Thursday, July 28, 2011

Review – High Sierra

July 28, 2011

High Sierra – U.S., 1941

The 1940s saw the release of two films that would later be called prime examples of film noir: Billy Wilder’s 1944 masterpiece Double Indemnity and Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra, released three years earlier in 1941. What further connects these films is the fact that they were made at a time when film studios were under strict orders to follow a list of restrictions that came to be known as the Hayes Code, The code essentially spelled out what could and could not be depicted on screen. How Wilder got Double Indemnity through, I’ll never know, but the film remains as powerful today as it did upon its initial theatrical release. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about High Sierra.

Part of the problem with High Sierra has to do with one of the rules of the Code, the one that states that villains could not get away with their crimes, no matter how realistic it would seem if they did. The consequence of this rule is that a character like Roy Earle, someone who goes the extra mile to avoid making simple mistakes, inevitably begins slipping up. He starts staying places too long or visiting people he shouldn’t. Perhaps obstacles begin to be thrown at him for no apparent reason – perhaps his contact is away or he has to wait an extra day for what’s owed to him - anything to prevent a getaway. It works in Double Indemnity; it just seems tired and desperate in High Sierra.

Yet there’s another important distinction between these two films. Double Indemnity never tries to be cute or funny. Its two characters go ahead with their rather fiendish plan, only to see it all come crashing down in a series of plausible, earthly events, culminating in one of the more poetic downfalls in American films. High Sierra goes down another path, one involving a furry creature who is supposedly a harbinger of bad things to come. In fact, as one character explains it, each of this creature’s former owners has met an untimely death. Does this stop our hero from picking him up and bonding with him? Of course not. Writers John Huston (yes, that one) and W.R. Burnett therefore had a choice: they could make the dog a legitimate device for foretelling the fate of the central character, or they could dispel the myth and depict fate as something that people actually have a hand in deciding. If they chose the latter, then there would actually be little point in including the creature in the film in the first place. If they opted for the former, the film would likely begin to assume a degree of predictability at some point, which is unfortunately what happens with High Sierra.

This is regrettable, for the film has one of the most promising beginnings of any film I’ve seen in a while. It begins with a convicted criminal named Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) being pardoned by the governor and deciding to spend his first moments of freedom walking though a park looking at the lush green grass and the tall trees. Later, we learn that he grew up around nature, and it’s clear that it holds a unique place in his heart. We get the sense that he’d like nothing more than to live out the rest of his life on a farm near a lake. Reality intrudes, of course. In no time at all, he’s off to head what he’s told will be an extremely lucrative caper at a popular hotel in the mountains. On the way, he meets a family affected by the depression and finds himself drawn to Velma (Joan Leslie), a sweet twenty-year-old woman with a club foot.

As the film goes along, we see evidence of two divergent generations. Many of the older generation see beauty in nature, value hard work, and have codes they live by. A gangster from Earle’s generation would never bring women along on a heist and would never use someone who had the nasty habit of talking too much. Times have changed. The younger generation, at least those of the male species, is more easily distracted by beautiful women and more easily unnerved by the blare of police sirens. The older generation endeavors to persevere during trying times; some of the younger generation would rather spend their days dancing to the sounds of swing than toiling for hours on a farm.

The second woman to enter Earle’s life, Marie (Ida Lupino), also belongs to the younger generation, but she does not exactly fit the description above. She has no use for petty infatuations or ridiculous acts of bravado that seek to prove just who is manlier than whom. However, she’s also in a precarious situation - far from home, alone with two gentlemen, one of whom is jealous and has a violent streak. In Earle, she sees not only a decent man but also a protector, and she makes her move at what she thinks is the right moment. He disappoints her, though, explaining, “You couldn’t ever mean nothing to me – nothing special, that is.”

It’s interesting that both of these ladies are from the same generation (Lupino was 23 when she made the film; Leslie was apparently just 16) and that both of them have had to face difficulties. One gives every indication of having retained a degree of sweetness and optimism; the other has been hardened by her dealings with some rather unscrupulous people at a “dime and dance” joint in the city. To be with one of them, Earle would have to live a lie. The other would accept him as he is – past and all. Guess which one he prefers.

Eventually, the time for the caper arrives, and it is every bit as exciting as it should be. To say things do not go off without a hitch would be an understatement. For some people, the film’s finale will be exciting; for me, it was simply predictable. However, throughout the film, Bogart’s performance is top-notch. At times, he plays Earle as if he were a wide-eyed, naïve young man who believes in the innate goodness of everyday people. At other times, he approaches things with the kind of calm, no-nonsense, calculating mind that the most skilled in Earle’s profession have. That’s the Earle that has no place for love. It’s the former Earle that believes it is possible for someone like Velma to reciprocate his affections. Lupino and Leslie are also very good in the film. However, recognition should also go out to Henry Travers, who plays Velma’s grandfather, “Pa.” Travers scenes with Bogart are particularly special, and the bond their respective characters form feels remarkably authentic.

High Sierra is well acted, and it remains interesting throughout. The dog upsets the pacing somewhat, and the role of Algernon, a somewhat stereotypical African-American character who reminded me a bit of Steppin’ Fetchit, may make contemporary audiences sigh and roll their eyes. We were truly living in different times back then. Fortunately, time has been kind to the rest of the film. It’s still rather exciting to take a trip to the High Sierra. Corny but true. (on DVD)

3 stars

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