Tuesday, February 17, 2015

High Sierra (1941)



Director: Raoul Walsh

Actor Humphrey Bogart breaks through in his first major leading performance in the gangster picture High Sierra. In this crime drama/heist picture Bogart shines with his brooding, cynical character persona that makes him a unique figure for the popular Warner Bros. genre which opened the doors to his prolonged, successful career as a leading man. With a story penned by W.R. Burnett, the same man that conceived Warner Bros. best known gangster films to date in Little Caesar and Scarface. It would be aided in adaptation by screenwriter John Huston, who soon would be one of Hollywood’s finest directors, and good friend of Bogart. This picture appeared to have the magical mix of people that creates one of the robust pictures of 1941.

Problems planning the hiest.
High Sierra is a crime drama about an experienced gangster who is hired to perform a heist with a group of less knowledgeable criminals where things do not go as planned. Fresh off a pardon “Mad Dog” Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) is hired to work a heist at a mountain resort in California where he is teamed with three younger criminals (Played by Cornel Wilde, Arthur Kennedy, and Alan Curtis)  and their female companion, Marie (Ida Lupino), who makes Roy a little uneasy from the moment he meets them all. At moments Roy considers a life outside of crime with the meeting of a beautiful, young girl, Velma (Joan Leslie) with whom he helps by paying for a costly operation for her and hopes to one day marry, but she turns him down. Brokenhearted he returns to the planned robbery which goes array. Two of his young partners are killed and the third squeals on Roy, making him a fugitive on the run in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Roy’s downfall is his budding romance with Marie, whose mere presence in a crowd of onlookers during his chase causes him alarm enough to reveal himself adequate to befall the crosshairs of a police sharpshooter, bringing the end to a complicated man that did not feel right about the crime in the first place.

The film is a mix between that of a classic Warner Bros. gangster picture a melodrama. The crime, chasing, and gunfire are reminiscent of the 1930’s era gangster flicks, but they come in small doses and near the conclusion of the picture. Most of what we see in the film is the emotional joggling of Bogart’s Roy Earle character as a grizzled veteran of organized crime, who has seen the consequence of his ways and flirts with the idea of leaving crime to go straight when he begins to fall in love with a beautiful, simple Midwest farmer’s daughter whom he naturally feels inclined to care for. It is the heartbreak of her rejection of his proposal that leads him the path to continue the robbery and discover feelings for Marie, a dancer and companion to his younger fellow criminals. Of course the robbery does not goes as planned and Roy becomes the center of a large manhunt where his new found love for Marie becomes his weakness as he falls to his ultimate demise.
A robbery that goes wrong.

The real backstory to High Sierra is that of leading man Humphrey Bogart. At this point he was used as a supporting actor by the studio who did not think had star appeal. As a drinking partner of screenwriter John Huston, Bogart learned of the movie and deeply wanted to play the role of Roy Earle, loving the complicated nature of the character, and thinking it was the perfect role for him to play. Original the role was considered for fellow gangster film veteran George Raft, but Bogart managed to talk the actor out of accepting the role, then turned his attention to convincing director Raoul Walsh that he was right for the role. With some lobbying from Huston Bogart would land the part and change his career forever.

Despite the films initial slow, melodramatic nature that carries it through most of the picture, Raoul Walsh’s skill shines most in the film’s dramatic finale as Bogart is chased into the foothills of the Mt. Whitney. This picture utilized a greater amount of location shooting than the usual film of its time, and even more so considering it was a gangster picture. Shot on location along the eastern mountain slopes of central California near the hotbed of motion picture filming locations for westerns in the area of Lone Pine, California Walsh uses the terrain of the rocky desert location as almost a character in the film’s conclusion as it would lead to the ultimate death of the film’s main character. Walsh was known for his skillful mixing of drama with action into a product that is easy to follow and not over the top.

Bogart and Lupino
With Bogart not being a recognizable name as a leading man top billing for the feature would go to Ida Lupino who plays the supporting love interest Marie. The 22 year-old English born actress had recently caught the eyes of the brass at Warner Bros. who believed she had great promise in her future. Her performance would garner her some critical praise, but which in turn would make her to grow a more defiant nature as she would soon begin to refuse roles from the studio, stating some of them were beneath her.

The other female interest of the picture is played by 15 year-old Joan Leslie as the simple farm girl Marie. This would be just the beginning of this young actress’ career who was hired for the role purely on the innocent beauty and that fact that she would cry on cue. The studio would enjoy her work in her role that so much so that her work load blossomed for the next few years.

Bogart and Leslie
Admirers of the 1946 holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life will recognize Henry Travers in the role of Marie’s grandfather. Travers, who would be best known as Clarence the guardian angel to Jimmy Stewart’s character, performs his usual slow, kindly soul ways as a the new friend of Bogart’s Roy Earle who has no clue of his criminal ways. He adds very little in the sense of the picture in a sense of baing a memorable character, but he is always a lovely man with meek manners and slight British accent to see on film.

High Sierra opened to critical acceptance and praise for the acting of cast and especially for Humphrey Bogart. The picture would not move the earth or cause in major stirs in the cinematic world, but would be generally enjoyed by movie audiences. Warner Bros. years later would adapt the story of High Sierra as a western directed once again by Raoul Walsh in 1949’s Colorado Territory and shortly after produce a near scene-for-scene remake in 1955’s I Died a Thousand Times starring Jack Palace and Shelley Winters.

The most important outcome for this picture was the blossoming of Bogart and John Huston’ working relationship. With Bogart now able to manifest himself as a leading man he would be cast in John Huston’s directorial debut, The Maltese Falcon later on in 1941. Both men would work long, successful careers, and be pair up with each other on multiple occasions throughout the years, but it all began here with their work on High Sierra.

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