High Sierra (1941)

Directed by Raoul Walsh

High Sierra is a 1941 early heist film and film noir written by W.R. Burnett and John Huston from the novel by Burnett. The movie features Ida Lupino and Humphrey Bogart and was directed by Raoul Walsh on location at Whitney Portal, halfway up Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada of California.

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The screenplay was co-written by John Huston, Bogart’s friend and drinking partner, adapted from the novel by William R. Burnett  (also known for, among others, Little Caesar and Scarface). The film cemented a strong personal and professional connection between Bogart and Huston. The film is also notable as the breakthrough in Bogart’s career, transforming him from supporting player to leading man, and his success in High Sierra would lead to his being cast in many of his famous roles.

The film was noted for its extensive location shooting, especially in the climactic final scenes, as the authorities pursue Bogart’s character, gangster “Mad Dog” Roy Earle, from Lone Pine up to the foot of the mountain.

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Production

Actor George Raft was originally intended to play the Bogart part. However, Bogart, who took a great interest in playing the role of Roy Earle, managed to talk Raft out of accepting the role. Raft subsequently turned it down.

Bogart had to persuade director Walsh to hire him for the role since Walsh envisioned Bogart as a supporting player rather than a leading man.

Bogart’s character’s dog, “Pard,” was erroneously believed by some to be canine actor “Terry” (“Toto” from The Wizard of Oz). In fact, it is Bogart’s own dog, Zero. In the final scene, Buster Wiles, a stunt performer, plays Roy’s corpse. His hand is filled with biscuits to encourage Pard to lick Roy’s hand.

Many key shots of the movie were filmed on location in the Sierra Nevada. In a climactic scene, Bogart’s character slid 90 feet (27 m) down a mountainside to his just reward. His stunt double, Wiles, bounced a few times going down the mountain and wanted another take to do better. “Forget it,” said Raoul Walsh. “It’s good enough for the 25-cent customers.

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A highly important movie.

6 December 2003 | by FilmSnobby (San Diego) – See all my reviews

*High Sierra* is almost excruciatingly important in the development of cinema, laying to bed the “gangster picture” of the 1930’s while simultaneously giving birth to American film noir. Oh, and it made Humphrey Bogart a major star while it was at it. Therefore, I’m not entirely sure that your film collection, if you have one, can survive without it.

Based on a pulpy novel, it chronicles the story of Roy Earle, sprung from a life sentence in prison so that he can knock over a casino along the California-Nevada border. It’s easy to miss, but notice the first minute of this picture closely: it’s of course the Governor — bought off by a mobster — who gets Roy released from his life sentence, indicating that the corruption has finely infested the top of the social order. This is the usual tough-minded, whistle-blowing gangster-picture stuff that Warner Bros. specialized in. But there’s also something else at work here, perhaps something new: one gets the sense that what happens to Roy in this movie has been engineered from On High, in advance . . . in other words, he’s in the Jaws of Fate. And thus we’re in the unforgiving world of Film Noir.

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More than the opening scene, it’s Bogart who almost single-handedly invents film noir with his groundbreaking work in *High Sierra*. Not cocky like Cagney and Muni, not psychopathic like the early Edward G. Robinson, not as smooth as Raft, Bogart is a ruthless professional with a wide stripe of sentimentality. His Roy never shirks from killing, but he doesn’t get off on it. He’s more a rebel than a gangster, a poetic soul denied respectability, a man longing for the innocence of his youth. Unfortunately, he thinks he finds in the personage of a transplanted Okie farm-girl (Joan Leslie) a reasonable facsimile of that innocence. Competing for his affections is Ida Lupino, a sour “dime-a-dance girl” who’s been up, down, and around the block a time or three. She’s the baggage that comes with the two new-generation hoods whom Bogart is assigned to babysit for the casino heist. Not until later in the picture does Bogart recognize Lupino’s better suitability to his own temperament and experience. (They share in common, among other things, suicidal impulses, a desire to escape a corrupted world.)

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Roy Earle was a new type of character — the truly romantic criminal. Bogart would play variations on Earle throughout his career, though he rarely exceeded his triumph here. And while I’ve given the actor much of the credit, some more credit must be extended to the screenwriter, John Huston. *High Sierra* was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Oh, and did I mention that the movie — aside from its importance in American film history, yadda yadda — is quite simply a good time? Witty dialogue, great on-location direction by Raoul Walsh, a cute dog, and a climactic car chase that wouldn’t be equaled until 1968’s *Bullitt*, are just some of this movie’s other virtues.

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Reception

Critical response

Critic Bosley Crowther liked the acting in the picture and wrote, “As gangster pictures go, this one has everything—speed, excitement, suspense and that ennobling suggestion of futility which makes for irony and pity. Mr. Bogart plays the leading role with a perfection of hard-boiled vitality, and Ida Lupino, Arthur Kennedy, Alan Curtis and a newcomer named Joan Leslie handle lesser roles effectively. Especially, is Miss Lupino impressive as the adoring moll. As gangster pictures go—if they do— it’s a perfect epilogue. Count on the old guard and Warners: they die but never surrender.”

