Our review of Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection, published November 15th, 2010, is also available.
"Listen to me. I'm given it to you straight. I got plans see, and
there's no room in them for you."
Made shortly before the two films Bogart is most famous for—The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca—High Sierra is considered the first true "Bogart" movie and the film that really launched his career.
Facts of the Case
1941, America is not yet involved in World War II but still feeling the heavy, though somewhat alleviated effects of the Great Depression. The world has changed quite a bit over the past decade, with the crash of the stock market and the New Deal; Roy `Mad-Dog' Earle (Humphrey Bogart), a hard-boiled burglar and killer from the Prohibition era, has been in jail the entire time. Without Roy's knowledge, an old associate has him pardoned and released from prison in exchange for his assisting Big Mac, a California crime boss, leading a local gang in an upcoming high-stakes hotel robbery. During his journey to California, Roy is stopped by an inconsequential traffic accident, meeting the Velma Baughmam (Joan Leslie Sergeant York, Yankee Doodle Dandy) and her family.
Once in California, Roy finds a bunch of young, green gangsters and a former dance hall girl waiting for him. As his gang prepares for their caper, Roy gives Velma's family money to have a surgeon fix her deformed foot. Having fallen in love with Velma, Roy finds himself disappointed when, having her deformity cured, Velma would rather explore her options with suitable boys her own age than find herself married to Roy. Amidst the burglary, Roy finds himself fighting off the affections of Marie (Ida Lupino They Drive By Night), another Prohibition-era survivor, like himself. Things then go from bad to worse, as the heist goes wrong and Roy is forced to kill a cop; and only Marie stays loyal as the police hunt the thieves. Roy tells Marie to leave, he will meet her, and in a face-paced chase he makes his way up into the Sierra Nevada's and the peak of Mt. Whitney, seeking refuge from the police.
High Sierra should probably not have been a good film. The storyline is only so-so. Nothing remarkably different than some of the other B-gangster movies of the time, and not starring Leslie Howard, George Raft, or James Cagney, the big genre stars. Yet, something about the film makes it stand out. While it isn't in the same league as Casablanca, Citizen Kane, or The Maltese Falcon, High Sierra is still one of the more memorable films from the 1940s. The film is a historical marker for several firsts and several lasts. High Sierra was the last time Bogart's name would not be listed first in film credits. The film also marks the last of the gangster films of the Great Depression, while at the same time introducing a new genre the '40s and Humphrey Bogart himself would become famous for: the grayer, existential film-noir.
One of the more engrossing themes found in High Sierra is the story of a man out of time. Roy Earle has been in jail for ten years and the world around him has changed immensely. He identifies more with the homeless (Velma's grandfather) of the era and with other survivors from the very early thirties (Marie) much more easily than with the band of criminals he is supposed to be leading. This, in and of itself, is a recipe for failure. Given the sense that Roy Earle is doomed from the onset, I think it may have been more effective to start the story from the end. Show parts of his climatic performance near the top of Mt. Whitney to really interest us in the events that led to Earle being trapped in the mountains.
As a character, Roy Earle is interesting. Perhaps it's the doomed future that makes us like him so much. Based on the contemporary figure John Dillenger, we know we SHOULDN'T like him: he's a thief and a killer and in general has had a bad past. Yet we do. The Roy we see is a guy with a soft heart who tries to do the right thing yet has had a series of wrong breaks. Roy's hard-boiled man with a softer side is the forerunner of characters like Sam Spade, and the beginning of film-noir.
If you have ever been to Los Angeles, Southern California and the Sierra Nevada's leave a lasting impression of both sunshine and rugged breathtaking beauty, and I am sure this has not changed since the time the film was made. Yet Director Raoul Walsh was able to take this atmosphere and give it a dark and forbidding tone. Since we know that Roy is doomed to fail, even though the sun shines, it seems mocking rather then warm and cheerful. The mountains rising above the characters seem to be ominous and threatening rather then rugged and beautiful.
Roy's relationships with his two leading ladies are rather interesting and worthy of some discussion. Roy is very much in love with Velma. She is young, attractive, and much less world-worn then either himself or Marie. His attraction makes sense, and thematically, so does Velma's rejection. Aside from their age difference, Roy is a man out of time and Velma's rejection of his love is like the present world rejecting his efforts to be a part of it, Just another unlucky break for an unlucky guy. Marie on the other hand, unlike Velma and very much like Roy, clings to the possibility of a love that has already rejected her. Roy has made it clear to Marie that she does not lay in his future (and not for the reasons that the audience knows this to be true). Yet Marie chooses to remain faithful nonetheless. Her faithfulness is, in one sense, a lucky break for Roy and proves to us that he must have some redeeming qualities making him the likeable character he is. In another sense, her faithfulness is as representative as Velma's rejection of Roy. While the future is rightfully rejecting him, the past clings to the man living out of his time.
The original soundtrack is presented in a completely clear mono format, which is really all that is required for this type of movie. Presented in 1.33:1 full screen, the video quality is good, though not as excellent as some other restorations from that time period. There's very little graininess and excellent shadow and gray scale detail. On occasion you'll spot a noticeable speck of dirt, but I can't recall any scratches large enough to be detracting from the film itself. While I haven't seen the exact source elements to compare it to, the picture quality is amazingly better then the quality shown in the featurette's archival footage.
The DVD contains very few extras: only the original theatrical trailer and a 15-minute featurette Curtains for Roy Earle: The Story of High Sierra. The featurette was a great addition to the DVD, focusing mainly on Bogart's career up-to and including the making of High Sierra, with a mention of where this role would eventually take him. While I enjoyed the featurette, I was a little disappointed by its length. As one of Hollywood's most beloved actors, there surely is enough material to put together a longer more detailed retrospective.
High Sierra is definitely an entertaining film. I really can't complain about it all. Warner Brothers included some nice extras, but didn't go overboard on the unnecessaries you'll really only watch once.
Warner Brothers is not guilty. Well, except for the cardboard snap case bit. (You know all my DVDs would line up nice and evenly if it weren't for one or two cardboard snap cases, which usually don't even close correctly.)
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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