Film Noir Friday: High Sierra (1941)



Raoul Walsh directs High Sierra, a 1941 film noir with a screenplay by John Huston and W.R. Burnett. The picture is based on the novel of the same name by Burnett and is often considered as the bridge between Warner Bros. slate of gangster flicks and the escalating noir genre.

High Sierra features a lead character modelled after John Dillinger and this became a problem for the Hollywood Production Code, which prohibited the glamorization of such fixtures of moral disrepute. The script was returned to the production company with over 40 “objectionable” references, but Warner Bros. stood firm and largely got to make the movie they wanted.

Humphrey Bogart stars as Roy Earle, a qualified thief just sprung from the slammer. He gets right back to work and plans to rob a hotel. He has an inside man named Mendoza (Cornel Wilde) and two other accomplices (Arthur Kennedy and Alan Curtis). There’s also the dance hall girl Marie (Ida Lupino), who is in a complex relationship with one of the collaborators and starts to fall for Roy.

Regrettably for Marie, Roy is infatuated with small town girl Velma (Joan Leslie). She’s living with her grandfather (Henry Travers) and has a bad foot. Roy pays for surgery and hopes to wed Velma, but she’s not in love with Roy and has a steady back home. There’s also a dog named Pard.

Walsh’s picture has a lot going for it, including a strong sense of humanity. Roy is a gangster with a moral conscience. He helps the less fortunate. He gets his hopes up, but doesn’t react with any ferocity or rage when Velma turns him down. As hard as he is in the business of crime, it’s clear that Roy has a soft side.

Lupino’s Marie makes for an exceptional moll. She’s caught in an abusive relationship with Curtis’ character and gets banged around in lowlight. She aches for Roy, longs for some impression of a normal life with a little cash in the trunk and a little dog in her arms. She’s willing to put up with an awful lot to get there.

Velma, in the meantime, is thrust into an fascinating position of her own. She doesn’t ask for Roy’s help and doesn’t love him the way he loves her. She feels certain compulsion on account of his compassion, but there’s never a sense that he’s buying her love and she always gives it to him straight. Later, when she can walk again, she dances her ass off.

Due to this triad of characters and the splendid performances behind then, High Sierra maintains serious heft as a melodrama without skidding into hysterics. It laces its tale of relationships and missed relationships without committing to demonstrative fireworks, with Bogart’s casual conduct and Lupino’s skilled anguish coming together as two lost souls searching the cold for warmth.

Walsh and cinematographer Tony Gaudio plant High Sierra with a series of captivating shots, including a magnificent 360-degree pan that explores Roy’s seclusion in the midst of disorder. The location shooting in California’s Sierra Nevada range provokes a sense of isolation and unrest, with criminal activity in the works below the coarse cliffs and lives coming apart at the seams.

It’s not hard to chart a course from High Sierra straight to pictures like Bonnie & Clyde, but Walsh’s movie forges the catastrophic wedge of fate between its criminal coupling. This could be the fault of the dog, who Algernon (Willie Best) describes as nothing but bad news. Or it could be another product of the Code, which declares that any and all bad guys must find themselves bereft of that ever-fleeting joy.


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