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Time magazine reviewed the film when released as having “less of realistic savagery than of the quaint, nostalgic atmosphere of costume drama.” The reviewer noted, “What makes High Sierra something more than a Grade B melodrama is its sensitive delineation of Gangster Earle’s character. Superbly played by Actor Bogart, Earle is a complex human being, a farmer boy who turned mobster, a gunman with a string of murders on his record who still is shocked when newsmen call him “Mad-Dog” Earle. He is kind to the mongrel dog (Zero) that travels with him, befriends a taxi dancer (Ida Lupino) who becomes his moll, and goes out of his way to help a crippled girl (Joan Leslie). All Roy Earle wants is freedom. He finds it for good on a lonely peak in the mountains.”

Based on reviews from 17 critics the film holds a score of 94% (7.8/10) on Rotten Tomatoes.

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Willie Best.

Bogie Goes From Bad To Good Guy

14 November 2005 | by ccthemovieman-1 (United States) – See all my reviews

Aw, the film that launched stardom for Humphrey Bogart and changed him from the perpetual villain to the “good guy.”

The movie doesn’t feature a lot of action but it keeps your interest. You have two women in here: the hard-boiled Ida Lupino and the soft-and-sweet Joan Leslie. Both are entertaining to watch and both demonstrate a few surprises in the personalities of the characters they are playing. Bogart does the same: goes back and forth between tough guy and softy.

Another key member of this unusual crime story/film noir is “Pard:” a little dog! Human supporting roles are supplied by some familiar and solid actors such as Arthur Kennedy, Alan Curtis, Henry Hull, Henry Travers, Barton MacLane and Cornel Wilde. Most of the people in here, including “Pard,” are that endearing but there are so many different angles to this story, it’s always interesting to see.

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Mountain Greenery

9/10
Author: telegonus from brighton, ma
20 July 2001

W.R. Burnett’s novel High Sierra is maybe his best book; it’s certainly a classic of its type, and very readable and moving even today. The movie version of the book isn’t quite as good, but it does something few adaptations do: it captures the spirit of the original.

The story is about a John Dillinger-like criminal, Roy Earle, just released from prison, and his planning of his last ‘heist’, as he moves from the Midwest to California. It’s as much a character study as anything else, and here the book is better, as Burnett seems to get inside the heart and soul of Roy Earle in ways that screenwriter John Huston and director Raoul Walsh can’t. This isn’t their fault.

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Burnett gives us Earle’s inner life in interior monologues, and movies simply can’t do this. Nevertheless, we get a feeling for Earle, a lonely, extremely sentimental and romantic man, essentially a frontier type, or with more brains an artist, who cannot fit into modern life. The reason is simple: he doesn’t understand it. He is driven by two things, strong emotions and extreme professionalism. The problem is that his profession is crime. Between these two extremes he is unsocialized, or rather doesn’t understand the subtlety of contemporary life. To put it in current parlance, he’s not hip, which is to say he has no detachment, no capacity for pulling back and reflecting, unless, that is, he is in love, and even then he gets it wrong by misunderstanding an attractive, crippled girl’s reliance on him for love, and taking her country girl disposition for naivite (i.e. like him), which isn’t true. This tragic aspect of Roy Earle is beautifully and perceptively described by Burnett, and while it’s present in the film, it makes Roy seem obtuse, while the truth is his emotions run deep, and are sincere.

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He wants to give up crime and marry a small-town girl so that he can go back and get it right again. In the lead role Humphrey Bogart gives a major performance. Superficially he’s wrong for Roy Earle: too urban, flip, smart and clever. But he trades in his natural big city persona for a moony, brooding romanticism, and it works. He doesn’t seem the least bit sophisticated, and in his quieter moments he comes off like a man who can kill the way other men write checks

He has a true girl-friend in Ida Lupino, but he doesn’t realize that she’s more his type: life-weary, straightforward, deep and caring. He prefers the one he can’t get, and this gets him in trouble, as his commitment to her puts him in a dreamy, dissociative state that is dangerous for a man in his line of work. The story builds on little things, and the bucolic mountain and small-town setting of the film is terra incognita for Roy, and we sense this even if he doesn’t. He is, for all his professionalism, way out of his league, and is looking back to his idealized, romanticized early life, and longing for an ideal girl that he can ‘fix’, rather than doing the right thing and going off with Lupino and stating anew, which is his only chance for happiness.

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Roy is a man who lives in two parallel worlds, the real, vicious one he must cope with, and the fantasy one he longs for and sees in the crippled girl he so tenderly loves. There is no in-between for him, as his head is in the clouds much of the time. It is therefore fitting that the movie ends up literally in the clouds, or so it seems, atop a mountain, as Roy shoots it out with reality one last time.

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