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High Sierra

High Sierra(1941)

Remind Me

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Widely acknowledged as one of the gangster pictures that paved the way for the style and moral complexities of film noir, High Sierra (1941) is the story of Roy "Mad Dog" Earle, a crook sprung from prison to perform a crucial heist. Saddled with inexperienced accomplices (played by character actors Alan Curtis and Arthur Kennedy, a Tony Award winner for his role in the original Death of a Salesman) and a dime-a-dance girl who falls for him (Ida Lupino, who would later become a noted director), Earle awaits instructions at a mountain cabin, planning to go straight after this last robbery. He befriends the family of a lame girl (Joan Leslie) and pays for her operation, orbiting the "pure" life he desires. Starring as the surly tough guy with a decent heart was the breakthrough vehicle for Humphrey Bogart who took the role after George Raft, unwilling to "die at the end", refused it. (It was also reported that Paul Muni was offered the role prior to Raft but was fired by Warner Brothers after he turned it down).

Earle was modeled on John Dillinger, but the Hollywood Production Code strictly prohibited glamorizing the thirties gangster legend. John Huston's script, based on W.R. Burnett's novel, was returned to Warners by the censors with over forty objectionable references. They were largely ignored by Jack Warner, who wanted to protect the "spirit" of the story. However, the Code was firm on the ending. Gangsters, no matter how sympathetic they might appear at times, had to pay for moral transgressions on the screen. In other words, death or life in prison was their only option.

Executive Produced by Hal Wallis (Little Caesar, 1930), High Sierra - now on DVD from Warner Video - was line produced by former 'crime beat' newsman Mark Hellinger (They Drive by Night, 1940), who was so entrenched in the gangster mode that he drove a car formerly belonging to mobster Dutch Schultz. High Sierra was elevated from the standard desperado B-movies by the stellar talent behind it. Directed by Warner Brothers veteran Raoul Walsh, (White Heat, 1949) and featuring Ida Lupino ­ who received billing above Bogart's ­ as Marie Garson, the locations were filmed in California's San Bernardino Mountains. Walsh noted that the climactic mountain chase sequence was the "longest he ever directed". Cinematographer Tony Gaudio, a 1936 Academy Award® winner for Anthony Adverse (1936), telegraphed Earle's isolation and state of mind in one scene with a breathtaking 360 degree panning shot. In small roles, watch for Henry Travers (It's a Wonderful Life, 1946) as "Pa", and Cornel Wilde (A Song to Remember, 1945) in an early-career appearance as mobster Louis Mendoza.

John Huston would later remark on Bogart's unique appeal in the role of Roy Earle: "Bogie was a medium sized man, not particularly impressive off-screen, but something happened when he was playing the right part. Those lights and shadows composed themselves into another, nobler personality: heroic, as in High Sierra. I swear the camera has a way of looking into a person and perceiving things that the naked eye doesn't register."

High Sierra was remade in 1949 as Colorado Territory and in 1955 as I Died a Thousand Times with Jack Palance, Shelley Winters and Dennis Hopper. The original film established a precedent that led to such contemporary outlaw movies as Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

As one would expect, Warner Video has released a lovingly restored DVD presentation of this key Bogart title. The Criterion Collection couldn't have done it better except in the extras department. This disc only serves up the theatrical trailer and a brief featurette on the making of the film: "Curtains for Roy Earle."

For more information about High Sierra, visit Warner Video. To order High Sierra, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jessica Handler