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High Sierra (1941)
By 1941, writer John Huston and director Raoul Walsh had each worked with Humphrey Bogart (The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse and The Roaring Twenties, respectively); but when they combined their talents in High Sierra, suddenly you had "Bogie," the tough-fisted but soft-hearted man on the fuzzy side of the law, who would become, according to at least one recent AFI poll, the most popular character in the history of cinema.
"I wouldn't give you two cents for a dame without a temper."
The film begins with the pardoning of Roy Earle (Bogart), a Midwest mobster, who beats it out to the west coast to repay the favor of the man who helped free him. It's the "one last job" film: If he can pull off this last one he'll be able to put everything behind him.
Earle meets up with other members of the gang at a retreat in the Sierra mountains and quickly finds them lacking. The two men, Red and Babe, bicker too much, and there's a dime-a-dance dame on board, Marie (Ida Lupino), whom Earle knows will be trouble. He lets her stay, though, because she shows herself to be sharp judge of human character. Besides, for all his toughness with men, Earle is something of a softie when it comes to women and dogs. One little mutt, "Pard," follows him everywhere and Earle abides him, maybe even likes him a little, despite the fact that, according to one Negro stock character, the dog carries a curse with him: whomever he gravitates towards ends up dying.
Earle is also soft on a Midwest girl, Velma (Joan Leslie). Driving in the southwest, Earle is nearly run off the road by an eldish couple and their granddaughter who are swerving to avoid a jackrabbit in the middle of the road. Meeting later by chance at a gas station, Earle takes a shine to the grandpa (Henry Travers, known to filmgoers everywhere as the Angel, Clarence, in It's a Wonderful Life), and the two talk over their mutual Midwest farming roots. The granddaughter is pretty but Bogart isn't smitten until he sees her club foot. Then it's the dog problem all over again. In this instance he does all he can to get Velma walking normally. He takes her to a doctor (or, more accurately, takes a doctor to her), pays for the operation, etc. Afterwards he proposes marriage but she turns him down cold. Far from being angelic, Velma is a would-be flapper and wants to party. The dime-a-dance girl, meanwhile, wants to stop partying, and she clings to Roy in suffocating fashion. Neither woman is what they appear to be and both are trouble. Even women walk-ons in this film are trouble. During the robbery, a woman's unnecessary scream distracts Roy enough that a cop goes for his gun. Of course the cop gets shot, and of course the little robbery suddenly becomes a great deal more complicated.
Earle's patience with women is probably part of his appeal, as is his impatience with incompetent men. When Red and Babe die, it elicits no more than a shrug from Earle. "Small timers for small jobs," he says. "They lost their heads." Earle never loses his.
That's the Bogart charm: he's the toughest man in town but women can still break his heart. He's also a dime-store philosopher. When Marie begins sobbing after she acts like a bitch, Earle comforts her. "I wouldn't give you two cents for a dame without a temper," he says.
High Sierra has some embarrassing anachronisms the bug-eyed, shiftless Negro chief among them but it's a sharply intelligent film. When two old mobsters get together they reminisce about the old days as if they were accountants. When Earle is finally cornered, the media (radio and newsprint) descend, and what we are treated to is not so much the event but media reaction to the event. Then there's Bogart. He slips into the character of Roy Earle easily and walks away with the film. It was the beginning of something big.
February 26, 2000
© 2000 Erik Lundegaard