Saturday 20 August 2011

Movie Review: High Sierra (1941)

More a character study than a heist movie, High Sierra marked Humphrey Bogart's step-up into leading roles. It is a surprisingly thoughtful examination of a gangster discovering his caring side as he hurtles towards a single, certain fate.

Hardened convict Roy Earle (Bogart) receives an unexpected pardon and is released from prison after serving eight years. Aging master criminal Big Mac did the work behind the scenes to secure Earle's release: the ailing Mac needs Earle to pull-off a final major heist out west. On his drive to California, Earle meets a farming family also driving to the coast. Their attractive granddaughter Velma (Joan Leslie) has a club foot, and her condition tugs at Earle's heart.

At an out-of-the-way California motel he connects with the rest of the gang, consisting of small-time hoods Red (Arthur Kennedy) and Babe (Alan Curtis). The inexperienced criminals have brought along Marie (Ida Lupino), a desperate woman who wants to escape a drunken father, and for whom becoming a gangster's moll represents major progress. Earle finds himself unexpectedly attracted to Marie, who is eager to become part of his life. Earle is also befriended by the cute but abandoned dog Pard: all of Pard's previous owners have met untimely deaths.

The plan is for Earle, Red and Babe to rob the safety deposit boxes of a swanky resort at the foot of the Sierra mountains, filled with rich customers and their jewellery. Mendoza (Cornel Wilde) is the resort's night manager and the heist's inside-man: the robbery will take place when Mendoza sends  word that the safety deposit boxes are full. As Earle waits for the right time to commit the biggest job of his life, he engages in the lives of both Velma and Marie, finding both the pleasures of kind generosity and the hurt of rejection.

After the robbery the newspapers bestow the nickname "Mad Dog" onto Earle. He is forced into hiding then escapes high into the mountains, where both freedom and fate await.

Although he received second billing behind Lupino, Bogart is the undoubted star of High Sierra, appearing in every scene and dominating as a man surprising himself by displaying unanticipated sensitivity. It is doubtful that the pre-prison Earle would have cared much for Velma's condition; or that he would have allowed Marie to hang around and distract him; or that he would have tolerated the cutesy presence of Pard. The post-prison Earle does all that, and clearly his actions are no longer consistent with that of a hardened criminal.

Caught between who he was and who he is becoming, Roy Earle cannot straddle the wide contradictory crack developing in his life and falls into the fate that even he does not find surprising. Bogart conveys a man wistfully hoping for a better future, over-reaching to Velma, settling for the comfort of Marie, forced to live up to his tough guy image with Red and Babe, and ultimately deciding that freedom is what he values most.

Raoul Walsh directs the script (co-written by John Huston and author W.R. Burnett) with patience, allowing Earle's character plenty of time to develop on the way to meeting destiny. High Sierra only turns into an action film in its final third, and even then Earle's dilemmas and decision points overshadow the gun-play. However, Walsh does put onto the screen one of the earliest highly dynamic car chases, as Earle attempts to escape into the mountains on tortuously winding roads hotly pursued by the authorities riding an assortment of motorcycles and vehicles.

Up in the mountains of High Sierra, a criminal chooses his fate with no regrets, and an actor becomes one of the brightest stars of the movies.

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