High Sierra (1941) was the film that finally cemented Humphrey Bogart’s reputation as a Hollywood lead actor, though he had to fight the movie establishment to even get the part, including persuading George Raft not to do it.
Directed by Raoul Walsh and based on the novel by W R Burnett, and with a fairly faithful screenplay of the book by Burnett and John Huston, High Sierra is a heist movie with elements of film noir. Bogart plays gangster Roy “Mad Dog” Earle, got out of jail by a rather amiable gang leader called Big Mac (Donald MacBride) who wants Earle to lead a robbery at a fashionable resort hotel.
On his journey across country we are shown the compassionate side of Earle when he meets a farming family who have lost their farm and been obliged to travel to California to stay with relatives. The daughter of the family, Velma (Joan Leslie) has a club foot and Earle pays for her to have corrective surgery. Earle’s infatuation for Velma is rebuffed, sending him on a spiralling descent to destruction.
At a mountain resort hideout Earle meets the other members of the gang, all of them, in their differing ways, liabilities. Louis Mendoza (Cornel Wilde) who works on the reception at the hotel, and Red (Arthur Kennedy), Babe (Alan Curtis), and Marie (Ida Lupino) who becomes Earle’s moll.
There’s a scene-stealing dog as well, Pard, played by Bogart’s own pet Zero. Surely one of the most talented pooches ever filmed. The dog attaches itself to Earle, though he has a reputation for only getting close to men who are doomed.
After the robbery goes wrong, Earle goes on the run, leading to a dramatic shoot-out – terrifically staged on location – on the slopes of Mount Whitney.
High Sierra scores not only because of the terrific acting performances, particularly Bogart and Lupino, but also with the sensational real location filming and a very literate script. There are moments of awkwardness for the modern audience. The black houseboy Algernon (played by the very talented Willie Best) is little more than a racist caricature, but then this was the Hollywood of 76 years ago.
Bogart is a triumph, tough one moment, genuinely motivated by real compassion the next. His portrayal of Roy Earle, a man who is really seeking a kind of freedom and an ordinary life, deservedly made him one of the most in-demand stars in Hollywood, leading directly to his casting as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and Rick in Casablanca.
Interestingly, High Sierra was remade (again by Raoul Walsh) as a western, Colorado Territory, starring Joel McCrea, and then again as a heist movie with Jack Palance as Roy Earle, called I Died a Thousand Times. Both are entertaining, though very inferior to the original. High Sierra partly succeeds because it came along at the time it did. The postwar generation of movie-goers perhaps wanted something a little smoother and the great pre-war days of the gangster movie were at an end.
High Sierra is a real classic of the heist movie genre. Well worth seeking out and usually available with extra features in Humphrey Bogart box sets.