Before High Sierra, Hollywood’s gangsters were not just black-and-white on celluloid; they were equally definitive in their morality—or, rather, immorality. There was nothing sympathetic about Paul Muni as Tony Camonte in Scarface and no doubt where James Cagney’s Tom Powers stood in The Public Enemy.
This movie, a star vehicle for Humphrey Bogart, helped change all that. Adapted by John Huston from a novel by W. R. Burnett, High Sierra depicts Bogart’s character of Roy “Mad Dog” Earle as a bank robber and, yes, a killer. But there’s another side to this career criminal—decency, compassion, a yearning to reform.
We’ve since seen it dozens of times in more recent years, from young Michael Corleone’s dream of taking the family legitimate to Jules Winnfield talking of giving up the life to walk the earth in Pulp Fiction. But it started here.
The movie opens with Earle, who’s been serving a long sentence for bank robbery, gaining a pardon from the corrupt governor of Illinois (we think his name was Blagojevich). The mobster who sets up the release, Earle’s old boss Big Mac, summons him to California for a heist. There is a poorly guarded resort near Los Angeles full of wealthy patrons who are dripping money and jewelry.
Earle doesn’t hesitate to accept the job. Robbing people is what he knows. But on his drive west he meets a sweet elderly couple—identified only as Ma and Pa—and their 20ish granddaughter, Velma. Earl and Pa hit it off. The old man explains how he lost his farm in Ohio and is relocating to Los Angeles. You get a sense from the conversation that Earle’s family was also dispossessed in his youth.
More than that, Earle finds himself falling for Velma, an innocent young thing who limps because she was born with a clubfoot. Our tough guy is both sympathetic and smitten. He decides to fund an operation to mend her with his potential earnings from the L.A. gig. And before long, he’s holding her hand under the starry California skies.
(On a side note, actress Joan Leslie, who plays Velma, was 16 years old when High Sierra was filmed. Bogart was 41. Hollywood sure had a different attitude toward romance with minors back then.)
Anyway, Earle checks into a California fishing camp to set up the heist. He is joined by two small-time twits, Red and Babe, and a dime-a-dance gal named Marie (Ida Lupino) whom they picked up along the way. (What ever happened to taxi dancers anyway?) To be honest, the movie bogs down in the middle, with Marie falling for Earle despite his ambivalence about her. As love triangles go, this does not rank with Bogey’s later effort in Casablanca.
More importantly, you get the sense that Mad Dog Earle has lost his zest for crime. Something about those rubes from Ohio apparently has him thinking about buying a plot of land and settling down with their perky granddaughter. Very American Gothic.
From there, things go awry. Earl funds Velma’s successful foot operation, but she rejects his romantic overtures after her jackass of a boyfriend from back home shows up in California. The resort robbery goes off, but during the getaway, Red and Babe get killed in a car crash. The inside man on the job blabs to the cops. And Mad Dog Earle becomes a hunted man.
Director Raoul Walsh (White Heat, The Roaring Twenties) makes use of the great scenery around Mount Whitney during this part of the movie. With police in pursuit, Roy drives up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains until a barricade blocks his way. He continues on foot, hiding behind a boulder as the cops draw near.
Of course, Earle’s got to die. He spends his final moments talking to his loyal mutt (more about that in a moment) and writing a note that would exonerate Marie from any of his crimes—except the note blows away as he is gunned down by a sharpshooter.
“Well, well, Big Shot Earle,” says one of the cops after his lifeless body tumbles down the mountain. “He ain’t much now, is he?”
Perhaps not. But because of the way Huston wrote the role and the way Bogart plays it, you’ll find yourself mourning Big Shot Earle’s failed attempt at redemption.
HIT: The final 10 minutes of High Sierra set the early standard for movie pursuit scenes. The car chase—while not up to, say, The French Connection or Bullitt—was ahead of its time in 1941. And the two-day standoff in the mountains, with crowds gathering and radio broadcasters setting up shop, really builds the tension.
MISS: Hollywood’s treatment of African Americans in the 1940s was downright despicable. The film’s only black character, a fishing camp aide named Algernon (Willie Best) is portrayed as a shuffling, napping, subservient Stepin Fetchit, whose eyes go crossed when they aren’t popping out of his head in panic.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “What makes High Sierra more than a Grade B melodrama is its sensitive delineation of Gangster Earle’s character. Superbly played by Bogart, Earle is a complex human being: A farmer boy who turned mobster, a gunman with a string of murders on his record who still is shocked when newsmen call him ‘Mad Dog.’ He is kind to the mongrel dog that travels with him, befriends a taxi dancer who becomes his moll and goes out of his way to help a crippled girl. All Roy Earle wants is freedom. He finds it for good on a lonely peak in the mountains.”—Time
CASTING CALL: Bogart coveted the role, believing that playing this multifaceted character would help move him into the upper echelon of stars. Warner Brothers had other ideas. Paul Muni was first cast for the lead, but hated the script and dropped out. The studio next turned to George Raft. Bogart, hearing that news, secretly went to his pal Raft and suggested that the movie would hurt Raft’s chances of changing his gangster image. Raft agreed and declined the role, which left it for . . . Bogart. As he anticipated, High Sierra ended up being the movie that made him a star.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: As High Sierra was being filmed in 1940, Bogart was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to explain his so-called Communist leanings. His sin? Donating a few bucks to striking lettuce workers. Bogart’s name was cleared. He went back to shooting with a rage that, according to director Walsh, released itself in his acting.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: Pard, the stray terrier mutt that Earle adopts at the fishing camp. The dog comes with a warning: everyone who has owned him has come to a bad end. Pard is listed in the credits as Zero the Dog and was, in fact, Bogart’s pet in real life.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Anything with Bogart is worth a second look but, to be honest, this film doesn’t make our Bogey Top 10.
BEST LINE: “Doc” Banton (Henry Hull), the mob’s faux-physician, on greeting Earle: “Hello, Roy. Last time I saw you was when I was taking slugs out of Lefty Jackson’s chest. Boy, those were the good old days.”
REALITY CHECK: We’re lacking medical degrees, but we’re awestruck by how a girl can live 20 years with a clubfoot, undergo surgery by a shady nonlicensed doctor and be up and dancing the Lindy in what appears to be a matter of days.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Very low. A couple of punches, a few shootings. Not a drop of blood.
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: The kindly grandpa of clubfooted Velma is played by Henry Travers, best known as Clarence the angel from It’s a Wonderful Life. He’s still working on getting those wings.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: They Drive by Night, a 1940 murder story involving wildcat truckers that first teamed up Bogart, Lupino and Walsh.
BODY COUNT: Five. The hoodoo dog survives, ready to spread his bad luck on someone else.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”