–Great Film, Excellent Bogart—
Your Bogie Film Fix:
Director: Raoul Walsh
Immediately after being released from prison, ex-con Roy Earle (Bogart) signs on for one more heist at a high class resort. As he and his partners prepare for the robbery, Earle is sidetracked by the thought of love with a displaced Midwestern girl (Joan Leslie) and her family who have just moved to California.
What I Thought
This film gets better for me every time that I see it. This was my third or fourth viewing, and I’m continually struck by how many new things pop out every time I watch. (Did you see how much jam Bogart puts on his breakfast toast? Good grief!)
By far his most nuanced gangster role, Bogart’s portrayal of ‘Mad Dog’ Roy Earle is that of a hardened and ruthless criminal who’s been tempered by time and experience. He’s finally reached that often clichéd moment in film where he’s ready for one more job before he settles down. But cliché is avoided here as the story wisely pairs Earle with partners who are considerably younger than him, and who more than likely reflect his own recklessly impetuous past.
Director Raoul Walsh spends a lot of time showing us Bogart quietly listening and reacting to a lot of chaos around him – each time carefully and calmly handling situations with an equal dose of wisdom and intimidation. Perhaps Bogart’s greatest character depth comes from the time Earle spends with ‘Pa’ played by Henry Travers. Where so many of Bogart’s previous gangster roles showed him reacting to frustration and disappointment with violence, High Sierra shows a man who often reacts with quiet resignation and acceptance to his station in life.
The cast is superb. The script by legendary actor, director, and writer John Huston is tight and powerful. Director Walsh gives us a lot of fantastic close ups and quiet moments to linger on. What more could you want from Classic Hollywood or a night with Humphrey Bogart?
As the story goes, when the part of Roy Earle was offered to George Raft, Raft was at the point in his career when he was ready to step away from gangster roles. Supposedly, Bogart needled him a bit about taking on yet another bad guy part, and Raft finally refused the script. Bogart then quickly swooped in and picked it up, knowing that it was a choice role, and a major step up from the previous two-dimensional hoods that he’d played before.
The Bogart Factor
Bogart layers the role of Roy Earle so deeply that you’re instantly sucked into not only empathizing with the character, but actually forgiving him when he commits his crime and is forced to shoot a security guard. I’m amazed and impressed with how much character development was given to Bogart’s role as he’s allowed to build deep and authentic relationships with Henry Travers’ Pa, Ida Lupino’s Marie, Joan Leslie’s Velma, and Donald McBride’s Big Mac. So often in crime films of this era, much more time is given over to the action and adventure, and little effort is spent on building a solid three-dimensional character. Director Walsh gives Bogart plenty of scenes to build a great foundation here though, and it makes for a riveting performance.
Bogart appears to be enjoying himself, and it’s a lot of fun to see him acting against his real life dog, Zero, in the film’s lighter moments. If you’re looking for a solid Bogart fix, this one’s a must see as it’s undoubtedly some of his best work. You won’t be able to take your eyes off of him.
High Sierra was the last film that Bogart made where he wasn’t given top billing, and it’s easy to see why this role made him an undeniably top-tiered star.
Ida Lupino plays Marie, the bad girl who’s pining away for Bogart while Bogart pines away for Joan Leslie. Lupino does a great job of not overdoing the role, slowly making advances towards Bogart with patience and just the right amount of manipulation. They have good chemistry together, and I would have been happy if Bogart had ridden off into the sunset with her at the end. You can read Lupino’s entry into ‘The Usual Suspects’ portion of the blog here.
Henry Travers plays Pa, a down-on-his-luck farmer who’s come to California with his wife and niece for a second chance. It’s not a groundbreakingly new role for Travers as he plays the saintly old grandfather type, but his scenes with Bogart are really, really good, and it’s nice to see him in a big role. You can read my write up on Travers in ‘The Usual Suspects’ portion of the blog here.
Joan Leslie plays Velma, the young disabled love interest to Bogart. Director Walsh uses her in small but powerful doses, and he doesn’t shy away from making sure we don’t see her as too innocently naïve in the end. Leslie does great in the role, and holds herself up against Bogart very well. It makes me excited to watch The Wagons Roll at Night again as I haven’t seen it in several years.
Arthur Kennedy and Alan Curtis play Bogart’s partners in crime, Red and Babe respectively. Again, Director Walsh spends just enough time to give us a good look at these younger versions of Earle without overdoing it. Kennedy is especially good here in an early role, and I need to check out some more of his filmography.
Donald MacBride plays Big Mac, the brains behind the heist, and he’s given a few good scenes with Bogart that show what Earle’s future might have in store if he doesn’t get out of the crime racket.
Willie Best plays Algernon, the simple cabin boy who pops up now and again to add a little levity and plot advancement to the film. I liked Best a lot here as he seems to have a real screen presence, and I’d like to explore his filmography further.
Cornel Wilde does well with a small part as Mendoza, the inside man at the resort who opens the safe for Bogart and his pals, and shares an amazing scene with Bogart which I get to later in the Classic Bogie moment . . .
Bogie Film Blog favorite Barton MacLane has a brief role as Jake, the man who . . . well . . . I’m not exactly sure what his job title was specifically, but he seemed to be Donald MacBride’s right hand man. It’s always fun to see MacLane show up in a film!
And then there’s Henry Hull as Doc Banton. I haven’t seen Hull since my early review of Midnight/Call it Murder, and here he plays an overly-aged private physician to criminals. Hull’s a good actor, so I’m not sure why Director Walsh felt the need to go a little over-the-top with Hull’s old man routine. It’s not too distracting, but it’s odd.
Classic Bogie Moment
Maybe my favorite Bogart scene from any film, Bogart sits down with his partners and explains to them with incredibly subtle intimidation why they need to keep quiet about their work.
Mendoza: Big Mac gave me the machine gun. You know how to work it? Red doesn’t, and neither does Babe.
Red: That’s a good one, that is.
Mendoza: What’s so funny?
Red: Does he know how to work it?
Roy Earle: (WITH INCREDIBLE CALMNESS) Yeah. Say, you know that gun reminds me of one time, nine or ten years ago. We was getting ready to do a job back in Iowa when one of the guys got the shakes. Pretty soon we found out that this guy with the shakes had talked too much, and a bunch of coppers were waiting for us at the bank. But we don’t say nothing. Lefty Jackson goes out and gets his gun. He comes back and sits down and holds it across his knee. The guy with shakes is sitting right across the room from him. Pretty soon Lefty just touched the trigger a little, and the gun went (BOGART TAPS THE TOP OF THE GUN CASE THREE TIMES WITH HIS INDEX FINGER) like that. The rat fell out of the chair dead and we drove off and left him there. Yeah, the gun went (BOGART TAPS THREE TIMES AGAIN).
Mendoza: (NERVOUSLY) Well, I better be getting back. I have to go on duty at 8:30.
Director Walsh could have gone over-the-top with this scene, making it a loud and threatening encounter, but he holds back, and it plays out powerfully.
The Bottom Line
If you’re a Bogie Film Blog reader, more than likely you’ve already seen this one. But if by some chance you haven’t, what are you waiting for?!? Go get it!