by Robinson), and McCloud and the Temples must survive a night trapped in the building threatened by both the gangsters and an approaching hurricane.

Key Largo is one of those great films that makes me nostalgic for a previous era of filmmaking. I always seem to like classic films that are based on plays. Their reliance upon well-written, intelligent scripts usually ensures quality productions. And even though stage origins may limit such films geographically, they also typically give these films a strong sense of place that often seems lacking in today’s efforts. This is certainly the case with Key Largo. Not only does it have a quality script, but it has a top-notch ensemble capable of bringing it to life, with Claire Trevor actually stealing the show from her bigger-name costars. The bottom-line is that this is a well done classic film.

And yet, even having said this, I think there is something that keeps the film an ever-so-slight tier below the truly top-flight classics of the genre. This is odd, considering I can think of very little that is wrong with the film (besides some awkwardly dated Native American scenes). If anything, I would say that, good as it is, the script is thin in certain areas, particularly in that it doesn’t give Bogart ample opportunity to explore the ambiguities of McCloud’s character. Rather than exploring the subtle depths of these ambiguities, the script seems more content to simply note the changes in McCloud’s character and then use them as a way of conveniently moving the plot along. I’m not sure if the character was written this way in Maxwell Anderson’s play or if something was lost in the heavily-modified adaptation, but regardless, I feel Bogart ended up being shortchanged of a potentially rich role that he could have done well with. But I’m nitpicking. Even on a very bad day, John Huston directing a cast like this is worth checking out.

It’s interesting to note that many people view this film against the backdrop of Bogart, Robinson, Huston, and others speaking out against McCarthyism and the House Unamerican Activities Committee. In such an interepretation, Johnny Rocco represents a totalitarian bully who dictates how people should live, and Frank McCloud becomes a man who must overcome his fears and stand up to do what’s right. The hurricane adds another dimension to the drama, demonstrating that one man, no matter how powerful he thinks he is, is no match for the power of nature.