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High Sierra

by Glenn Erickson Oct 23, 2021

An old favorite receives a quality restoration: Raoul Walsh, John Huston, W.R. Burnett and actress Ida Lupino launch Humphrey Bogart as an A-list star deemed strong enough to carry romantic leads. Bogart’s gangster Roy Earle is a classic anti-hero; audiences in 1941 surely thought the film’s play with wrongdoing and heroism was edgy material. Lupino’s loser-turned-lover is a dynamite asset for a man on the run, and the sentimental touches don’t mar the spectacular finale: this all-American bandit meets his end on a California peak, not a dirty urban gutter. A second disc carries the full feature Colorado Territory, a remake/transposition of the Bogie classic into an excellent western with Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo.


High Sierra
+ Colorado Territory

Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 1099
1941 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 100 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date October 12, 2021 / 39.95
Starring: Ida Lupino, Humphrey Bogart, Alan Curtis, Arthur Kennedy,
Joan Leslie, Henry Hull, Henry Travers, Jerome Cowan, Barton MacLane, Cornel Wilde.
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Art Director: Ted Smith
Film Editor: Jack Killifer
Original Music: Adolph Deutsch
Written by John Huston, W.R. Burnett from his novel
Associate Producer: Mark Hellinger
Produced by Hal B. Wallis
Directed by
Raoul Walsh

It’s easy to forget how well most films by Raoul Walsh play — they feel less formal than more ‘important’ pictures by John Ford. Instead of recording great moments, we watch life unfold. This is all the more true with High Sierra, a major step forward for the crime thriller genre. The script has its sentimental and retrograde qualities, yet Walsh and screenwriter John Huston turn W.R. Burnett’s tale into something more grounded than the gangster epics of the previous decade.

For one thing, we have a new kind of hero for the 1940s. One look at the character studies of Humphrey Bogart for High Sierra and we can see that he’s found his groove. It’s the haircut, it was always the haircut. Mad Dog Earle’s sum appearance says authentic hardened criminal, more than does Bogart’s stagey crook Duke Mantee from The Petrified Forest.

 

Deriving its emotional kick from a structure that begs credibility, High Sierra remains entertainingly bold, with perfect performances from carefully chosen talent — Walsh didn’t just tap whoever was free on the Warners ‘available’ roster. The show made a solid star of the studio-abused Humphrey Bogart, and officially marked an end to the five-year ban on sympathetic gangster characters.

Mobster ‘Big Mac’ (Donald McBride) obtains a parole for the Dillinger-like Roy ‘Mad Dog’ Earle (Humphrey Bogart), who is expected to lead a heist targeting a resort in the California desert. Teamed with a pair of punks (Arthur Kennedy and Alan Curtis), he breaks his own rules by allowing tough girl Marie Garson (Ida Lupino) to stay. In fact, Roy has mellowed in prison: he befriends the dispossessed Goodhue family newly arrived in California. He allows himself to become emotionally invoved with their daughter Velma (Joan Leslie) to the point of paying for a foot operation in hopes of winning her heart. The aftermath of the robbery becomes a mess when Roy’s connection Big Mac dies suddenly. Although he tries to get her to leave, Marie insists on tagging along as the law closes in.

 

In High Sierra Bogart makes the overly theatrical Duke Mantee a thing of the distant past. Bogart is finally allowed to sell his natural toughness. Roy Earle is an experienced, alienated tough guy in a world of chislers, punks, and clueless civilians. Just his Marine Corps haircut and surly expression in stills is enough to raise one’s interest.

The new source material is a solid crime caper from veteran W.R. Burnett. The studio granted Raoul Walsh the luxury of distant locations, and much of the tale was filmed around Lone Pine on California’s Route 395, and in the high Sierra Nevadas. The screenplay seems rooted to the rugged terrain: driving from Ohio to the Coast, and back and forth on those endless, lonely desert roads.

Is this supposed to be 1932, as we see on Roy Earle’s parole document in the first scene, or is that when his prison sentence began?  Seven years in stir has motivated one of the nastiest stick-up men of the Depression to live a different kind of life. Upon his release Roy’s first act is to go for a walk in the park. He checks out the old family farm and develops a sentimental envy for the okie- like Goodhues, a family of rubes come to the big city. Pard the dog has no trouble finding its way into Roy’s heart, and bad girl Marie Garson comes creeping in not far behind.

