The plot of "High Sierra" is familiar: a veteran criminal near the end of his career receives an assignment to rob a mountain resort. But the detours this film takes are unexpected and add a dimension to the film both refreshing and inspired.
"High Sierra" is a Gangster film, but it's very different from what one typically expects from such a picture. A decade after The Holy Trinity of Gangster films were produced ("Little Caesar" and "The Public Enemy" in 1931 and "Scarface" in 1932), "High Sierra" represents a more mature, complicated and sympathetic portrait of crime and criminals. Displaced from the brutality of Depression-era urban living, this film uses the backdrop of the Sierra Mountains as a surprisingly effective counterpoint to the narrative.
Humphrey Bogart is given his first lead role in "High Sierra," and he turns in a very strong performance as Roy "Mad Dog" Earle, the gangster with a soft spot. After a few years of playing second fiddle to leading men like James Cagney, Bogart wanted the part of Roy Earle badly, but it wasn't until established stars like Paul Muni and George Raft turned the part down that he got his chance. In a film shown in this series two weeks earlier, "The Roaring Twenties," Cagney showed us what a sympathetic gangster looked like. With a surprisingly vulnerable turn in "High Sierra," Bogart takes this idea even further.
Despite getting the lead in this film, Bogart still didn't get top billing. A British actress named Ida Lupino would be the last person to ever get her name above Bogart's. A year before "High Sierra," Lupino was a supporting character in a film called "They Drive By Night," in which she played a desperate and unstable woman. This performance was such a hit that Warner Bros. felt she should get top billing in "High Sierra."
"High Sierra" is based on a book by W.R. Burnett, who is practically royalty when it comes to the gangster genre. Burnett wrote the book that was turned into "Little Caesar," he contributed to the script for "Scarface" and would later write the novel "The Asphalt Jungle." Among his contemporary crime fiction writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, Burnett stands out for his attempts to make the bad guy a flesh-and-blood person and not just an ideological threat. The book was first adapted by soon-to-be auteur John Huston and Burnett himself was called in to contribute to the script.
Director Raoul Walsh, an actor/director who got started with D.W. Griffith in the '10s, uses "High Sierra" to explore the gangster genre like never before. Like most genres, once they are established and audience expectations have been solidified, they eventually evolve, becoming opportunities for filmmakers to bend and twist those expectations to produce more complex and meaningful stories. With Walsh's direction and the performances by Bogart and Lupino, "High Sierra" clearly makes its mark as a film to elevate and personify the once lowly gangster.
By Brent Dunham
Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy
NAU Film Series
Warner Brothers Franchises
"High Sierra" (1941)
Includes Looney Tunes cartoon
Director: Raoul Walsh
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino
Running Time: 100 minutes
When: Tuesday at 7 p.m. (Free and open to the public)
Where: NAU's Cline (Free parking behind Cline Library in P13 and by Rec Center in P7A on San Francisco)
More info: nau.edu/filmseries