It is hard to believe now, given the icon of classical Hollywood he would soon become, but Humphrey Bogart spent most of the 1930s languishing in secondary and supporting roles. He shuffled among a number of the major studios and the Broadway stage, waiting to catch a break, waiting for a filmmaker to recognize and make use of his unique talents and screen persona. The latter part of the decade gave him a few juicy roles, including a supporting turn in Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939), a nostalgic look back at the gangster genre starring James Cagney, and They Drive at Night (1940), another Walsh-directed crime film that helped to push the gangster narrative from the city onto the open road.
However, it was his third collaboration with Walsh, High Sierra, that finally made good on Bogart’s potential, with the real irony being that he only got the role after a number of other, then-bigger stars turned it down, including Cagney and George Raft. Bogart, despite being the protagonist, still got second billing behind Ida Lupino, who the studio was pushing as the next Bette Davis. No matter—it was Bogart who carried the film and established a new screen persona that would persist for and define the rest of his career: the world-weary, cynical-but-romantic outsider-antihero. That mix of contradictions is what made Bogart’s presence so viable, so memorable, so powerful when put in the right film. High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon (1941), the pioneering film noir released that same year and directed by High Sierra co-writer John Huston, proved to be the one-two punch needed to catapult Bogart to the front ranks of Hollywood. As Huston said in an interview years later, “Bogie was a medium-sized man, not particularly impressive off-screen, but something happened when he was playing the right part. Those lights and shadows composed themselves into another, nobler personality: heroic …”
Based on a novel by the prolific W.R. Burnett, who had also written the novel on which Little Caesar (1931) was based and contributed dialogue to Howard Hawks’s Scarface (1932), High Sierra proved to be a pivotal crime film that took the basic components of the gangster film and reimagined them through a more romanticized, emotional lens. Bogart plays Roy Earl, a career criminal who is sprung from prison on parole orchestrated by a crime boss who wants him to lead the heist of a resort high in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Earl is paired with a couple of aspiring criminals, Babe (Alan Curtis) and Red (Arthue Kennedy), who represent a new generation of impulsive young punks who lack Roy’s patience and sense of honor (in this way, the film plays a bit like Sam Peckinaph’s elegiac 1969 Western The Wild Bunch, and it is little surprise that Walsh was able to essentially remake it in 1949 as a Western called Colorado Territory). Earl also gains an additional partner in Marie (Ida Lupino), a good-bad girl who gets caught up with Babe and Red and ends up being protected from them by Roy. She is no push-over, though, as she insists on being part of the caper and proves to be an important ally to Roy, one he never knew he needed.
There is a secondary plot interwoven into the heist plot involving Velma (Joan Leslie), a bright-eyed teenager who Roy meets on the road along with her grandparents, Pa (Henry Travers) and Ma (Elisabeth Risdon). Roy feels immediate connection to the family and essentially ingratiates himself into their midst, eventually offering to arrange and pay for an operation that will repair Velma’s club foot. Roy is clearly in love with her, but Velma proves to be a flight of fancy, caught up in her own needs and desires to pay much attention to Roy beyond what he can do for her. This subplot, despite being thematically crucial in the way it establishes Roy’s fundamental decency, is the film’s major weakness, as it feels both dramatically forced and romantically inert. There is no chemistry between Roy and Velma, and his later romantic advances and marriage proposal feel more awkward than they probably should (it is also a bit creepy that Roy is clearly in his late 40s, while Velma is still in high school). Every time the film shifts to Roy’s infatuation with Velma and her family, its gears start to grind, and it is hard not to become anxious to move onto the film’s much more engaging criminal plot machinations.
And once they kick in, High Sierra becomes a master class in the dramatics of criminal desperation and fatalism. We sense early on that Roy is doomed and that his “one last heist” will lead to his death, but we still can’t help but yearn for him to somehow escape the clutches of his own collapsing existence. Everything starts to fall apart, starting with the heist, which goes terribly wrong and results in unintended violence and death, starting a slow cascade of events that push Roy deeper and deeper into a corner, leading to a climax that finds him desperate and alone, scrabbling up the Sierra mountainside with dozens of police officers surrounding him. His last stand is ultimately a pathetic gesture of self-determination, but Bogart’s romanticized persona makes every last moment a hallmark of tragedy. Bogart’s great gift was the ability to be both tough and tender at the same time, and High Sierra’s best moments are fueled by the emotional depths of that fascinating paradox.
Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (3)
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