One trope from classic gangster epics hasn’t changed: letting one’s guard down is asking for disaster. Roy’s attempts to be decent and thoughtful make us more than a little uneasy. He plays the benevolent sweetie to Joan Leslie’s young Velma, apparently having forgotten that the cutest kid can be a two-faced user. When he forms a solid bond with Marie and the dog we know that all hell is going to break loose.

Scripters John Huston and Burnett mine audience sympathy by playing up the melodrama, but they keep the personal story and the crime caper separate. Roy’s L.A. deal going bad has nothing to do with the Goodhues, and no blame is assigned to Marie and Pard, either. The movie turns the original Production Code edict on its head, the one about not glamorizing criminals. After seeing Roy victimized by greedy motel operators, and demonized by militant cops and opportunistic radio announcers, our Public Enemy #1 seems a relative innocent, a misunderstood loner.

 

In her first shot Ida Lupino glances upward bitterly, like a dog that’s just been beaten. Lupino’s tough number Marie is a pickup and possible prostitute, yet to Roy her honesty and loyalty are sterling values. Roy’s experience is brute force robberies and even killings, but that rough background has no place in his relationship with Marie. Dagwood Bumstead couldn’t be more domestic.

Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once had recently proposed a fugitive couple innocent to the point of fairy-tale simplicity. This movie presents ‘the cruel forces of society closing in’ without the overdone fatalism. Not that it makes much difference to the hunted fugitive. Even noble-looking Park Rangers all now seem to have high-powered rifles. Roy Earle is at heart a realist. He wanted a rebirth as a safe square, but he doesn’t feel cheated when that dream vanishes. He knows from experience that most everyone who fights the law comes to the same end. Rico Bandello and Tony Camonte die in denial, and the sum total of Tom Powers’ self-reevaluation is a stupefied, “I’m not so tough.” Roy Earle knows exactly what’s happening, and faces his fate with a defiant Outlaw Spirit.

Although this was Bogart’s leap to top stardom, High Sierra is really Ida Lupino’s starring vehicle. She earns her top billing by transforming a potentially maudlin finale into a powerful emotional experience … the cliché of the gun moll becomes the audience’s emotional anchor. We never place the blame for Roy’s downfall on Marie — she’s the best thing that ever happened to him.

 

Young Arthur Kennedy (City for Conquest) and Alan Curtis (Phantom Lady) are a little clean-cut but acceptable as the punks along on the caper. The even younger-looking Cornel Wilde is Mendoza, the untrustworthy inside man on the resort caper. Once again, a prominent black character mars the film, PC-wise. Willie Best is fine as the keeper of some cabins in the Sierras, but his Algernon is still a simpleton that sleeps all day and gets laughs from a wandering eye. He carries less importance than the dog Pard. Joan Leslie is adorable as ever. Her Velma is required to transform from sweet to selfish to hurtful, all because she doesn’t want to marry a man twice her age yet still wants her bad foot to be fixed. Give her a break, already.

Two almost irrelevant notes: Earle seems to be forever traveling between Los Angeles, Lone Pine, and a fictional Vegas-like resort out in the Mojave Desert. They can’t mean Palm Springs, can they?  I knew those highways in 1956 and 1957 when they were still narrow ribbons of asphalt in the middle of a clean, dry desert. Back in 1941 desert roads in Southern California were so few, three alert deputies could snag almost anybody trying to go from point A to point B.

A lackluster Bogie followup titled The Big Shot (1942) re-uses High Sierra’s action chase as a straight stock footage lift. In 1955 Warners remade High Sierra as the so-so I Died a Thousand Times starring a fairly subdued Jack Palance and Shelley Winters. In Warnercolor and Cinemascope it’s almost a carbon copy of the first film, especially the big foothill chase filmed shot for shot in the exact same locations. The desert opening looks particularly good in widescreen, and the stereo sound is good too. Lee Marvin has a small role, if I remember.

