Blu-ray Review: High Sierra | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Saturday, January 29th, 2022  

High Sierra

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Dec 01, 2021 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Humphrey Bogart spent the first decade of his career in Hollywood stumping producers and directors. A wealthy WASP with a gutter accent and a face that already communicated weariness and hard living in his early thirties, Bogart struggled to find a niche in films of the 1930s. Early films cast him as the callow rich youths he often played on Broadway, but his role as vicious outlaw Duke Mantee in the 1936 hit The Petrified Forest - a role Bogart originated on Broadway - typecast him as a hoodlum in dozens of Warner Bros. gangster flicks of the late 1930s. Leading roles were few and far between at this point in his career, with most of his characters being backstabbing, treacherous second-in-commands to more noble, conflicted protagonists. High Sierra, directed by Raoul Walsh and released by Warner Bros in 1940, would give Bogart the chance to tackle a more morally questionable protagonist role of his own, and would put him on the path to becoming one of the biggest stars of the 1940s.

A pivot point between the gangster sagas of the 1930s and the more emotionally and psychologically introspective noirs of the 1940s, High Sierra is a fairly straightforward “one last job” heist thriller set against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the “modern” American West of the early 1940s. Bogart plays Roy “Mad Dog” Earle, a career criminal who gets sprung from prison by an old friend so he can lead a robbery of a resort town hotel in the Sierra Nevadas. On paper, Earle isn’t much different than Duke Mantee or any of the other thugs and criminals Bogart had been playing over the past several years. But Bogart, director Raoul Walsh and screenwriters John Huston and W.R. Burnett are less interested in the mechanics of the plot and more in the relationships the characters have with each other and themselves. The standard move with a character like Earle would be to have him be regretful of his past crimes or seeking some kind of redemption. Bogart just plays him as being tired of the whole business. He’s been in prison since the end of Prohibition and has just enough self-awareness to recognize that this new world he’s entered has no place for him.

It’s ironic that the role that finally put Bogart on the road to stardom is one where he’s playing a guy who’s over the hill. Only 41 at the time of shooting, Bogart already looked like someone who’d led a full life, for better or for worse. As Earle, his high, tight haircut accentuates the sharp angles and hollows of his face, making him both threatening and exhausted at the same time. That sense of exhaustion is what gives him tragic chemistry with Ida Lupino’s Marie, a dance hall girl who accompanies Bogart and his crew on the heist. Equally tired of a hard life that’s taken her nowhere, her connection with Earle is less one of attraction and more one of understanding; both of them recognize the end of the road is coming sooner rather than later.

The true tragedy of High Sierra has less to do with its Production Code-mandated ending that did not allow criminals to get away with their crimes, and more the fact that Earle thought it could be any other way. There’s a running subplot in which Earle encounters a poor family on the road to California, which includes Velma, a vivacious teen beauty with a club foot, played with starry-eyed wonder by Joan Leslie. Earle sees Velma as representational of a the normal life he never had, and takes it upon himself to hire a doctor to correct her foot. What follows is something tragic enough to be a farce, as Velma uses her new-found freedom to become a teenage girl, dating men her own age and generally showing no interest in her aging guardian angel. Earle’s reaction to this is mostly resignation tinged with anger; his romantic intentions toward Velma were never really plausible, but he would have liked to pretend for a bit longer.

High Sierra is one of Bogart’s more elegiac films which, as mentioned above, is somewhat ironic given how it was the cornerstone of a new phase of his career. The following year, Bogart would re-team with High Sierra co-writer John Huston for Huston’s directorial debut The Maltese Falcon, the film that would prove Bogart was a bankable hero. But even during the coming heyday of his star power, Bogart always retained the hangdog melancholy of characters like Mad Dog Earle. There’s a scene in High Sierra where he uses the lead of a bullet to write out what amounts to his suicide note. That’s much of Bogart’s persona in a nutshell; badass, but with the knowledge that it doesn’t get you anywhere.

In a somewhat unusual move, Warner Bros. allowed Raoul Walsh to remake High Sierra nine years later as a straight Western titled Colorado Territory. The remake is included in its entirety as a special feature on the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray of High Sierra. The version presented is unrestored, but it makes for an instructive comparison with the original film. Joel McCrea as the protagonist - here named Wes McQueen - is less morally ambiguous than Bogart’s Earle, and several other aspects of the film - particularly his relationship with the Velma analogue, here a grown woman played by Dorothy Malone - are less emotionally complex than in the 1940 version. The story now revolves around a train robbery and generally has more focus on plot than might be necessary. To its credit, the film more or less doubles down on the original’s downbeat ending, but overall there’s more action and less heart.



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