“Guys like you and Johnny Dillinger,” goes the famous line from Raoul Walsh’s exhilarating gangster classic High Sierra, “are just rushing toward death.” The words refer to Humphrey Bogart’s bandit Roy “Mad Dog” Earle, but they could just as easily be hinting at a disappearing America in the grip of change. That same year, the shocked nation would be dragged unexpectedly into a scary new world of old war, its heretofore isolationist policy ceding to the relatively unchartered territory of reluctant heroism.
High Sierra also heralds the end of the gangster picture, with its black and white, Hays Code-adherent morality, and the rise of the trickier film noir anti-hero, pulled from the shadows and into the service of good. Few would go on to embody this better than Bogart, and Walsh’s film marks his fitting ascent – a moment of serendipity and hardscrabble perseverance that saw this one-time Warner Bros. second banana launch into the orbit of Hollywood superstardom. The film tracks the old, corrupted America’s trek West, where it would seek rebirth in a New Frontier – California – that wasn’t the welcoming fantasy that the movies had depicted.
High Sierra pivots on this journey of would-be redemption, with Bogart’s hardened career criminal Roy Earle stepping out of a stint in prison and into the adoring light of marquee stardom. Yearning for the simple life, Earle is offered the proverbial one last score by mob boss Big Mac (Donald McBride), an ailing underworld figure whose special sauce is a bottle of liquor he keeps hidden from his concerned doctor. The bed-ridden Mac may as well be a stand-on for the gangster picture; though fading, he’s still sinister, like a gatekeeper dispatching his minions on the passage to hell. Earle’s job: to orchestrate a resort hotel robbery in California’s Sierra mountain range; where his cohort numbers two incompetent, bickering hoods (Arthur Kennedy and Alan Curtis), their feisty dance-hall gal Marie (top-billed Ida Lupino), an inside man (Cornel Wilde), and one fiercely clingy – and adorable – rat pooch, the personality-plus Pard (played by Bogart’s real-life pup, Zero.)
The screenplay, by W.R. Burnett (adapting his novel) and Bogart’s drinking buddy (and future collaborator) John Huston, posits the desperate heist as something of a grasp for the fabled new America. Here, the Old West has been replaced by health spas and diets and a clean-living California; not coincidentally, a land that flourished in tandem with the aspirational illusion of Hollywood. Along the way, the tarnished, Chicago-bred Earle makes his most explicit bid for purchase in the new America: he meets a Beverly Hillbillies-style clan of innocents and becomes obsessed with their daughter, the limping, club-footed, Velma (Joan Leslie), whose disability represents enough of a flaw for him to charm his way in. Earle tries to fashion Velma into his fantasy doll – a totem of his desire for purity and rebirth – by throwing money at her, offering to pay for an operation to correct her limp.
But the grizzled dog is closer aligned to Lupino’s fatalistic Marie, whose frayed edges underline the reality of the old world trying to go straight in the blinding light of the new. “You always hope you can get out,” she tells Earle, doom never far from her mind. “It sort of keeps you going.” Marie and Earle are kindred damaged souls who deserve better but will never achieve it, and Lupino and Bogart make for a combustible, heartbreaking duo – bound together by a kind of knowing nihilism, their lovers predict everything from Godard’s A bout de Souffle (which explicitly references Walsh’s movie), to Bonnie and Clyde, Natural Born Killers and beyond.
The picture moves at a frequently breakneck clip, propelled by the economy and wit of Walsh’s montage. The seasoned WB craftsman behind The Roaring Twenties (1939) and They Drive By Night (1940) employs deft shorthand to establish character – Bogart’s jagged angles juxtaposed against the wide-open iconography of freedom – and sets (literally) high-speed chases loose on the unpredictable terrain, where 360-degree panoramas work to disorientate hapless figures in the rugged, dismissive landscape. Walsh’s knack with offhand supporting players also adds to the flavour; even Willie Best’s Algernon, an unfortunate (and wildly offensive) “Sambo” layabout, stands in stark reminder of the nation’s recent racist past – undermining the utopian way the new California would like to imagine itself.
Bogart’s easy charm, meanwhile, isn’t hindered by his rough edges, but enhanced by them – his ability to switch from violently dressing down his cronies to begrudgingly falling for a rogue mutt is part of what made him a star. It’s precisely that quality – that reluctance – that makes the role his, despite his never being the first choice: regulation heavies like Paul Muni and George Raft were variously considered, before Bogart convinced Walsh to give him a try.
High Sierra’s vertiginous send-off, a maximum-stakes shoot-out set atop the titular California range, plays as a bittersweet farewell to an era. The heist has gone inevitably wrong, and Earle and Marie –pursued by the spectre of fate – have made separate breaks for freedom. Walsh’s elevated showdown would reverberate in the iconic ending to Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, except that there’s a real sense of desperation to High Sierra’s precipitous climax – a lost chance for redemption, the tragedy of a dashed dream, and a hollow victory for the law; all writ large in the devastating look that complicates Lupino’s eyes.
If anything, the film’s inescapable, Hays Code-approved ending – in which Bogart’s “Mad Dog” must pay for his crime – only serves to enhance our sympathy for him, and compound the tragedy of his demise. “What does it mean when a man crashes out,” the crestfallen Marie wonders, to which a cop replies: “It means he’s free.” Walsh has Lupino dramatically repeat that final word, free, her eyes fixed on the horizon in subtle defiance of the Code’s prevailing morality. A clean start in California would have been too easy for Walsh’s picture. Instead, High Sierrastands as a chilly portent of the way in which an indifferent new world would greet those who struggled to assimilate into it. The old America had gone in search of its new, health-conscious soul – and wound up a bullet-riddled corpse in the process.
High Sierra (1941 USA)
Prod Co: Warner Bros. Prod: Mark Hellinger Dir: Raoul Walsh Scr: John Huston, W.R. Burnett Phot: Tony Gaudio Ed: Jack Killifer Art Dir: Ted Smith Mus: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: Ida Lupino, Humphrey Bogart, Donald MacBride, Henry Hull, Joan Leslie, Alan Curtis, Arthur Kennedy, Willie Best, Cornel Wilde, Henry Travers