in Criterion Month

High Sierra (1941)

And… we’re back with another Criterion Month! For another 30 days, we’ll be taking a look at Criterion’s catalog of films, reviewing them as thoroughly as we can, though there’s a good chance some of these reviews will get published at the last minute or with some lack of exhaustive research. This could be especially true for myself, as I chose a lot of films this year spanning the ‘40s through the ‘70s, while my colleagues steered a little more clear of those years. While we won’t be looking at any of Hollywood’s silent or pre-Code years, we will get a look at a film that displays the Hollywood studios’ ability to grow over the course of those years into a well-oiled machine capable of churning out well-crafted entertainment. 

High Sierra is not often talked about as one of Humphrey Bogart’s iconic roles, but after seeing the film and reading a bit about it, it seems obvious that the film is one of the more important ones in the legendary star’s career. It’s one that also firmly placed Bogart at the forefront of the ‘40s’ most prominent crime subgenre, film noir, after spending years toiling in the backgrounds of the ‘30s’ most prominent crime subgenre, the gangster picture. Bogart had been mostly playing heavies in these types of films, with his most iconic of these roles being 1936’s The Petrified Forest, where he played the main villain, Duke Mantee. However, High Sierra is a kind of hybrid role, where he is still playing a criminal, but one that also has the more honorable, sympathetic qualities that made him both prime for playing detectives as well as romantic anti-heroes.

From the opening moments of High Sierra, you get the idea that Roy Earle (played by Humphrey Bogart) is a different kind of movie gangster. In a very economical montage, we see Roy being released from jail and then walking around as a free man, basking in the simple pleasures of a lively park on a nice sunny day as Adolph Deutsch’s score lets us bask in Roy’s disarming warmth. However, Roy quickly returns back to business after he meets with Big Mac, a veteran mob boss who wants him to pull off a hotel heist. Roy agrees to do this, driving across the country from his native Indiana to the California/Nevada border, where he meets up with the three men hired to be his wingmen during the heist. However, one of the men has brought along his girlfriend Marie (Ida Lupino), a dancer who Roy at first sees as a burden, even if she’s sharp enough to run with the boys.

While at the camp in the woods where Roy and his fellow criminals are hiding out, Roy meets both a wonderful character (Pard, a plucky dog who accompanies Roy throughout the rest of the movie) and a not-so-great character (Algernon, a Black handyman mostly defined by cringe-inducing stereotypes). Roy also runs into a family that he passed on the road on his Westward journey, one of them being Velma (played by Joan Leslie), a naive, cheery young woman with a clubfoot in need of surgery. After forming a bond with Velma, Roy pays for the surgery and even goes as far as to asking to marry her (ick), but she refuses, saying she already has a fiancé, which doesn’t sit well with Roy.

After that, Roy and his men go through with the heist. However, a security guard catches them and two of Roy’s colleagues are killed in a car crash while one of them is captured by the police. Roy and Marie escape with Pard as the police are on their trail while the newspapers and radio keep the public informed of their exploits. This culminates in one final chase, where Roy is tailed by the police in his car, driving up to the highest point in the Sierra Nevada mountains, before being chased on foot as Marie looks on with a certain sense of beleaguered doom.

If there’s one thing that first jumps out at you about the look of this movie, it’s High Sierra‘s extensive use of on-location shooting, a rarity for the peak of American studio filmmaking. Much of the film was shot in the forests and on the highways and mountains of California, and it gives the film a much more visceral feel than your average gangster movie. This is especially true in the film’s climactic chase scene, where they clearly shot on real gravel roads on windy mountains, and director Raoul Walsh’s mastery of editing and composition makes for one of the best-looking action sequences I’ve seen from this era. You also can’t help but wonder if the film’s dusty on-location shooting was an inspiration for The Treasure of Sierra Madre and The Hitchhiker, as the former film’s director John Huston co-wrote High Sierra, while the latter was directed by co-star Ida Lupino.

Also, just overall, Raoul Walsh’s penchant for pure entertainment makes the film feel a lot more dynamic than your typical noir or gangster movie, as you can tell that the director’s experience working in the trenches of Hollywood’s early days gave him a surprising mastery of film language, even if he’s never talked about as one of Hollywood’s great auteurs. Yet, when you look at a film like this compared to Bogart and Huston’s next film, The Maltese Falcon, you can’t help but notice that this is the far more visually accomplished film, even if that film’s iconic introduction of Bogart as a wise-cracking detective is an undeniable turning point in cinema history. Still, Walsh’s kinetic visuals here are about as impressive as any Hollywood director of this era, even if the fact that the film isn’t terribly cerebral speaks to why Walsh tends to get overlooked.

So even if High Sierra may never be regarded as one of the iconic films of this era, it still feels like a uniquely influential film. It not only marked a turning point in Humphrey Bogart’s journey to becoming one of Hollywood’s most iconic leading men, but it also saw him and John Huston teaming up right before their breakthrough collaboration. Additionally, Ida Lupino came to see director Raoul Walsh as a mentor, and used much of what she learned onset from him on this film and their previous They Drive By Night when directing her first films, becoming one of the very few women working in the early Hollywood studio system. Also, the movie’s got a great car chase and an even greater dog; if that doesn’t make for a classic film, I don’t know what does.