Sunday, November 22, 2015

Film Review: High Sierra

"High Sierra"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

The intensity reaches high heights in the Warner Brothers release "High Sierra" (1941).

It is the same old story of a guy with a troubled past caught between two women. One of them he views as "classy", the other is the same kind of woman he has always had in his life, the kind of woman with her own troubled past. The kind of woman that would accept him for who he is.

The "classy" woman represents a different kind of life for the man. She represents the "normal" life. The honest life. A life in which you don't have to worry about the police tracking you down. A life where you aren't constantly on the run. You can actually settle down somewhere and start a life with someone. The question is, would a woman like that accept a guy with his past?

The "other woman" represents more of the same. Life in a fast lane. A life where you are always looking over your shoulder. The question now becomes, does a guy like him deserve anything better? Can a guy like him relate to any other kind of woman than a woman with her own troubled past?

These are questions Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) must ask himself as he is caught between two women; Marie (Ida Lupino) and Velma (Joan Leslie). Roy has just served eight years in prison for a bank robbery heist. He was released thanks to a governor's pardon. Newly released from prison he finds himself on one more job. This time he is asked by an old mob boss Big Mac (Donald MacBride) to go up to a California mountain resort to heist a hotel bank which is supposed to have priceless jewelry. For Roy, in the twilight of his years, this could be his last heist. If things go well, it will be a good payoff. Maybe Roy won't have to worry about money or police any longer.

Assigned to the job with Roy are two younger guys; Red (Arthur Kennedy) and Babe (Alan Curtis). On their way to the resort Babe picked up a woman, Marie (Lupino) whom Roy objects to them bringing along. You don't want too many people around that will be able to identify the men after the heist is done. Marie is wise to them though. She is running away from her own past.

Also helping the three men is Mendoza (Cornel Wilde) who works at the front lobby of the resort. Mendoza will provide the men with a layout of the resort so they can plan their escape route. However Roy is not certain he can trust any of these people.

In "High Sierra" Bogart's character is a tough guy on the exterior who has a soft interior. He may act like he is the kind of guy that wouldn't stick his neck out for anyone, but, deep down we know that isn't true. He may be tough. He may be a killer. But, he's fair. He is a gangster with a code of honor. He won't kill unless provoked. He won't harm a woman or someone he knows is not able to defend himself. Audiences would see this screen person developed further in "Casablanca" (1942), "The Maltese Falcon" (1941) and "To Have and Have Not" (1944).

This character fits in nicely with the persona Humphrey Bogart would go out to create in film after film. In 1941 Humphrey Bogart wasn't quite Humphrey Bogart, a renowned movie star who would go on the represent a rugged, macho figure in cinema history. Bogart did receive some acclaim for his performance in movies such as "The Roaring Twenties" (1939) which starred James Cagney and was directed by Raoul Walsh, the same man that directed "High Sierra". Walsh, Lupino and Bogart would also collaborate on "They Drive By Night" (1940).

The characters Roy shows a soft spot for is a family that he nearly has a car accident with. A elderly Ohio farmer (Henry Travers) who has lost his farm and decided to drive out to California with his granddaughter Velma (Leslie). Rather abruptly Roy finds himself attracted to Velma, whom is presented to be Roy's junior by some 20 years. But Roy views her as a decent woman. She is young and innocent. Roy would like to marry her but would Velma like to marry Roy?

One could make the argument Mr. Walsh and "High Sierra" really don't offer anything new to this genre of storytelling. Perhaps. "High Sierra" works in spite of that. The characters are interesting to watch. What they represent and turn out to be is fascinating to uncover. The performances are very good with Bogart and Lupino the best of the pack. Both have movie star written all over them. In this context "High Sierra" works more as a character study than a gangster movie. Yes there are moments of suspense and intrigue but there is so much going on underneath the surface. It is those moments which are what is really interesting on-screen. The movie has a lot to say about women and the way men view them, what men expect from women. There is also something to be said about one trying to escape their destiny.

In what some may consider an odd metaphor, the presence of death is shown through the image of a dog. No man can escape his fate or death. Especially when you lead a life of crime.

That "High Sierra" is something more than a gangster movie shouldn't be much of a surprise when you consider the movie was co-written by John Huston. Mr. Huston, who would later go on to become a great filmmaker himself, his directorial debut was "The Maltese Falcon", started off in Hollywood as a screenwriter. One could argue Mr. Huston often told stories about masculinity and doomed characters. Characters that start off on one road and find themselves on another.

Filmmaker Raoul Walsh may not be very well remembered by today's younger movie fans however he was a diverse and extremely talented artist. Mr. Walsh directed musicals; "Going Hollywood" (1933) and "College Swing" (1938) as well as making a name for himself in the gangster genre; "The Roaring Twenties" and "White Heat" (1949) as well as westerns; "Colorado Territory" (1949, which some consider a remake of "High Sierra"), "Dark Command" (1940) and "The Tall Men" (1955). Shamefully Mr. Walsh was never nominated for a best director Academy Award and to this day has not been given a honorary award for his contribution to cinema.

"High Sierra" unfortunately lacks the reputation of "Key Largo" (1948) or "Casablanca" but it is a classic. Movie lovers should see it. The movie has secured its place in the history of cinema due to finally allowing Humphrey Bogart to break out into the mainstream as well as Ida Lupino. "High Sierra" is more than a gangster movie. It is a movie about people. Very flawed people that are trying to escape who they are and what they have become.