High Sierra

Director: Raoul Walsh
Screenplay: John Huston and W.R. Burnett (from a novel by W.R. Burnett)
Stars: Ida Lupino (Marie), Humphrey Bogart (Roy Earle), Alan Curtis (Babe), Arthur Kennedy (Red), Joan Leslie (Velma), Henry Hull (Doc Banton), Henry Travers (Pa), Jerome Cowan (Healy), Minna Gombell (Mrs. Baughmam), Barton MacLane (Jake Kranmer), Elisabeth Risdon (Ma), Cornel Wilde (Louis Mendoza)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1941
Country: U.S.
High Sierra Criterion Collection Blu-ray
High Sierra

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.

High Sierra Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Colorado Territory, director Raoul Walsh’s 1949 western remake of High Sierra
  • Video conversation on Walsh between film programmer Dave Kehr and critic Farran Smith Nehme
  • The True Adventures of Raoul Walsh, a 2019 documentary by Marilyn Ann Moss
  • “Curtains for Roy Earle,” a 2003 featurette on the making of High Sierra
  • Bogart: Here’s Looking at You, Kid, a 1997 documentary aired on The South Bank Show
  • Video interview with film and media historian Miriam J. Petty about actor Willie Best
  • Video essay featuring excerpts from a 1976 American Film Institute interview with novelist and screenwriter W. R. Burnett
  • Radio adaptation of High Sierra from 1944
  • Trailers
  • Essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateOctober 12, 2021

    Despite its major standing in the history of Hollywood and Humphrey Bogart’s career, High Sierra has not been given particularly good treatment on home video by Warner Bros., having been ignored since its original release on DVD back in 2003 in an unrestored version. Criterion has, of course, done much to rectify that problem with their new Blu-ray, which features a new transfer from a 4K digital restoration of the original 100-minute theatrical version (a shorter, 95-minute version was created for its 1948 reissue). The source for the transfer was a 35mm fine-grain nitrate master positive held by the Museum of Modern Art since the original negative has been lost (one damage sequence had to be replaced with a scan of 35mm nitrate fine-grain master print of the shorter version). The improvements over the old DVD are substantial, as the image is significantly sharper and boasts much more detail, with gorgeous contrast and grain structure. Much of the wear, dirt, and damage that marred the old transfer has been erased, although a few blemishes that couldn’t be corrected appear here and there. Overall, though, this is an impressive new restoration that has been long overdue. The original monaural soundtrack was remastered from the 35mm soundtrack negative of the shorter version of the film and a positive track sourced from MoMA’s 35mm print and is presented on an uncompressed Linear PCM track. The soundtrack is clean and nicely balanced and sounds true to its source.

    This is definitely one of the most supplement-packed of Criterions’ releases in recent months, so much so that the set requires two Blu-rays to hold it all. Of course, one of the biggest supplements is an entire feature film: Colorado Territory, an unofficial remake of High Sierra as a Western that was released in 1949 and also directed by Raoul Walsh. The presentation of this film is not nearly as good as High Sierra, as the liner notes indicate that “it is an unrestored scan … from the 35mm original camera negative, which is housed at the Library of Congress. Visible damage, jump cuts, black frames, and dirt remain.” It is still great to have it available, though, and paired with High Sierra in a single package. The disc with Colorado Territory also includes a 20-minute discussion about Walsh with critic Farran Smith Nehme and film programmer Dave Kehr and The True Adventures of Raoul Walsh (2019), a comprehensive 90-minute documentary about the director by Marilyn Ann Moss. The doc is based on her book Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director, and it includes interviews with filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich; actors Illeana Douglas, Jane Russell, and Jack Larson; media historian Norman Klein; and film critic Leonard Maltin. The rest of the supplements are housed on the same disc with High Sierra, and there is plenty to go through: “Curtains for Roy Earle,” a 25-minute featurette from 2003 about the making of the film that includes interviews with Bogart biographer Eric Lax, film critic Leonard Maltin, Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, and actor Joan Leslie; Bogart: Here’s Looking at You, Kid (1997), a 51-minute television documentary about the actor’s life and career that was produced as part of The South Bank Show and includes archival footage and interviews with actor Lauren Bacall; Bacall and Bogart’s son, Stephen Bogart; critic Ty Burr; screenwriter Julius Epstein; and author Joe Hyams; a new 14-minute interview with film and media historian Miriam J. Petty about actor Willie Best; a new 25-minute video essay by Dennis L. White that incorporates excerpts from a 1976 American Film Institute interview with novelist and screenwriter W. R. Burnett; a 30-minute condensed version of a 1944 radio adaptation of High Sierra from The Screen Guild Theater that featured Bogart and Lupino reprising their roles; and a trailer.

    Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © Warner Bros. / The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

    James Kendrick offers, exclusively on Qnetwork, over 2,500 reviews on a wide range of films. All films have a star rating and you can search in a variety of ways for the type of movie you want. If you're just looking for a good movie, then feel free to browse our library of Movie Reviews.

    © 1998 - 2024 Qnetwork.com - All logos and trademarks in this site are the property of their respective owner.