Review: High Sierra (1941)


Going out on a mountain may seem like a grand idea, at least until you realize how far down the fall really is!

Screenplay By: W.R. Burnett & John Huston
Directed By: Raoul Walsh

In the 1930s and through the 1940s the movie landscape was littered with gangster films. There were films about good gangsters, bad gangsters, real life gangsters, funny gangsters, whatever gangster you could think of Hollywood was sure to have come out with at least four films chronicling their plights during this point in film history. High Sierra was put into the capable hands of Raoul Walsh, a man who understood the gangster genre. But, with High Sierra Mr. Walsh decided to go in a new direction with the tried and true gangster flick. He, along with the writers John Huston and W.B. Burnett, created a gangster that was human and a gangster that realized not only was he at the end of his road but so was the age of the gangster as we knew it. Turns out all involved were wrong, as the gangster flick didn’t die off like they were expecting, but High Sierra still ended up a damn fine movie.

Like most of his films, High Sierra begins and ends with the performance of Humphrey Bogart. In this film Mr. Bogart began to move towards the roles that would define him for the rest of his career. He played a killer, but he played someone who pretended to be amoral to hide the moral tendencies that lurked at his core. This, along with the fast talking that Roy partakes in from time to time, would be the hallmarks of Mr. Bogart in all of his classic films, such as Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The African Queen, and many more. Mr. Bogart’s presence and the frailties he imbued the character of Roy with were more than enough to drive High Sierra to a place above most other gangster flicks from this era. Like I have the habit of saying, Humphrey Bogart was, well, Humphrey Bogart, and that’s all he needed to be.

High Sierra was rounded by a strong leading lady in Ida Lupino and a good cast of complimentary characters. It doesn’t seem insincere when Roy tries to help out Velma, because she is innocent, and she is everything that Roy wishes he could have but knows he never will. That’s what eventually makes the relationship he has with Marie so strong, she is what he has been looking for but she’s also damaged just like he is. Even in love Roy can’t find the pureness that the Ohio farm boy so strives for, only something just as broken as he is. Henry Travers as Pa was also quite noteworthy in a small role. He embodied the man that Roy wanted to be, and he helped Roy to realize that he could have been that man by constantly pointing out to Roy how good he was and the goodness he saw in Roy. High Sierra may begin and end with Humphrey Bogart, but it would have sputtered and died out if not for the supporting actors and actresses.

The only real downfall of High Sierra is that there are a few scenes that don’t ring true and seem false. Nothing major mind you, but there was a distinct awkwardness in a few of the scenes when Roy is casing out the hotel or when Roy first tries to shoo Marie back to where she came from. But, those were the only gripes I had with an otherwise splendid gangster flick. And don’t think I won’t mention the final chase and shoot out. The entire end sequence beginning with the car chase was structured beautifully and was full of suspense and drama. A fitting end to a great movie.

High Sierra doesn’t get talked about much, even when people are listing Mr. Bogart’s best films. But, it is seminal gangster film, another fine entry in the career of Mr. Bogart, and another great gangster film from Mr. Walsh. If for no other reason you need to see High Sierra for the last time Humphrey Bogart played a true leading bad guy, and for the climatic chase scene, the likes of which Hollywood is still trying to duplicate to this day.



Bill Thompson


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