High Sierra (1941) – A Review
Notorious bank robber Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) is looking at a life sentence in prison when he’s suddenly given a parole by a paid off Governor. The bribe is thanks to Earle’s old friend and fellow gangster Big Mac (Donald MacBride) who has a job for him. A ritzy resort casino on the border of California and Nevada has a wealth of jewels and money and he needs Earle to lead the heist.
Earle makes the drive from the mid-west to California and on the way we learn he’s not as hardened and unsympathetic as he looks. He meets a farming family and becomes smitten with young Velma who suffers from a deformed foot.
Arriving at the camp outside the casino he goes back and forth between toughness with his inexperienced young cohorts and compassion towards Marie (Ida Lupino) an abused girlfriend of one of the hoods. He even takes a liking to a stray dog who wanders the campgrounds.
There are complications when the robbery is finally committed and it makes Earle’s plans for the kind of life he was dreaming of an impossibility.
High Sierra is a really great film! The screenplay by John Huston manages to create a crime caper that doesn’t feel formulaic. It’s the exchanges and performances by the actors that make it so compelling. The love triangle that forms between Velma, Earle and Marie could have gone down a very clichéd hole, but it works very well and takes some unexpected turns and developments.
There’s also the setting of the Nevada mountains that make the film feel bigger than the standard Hollywood fare at the time. Director Raoul Walsh filmed on multiple locations in California and it helps make the movie look less like a standard gangster movie filmed on the backlot, but something much more special.
A few of the action sequences, notably the car chases are very impressive considering the time they were made in. They’re not as static as the typical film chases we would associate with older films today and it amps up some genuine tension and suspense.
This is no one-dimensional hood Bogey is playing and every interaction he has with every character throughout High Sierra offers more and more shadings to him. It’s a terrific character and Bogart performs it beautifully.
Despite knowing the crimes he’s done, you like the guy. Earle goes back and forth between acting ruthless and humane and him wanting a nice normal life – and even trying to fool himself in some ways – deep down he’s realistic enough to know who he truly is and what he can’t change about himself.
We watch him as he’s completely fierce in several encounters, but then we consider how there’s a part of this guy who stopped off to see his old family home or seeing his affection for the mangy dog Pard you want to root for him knowing there’s these traces of sentimentality and compassion within him.
This kind of character might seem old hat nowadays, but at the time when these kind of roles were first coming out it must of wowed audiences. I always imagine movie audiences were so accustomed to the ‘white hat good guys’ you easily could root for and the ‘black hat bad guys’ who twirled their mustaches and you wanted to see pay for their crimes back during this time. It must of been so fresh and revolutionary to see these kind of grayer anti-heroes. And thanks to Bogart’s performance and the writing the character of Roy Earle still leaves an impact over seventy years later.
There’s a great scene when Bogart intimidates an inside man at the casino explaining to him what happened to one rat he worked with years ago who sold him out. It’s a fantastic memorable exchange that’s punctuated by three little taps on the table by Bogart. I was riveted the entire time and loved how the guy shrunk in his seat and had to mop his forehead after Bogart told him his little story
There’s a lot of great moments and dialogue throughout the film. Watching it years later it’s no surprise that this was Bogie’s star-making performance that elevated him to leading man status. Later that year he would reteam with Huston for his directing debut with The Maltese Falcon and it would make Bogie a true Hollywood star. He wouldn’t play second fiddle to anyone else again and he’d be the top-billed star for the rest of his films.
Really, although Lupino is top-billed in High Sierra, Bogie is the true star of the movie. But I suppose at the time the studio felt Lupino was a bigger draw than Bogart and her name would help sell the film better.
All the actors are very well cast in this. I don’t know what it is about so many older films, but they really knew how to cast parts so well back then – even the smallest roles. They rarely, if ever, upstage the main actors, but they leave an impression in their short time onscreen.
I don’t know if it’s because actors had more distinctive faces and features back then and they were just more notable when they popped up onscreen, if they were just better directed, if there was just a cadre of actors known for playing specific kind of parts and the studios would assign them to play those parts accordingly wherever needed. I don’t know, maybe it’s me, but just from their short time onscreen I remember these actors and will recognize them next time I see them show up in another movie.
I think Lupino joins the list of the best of Bogie’s leading ladies. She’s just as complex a character as Earle. Hardened exterior, but peel away the layers and she’s as much a lonely lost soul as Earle is.
When she sees a possible future with Earle believing maybe he can be the one she can find happiness with and he rejects her it’s a heartbreaking moment. Along with the climax which is an emotional closing scene, Lupino earns her top-billing.
If I had to give a criticism about the movie it would be the portrayal of Velma. The age difference between her and Bogart (I think it was twenty-six years) is really excessive. Seeing him become enamored by this young girl and hoping she would reciprocate was a bit hard to swallow. I suppose one could say he’s drawn to the innocence of this sweet girl who has had a rough life, but it was still a bit awkward to watch.
Yeah, there’s some clunky melodrama with the girl needing an operation on her foot, the cute little dog who takes a liking to Bogie, some of the sped up shots during the car chase look dated, but I really wasn’t bothered by any of that stuff since I was so hooked into the story, characters and performances. I accepted it all and chalked them up to minor quibbles in a very well done film.
It’s a unique film in a lot of ways. I wouldn’t define it as a traditional ‘noir’ and it’s not really a standard ‘gangster’ picture. It’s sort of a hybrid of them, along with being a ‘heist’ film.
No matter how you want to define it it’s a terrific film – another Bogart classic.