Friday, August 19, 2022

Ascending the High Sierras: Bogart Died Here

Humphrey Bogart got second billing on High Sierra, but you’d never know it. When the Warner Bros. crime thriller was released in 1941, Bogart had already made a name for himself in cold-blooded killer roles, starting with the screen version of his electrifying performance in Broadway’s The Petrified Forest (1935), opposite good-guy Leslie Howard. But his studio already had George Raft, James Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson on its payroll, and for a time it seemed Bogart would never be anything but a sidekick.

 This all changed in 1941, with High Sierra, a novel adapted for the screen by his drinking buddy John Huston.  Fortunately for his career, Paul Muni, Raft, Cagney, and Robinson all turned down the part before it came to him. Bogey may have been billed second to Ida Lupino (playing a tough, loyal gal who’s been around the block a time or two), but the film is his story all the way. He plays yet another criminal, one who has just been released from prison and immediately returns to a life of thievery and worse. But his Roy “Mad Dog” Earle is a complicated man who is not without a soft side. Roy loves nature, and seems to yearn for the simple life he knew on the family farm back in Indiana. He also loves pretty women, whom he treats with a respect that borders on the courtly. And he also has great affection for animals, like the little dog who plays a key role in the plot. In the film, we don’t know quite why he has deviated from the straight and narrow path, but sense that there’s a concealed trauma behind his lawless ways.

 The film is full of action, including a deadly robbery at a swank hotel in a resort area that is clearly modeled after Palm Springs, California. It takes its title from a climactic shoot-out, with Bogart’s character perched high on a Sierra Nevada peak, as crowds of law enforcement and looky-loo types gather below. Because of the strictures spelled out in the infamous Production Code, we know that in movies of this era crime never pays, and so there’s no point in hoping for Roy Earle’s survival. Still, his character is so appealing that we can’t help wishing him well.

 I suspect the audiences of 1941 felt the same way. High Sierra became the pivotal film of Bogart’s career, the one that elevated him to leading-man status. Also in 1941 he graduated into the role of melancholy private detective Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, then followed this up  by playing Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. His unusual combination of toughness and softness made him a natural for film noir, but he also  revealed a memorable romantic side in Casablanca and, later, in The African Queen. And his real-life love story with actress Lauren Bacall, triggered by their on-screen chemistry in To Have and Have Not (1944) was fodder for fan magazines around the globe..

 High Sierra was not life-changing only for Bogart. John Huston, the son of a legendary actor, started out in Hollywood as a screenwriter. Beginning in 1930, he had ten screenplay credits before High Sierra, some on big-name pictures like Jezebel and Juarez. But after High Sierra, which was directed by action-specialist Raoul Walsh, Huston moved into the director’s chair, starting with The Maltese Falcon and continuing until 1987, when he directed a poignant adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead. The grand total for Huston as a director: 38 films in all, with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Moulin Rouge, and Prizzi’s Honor among them.



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