 


 

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of High Sierra has been restored and remastered in 4K, and the contrast with the old 2003 DVD is striking. I didn’t expect it to look this good. The great Tony Gaudio brings extra character to the desert scenes, especially those views of Mt. Whitney from Route 395. The night soundstage shots of deserts are a fine match. I never before realized that so many matte paintings were used up in the woods — Byron Haskin and Hans Koenekamp’s miniatures are also excellent.

Criterion producer Kim Hendrickson’s extras extol the achievement of the under-examined Raoul Walsh, a director whose own autobiography never reflects on anything that could be called cinematic. Dave Kehr and Farran Smith Nehme’s extended conversation defines Walsh’s finer qualities, distinguishing him from his peers. Interviews and docus focus on Walsh, Bogart and writer W.R. Burnett. The A.F.I. oral history audio recording of Burnett was taken by Dennis L. White, a fellow UCLA film student who specialized for a time on ‘tough guy’ literature and movie adaptations. He and Joseph MacInnerny are two critical studies students I would like to reconnect with. MacInnerny had strong ideas about crossover elements in gangster and western films, that definitely apply to White Heat.

A featurette discussion of actor Willie Best by Miriam J. Petty is informative and fair, even if it feels too defensive in this year of outrage against old movies and actors suddenly ‘canceled,’ vilified for expressing social attitudes now judged invalid.

 

The surprise extra on High Sierra is its ‘transposed’ 1949 remake as a western, starring Joel McCrea and also directed by Raoul Walsh. The excellent but less well-remembered Colorado Territory is presented in an excellent HD transfer but not restored: a few scratches and minor flaws remain, plus an occasional missing frame or two. It still plays well — some viewers may prefer it to the Humphrey Bogart classic.

Edmund H. North and John Twist’s adaptation uses the ‘bust out’ phrase but performs alterations to suit the western setting and the specific actors. The fundamentally ethical Joel McCrea is in the lead, so his Wes McQueen is not a burnt-out case but a convict who has acquired some perspective about his profession: McQueen desires to make one big score and then quietly retire. Escaping from jail, he befriends a farmer and daughter uprooted from the Midwest (Henry Hull and Dorothy Malone). Many of the particulars are the same, especially McQueen’s relationship with a hard-luck dame attached to his new gang, Colorado Carson (Virginia Mayo). Wes soon realizes that she is the only person he can trust.

The screenplay reflect ten years of films noir influence. John Archer and James Mitchell are openly treacherous fellow thieves. A cool hand at dealing with backstabbing creeps, Wes easily turns the tables on them and prevails. But he misjudges the farm girl, and by the time he realizes that Colorado is the girl for him, the law is close on his trail. I can honestly picture Joseph H. Lewis or Dalton Trumbo seeing the powerful conclusion of Colorado Territory as an inspiration for their lovers-on-the-run noir Gun Crazy.

Raoul Walsh directs Colorado Territory with his usual no-nonsense clarity. The film’s edge is not as hard as that of the director’s White Heat but it is clearly an ‘adult’ western drama. The harsh fate dealt out to two of the double-crossers is disturbingly cold — one moment they’re making plans to cooperate with the law, and the next time we see them they’ve already been lynched, without a trial.

The finale at a cliff-side Indian dwelling is similar to the rocky finish in High Sierra but with vital differences. Wes and Colorado fall into a trap only because the sheriff (Morris Ankrum) is unusually clever. Things just happen when men take their chances with the law. Short, sweet, no excuses. Colorado Territory is a solid picture.

With no cute dog to gum up the works, the film’s sentimentality is reserved for a padre who wants to marry the romantic fugitives. He might be there as insurance against the censors, what with Wes and Colorado never actually repenting their evil ways. Interestingly, the final disposition of the robbery loot is left up in the air, or in this case, forgotten atop a confessional booth. Let’s drive to New Mexico this summer — maybe it’s still there!

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


High Sierra
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Colorado Territory, director Raoul Walsh’s 1949 western remake of High Sierra; New 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; New interview with film and media historian Miriam J. Petty about actor Willie Best; New video essay featuring excerpts from Dennis L. White’s 1976 American Film Institute interview with novelist and screenwriter W. R. Burnett; Radio adaptation of High Sierra from 1944; Trailers. Plus foldout insert with an essay by Imogen Sara Smith.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (both features only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
October 19, 2021
(6588high)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.