johnlink ranks HIGH SIERRA (1941)

Released in 1941, HIGH SIERRA is the last film in which Humphrey Bogart did not receive top billing. Though he was clearly the star of the picture, that honor went to female co-conspirator Ida Lupino. Released in the same year as MALTESE FALCON (though a full ten months before), HIGH SIERRA is an end of an era for Bogart, as he was (mostly) done playing criminals after this. The sympathetic story of a guy who gets out of prison and jumps right back into armed robbery, this is certainly a great vehicle for an actor at this particular point in his career.

I watched HIGH SIERRA (1941) on 7.7.12. It was my first viewing of the film.

In many ways, this is a refreshingly unique script which doesn’t fall into many of the clichés these early criminal pictures fall into. Penned (though not directed) by John Huston before the novel’s author W.R. Burnett came in for a rewrite, the movie plays out in a more methodical pace than we first anticipate.

Roy Earle (Bogie) is fresh out of prison, and is sent up to a resort town bordering the Sierra Nevada range to rob a posh hotel. He has a few partners in crime, including an unexpectedly resilient woman named Marie (Lupino), and a dog named Pard who won’t stop following him around (played by Bogart’s real-life pup). Before the robbery happens, a major diversion has Earle helping a young girl with whom he has become smitten (Joan Leslie, only 16 at the film’s release). Anyone familiar with the Hays Code can probably figure out how this will end, and yet the film’s purpose is to humanize Roy Earle, to make him more than just a collection of violent actions. Most of the film is situated in scenarios which will allow his soft side to shine through. Beyond the girl he helps, there’s a reason the dog is there. He has an opportunity to show he isn’t just some ruthless killer.

The script, then, is solid. The execution of the script? Less so. I give a pass, to the most part, to Bogart. This is a solid character in his canon. He is a guy who is not as tough as he lets on, and who has a large soft spot for the margins of society (a girl with a club foot, an abandoned dog, a ‘dime a dance’ girl trying to break out of that life, etc.). Instead, the direction by Raoul Walsh (WHITE HEAT, THE ROARING TWENTIES) is wooden. Walsh knows how to get a good shot. His car chase at the film’s climax is very effective. Less effective is his ability to coerce nuance from actors. Willie Best as the African-American worker Algernon is a cringe-inducing cliché bordering on racism. Worse for the film, Ida Lupino is particularly poor as Bogie’s eventual dame. I kept thinking there was some deviance behind her sob story. I kept waiting for the deception, or the second layer in the performance. It never came.

Perhaps that is my own misguided perception, looking for what could have been. This film arrived just before the Noir movement struck Hollywood. The shadow-play in the mise-en-scene is barely there, regulated to a single shot when a villain produces a gun. Much of this film, including most of the major beats, takes place during the day. The femme fatale is non-existent. A film from this era certainly does not need these pieces to be successful. However, when a movie like HIGH SIERRA has so many of the elements of successful noir, but plays out instead like typical melodrama, there is a certain level of disappointment. The thing is though, Huston and Burnett’s script leaves room for some of this layered work to happen. Lupino could have played Marie to be doing what was necessary to survive rather than having every emotion worn on her sleeve. I wonder when in the process the ending came about, because Marie’s actions at that juncture come across as an unfortunately typical weak-woman trope. The film pretends that it wants her to be tough, wants her to be effective, but it can never get past the fact that she is just a woman. The film judges her the way Bogart first judges her. It allows her to hang around, to be sort-of involved. But there is too much chauvinism inherent in the film to allow her to be an active player in the proceedings. Other than her very first scene in which she confronts Bogart (who wants her to leave), and one later scene when she crashes Bogart’s visit with his young friend, Marie is allowed only to be a passive afterthought. It’s a general mistake of the early films of this genre, and one which the Noir movement attempted to correct, leading to much stronger female roles as the decade played on.

Despite Lupino getting top billing, this is unquestionably a Bogart film. I like his Roy, I like that Bogart gets us on his side despite the fact that he kills at least one innocent man. The film gives itself a tall task by asking us to sympathize with a killer, to think he’s just some normal guy whose job happens to involve robbing places and sometimes having to kill fine people. The irony of the Hays Code is that the ending is set in stone once Bogart kills, yet the entire film subverts the idea of the first line the Hays Code lists under General Principles: “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.” Bogart manages to buck this rule by forcing the audiences sympathies.

HIGH SIERRA is a solid film with some major flaws. It’s certainly worth a watch, and one which may reward repeat viewings. It’s a film which I wish had been Directed by its writer John Huston. It’s a film which, ultimately, falls into the not-quite-great category, and frustrates with its wasted potential.





~ by johnlink00 on July 8, 2012.

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