High Sierra
d. Raoul Walsh (1941)
The Criterion Collection

After a decade of working in supporting roles, Humphrey Bogart’s breakthrough started in 1941. For the half decade before that, he was under short-term contracts with Warner Brothers, performing in around six films per year, usually as a criminal lowlife supporting the likes of James Cagney. In a Life magazine feature, published June 12, 1944, George Frazier reports: “In his first 34 pictures for Warner’s, Bogart was a jailbird in nine, electrocuted or hanged in eight and riddled by bullets in a dozen.”

Then came 1941, starting with High Sierra. In this film, Bogart plays Roy Earle. The role is still that of a criminal, though this time one with depth, and Bogart was also the film’s main character, though he still got second billing after the wonderful Ida Lupino. The role was not initially meant for Bogart. Apparently James Cagney turned it down . . . as did Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, and George Raft.

It worked, though. Bogart’s portrayal of a hardened criminal who seems to think it’s possible for him to return to a state of innocence is complex and affirmed his ability to lead a film. Bogart’s popularity soared even higher later that year when he showed up on screen as Sam Spade (another role Robinson declined) in The Maltese Falcon. And of course, Bogart became a legend the next year with the release of Casablanca. That Life feature, published just a few years after Bogart’s long string of barely-there roles, begins by noting that Bogart is likely the most popular movie actor in the United States.

This month, The Criterion Collection released a wonderful home video edition of High Sierra, packed with supplements (including Walsh’s 1949 Western remake of the film, Colorado Territory). I had not seen High Sierra, but I enjoyed it and have really enjoyed thinking about it.

The film begins well into Roy Earle’s criminal career. He’s in his 40s and he’s already gained enough notoriety to inspire wrath when he receives a pardon from the governor.

With his new freedom, Earle first goes on a walk in the park. He enjoys the grass and the free air, and even gets to throw a ball to a group of kids.

First-time viewers like myself might be forgiven for thinking that Earle’s pardon is justified, or at least that Earle would take advantage of it to live a life away from crime. I figured he’d get lured back in somehow, but it turns out that Earle never really intended to clean up . . . not just yet.

His pardon is part of a larger scheme. His skills are such that he is needed back west to pull off a big job. Even the other criminals need to look out, because Earle has not softened at all.

At the same time, as we can see when he goes to the park, Earle pines for a simpler life. Later on — as he travels west to join a criminal conspiracy — he stops by his childhood home and points a young boy to the best fishing spot . . . at least the best spot some years in the past. As he travels across the states, he takes pains to befriend and even protect an impoverished family as it migrates across the country.

“Pines for” is not quite right. Earle seems to take it for granted that it will be his soon so long as he puts in a bit more work. There is a sense of entitlement. But he is deluded, notwithstanding the presumed life-lessons he must have learned during his life in crime. And so we have this brutal, childlike man, genuinely thinking one life does not preclude the other.

This plays out in the film’s most bizarre element: Earle’s attraction to the young woman in the migrant family, Velma. Velma is played by Joan Leslie, who was fifteen when the film was made. This is a creepy romance, to be sure, but it seems that the film understands this (it’s not entirely just a relic of its time, though there is an egregious relic that I’ll bring up down below). Again, Earle seems to take it for granted that she will be his wife, that he can erase the years that have passed since his own youth: voila, no age difference at all. Refreshingly, though polite at first, Velma is also just a little kid who eventually feels annoyed by Earle.

There is another woman entering Earle’s life, though, one who is somewhat more suited, if not in age then at least in the rhythm of life. This is Marie Garson, played by Ida Lupino.

The year before, Lupino and Bogart had been directed in Walsh’s They Drive By Night, where Lupino definitely stole the show. Here she takes a bit of a back seat to Bogart. Her role is not particularly deep, especially in contrast to Bogart’s, but she has a strong presence.

Marie is also looking for a different life, so when she and Earle meet at a cabin in the Sierras, she sees him as her ticket. He sees her as a liability, and she definitely does not represent the life Earle thinks he’ll live after the next big job.

It’s a wonderful film that, while wearing the skin of a crime movie, is actually about the characters’ myths of prosperity and change, regardless of their past. I loved it.

The Criterion Collection disc comes with a lot of excellent supplements. As I mentioned above, there’s a whole film on a second blu-ray. One I want to bring up here, though, is a short interview with Miriam J. Petty about African American actor Willie Best. Best plays Algernon, a side character chuck filled with African American stereotypes. He lays about, and when woken up comes to with his eyes crossed. It’s not a flattering role. Petty talks about Best and his string of similar roles, importantly contextualizing without forgiving or excusing the issue. It’s wonderful to see such a supplement on the disc, and I wanted to make sure I highlighted it as it is emblematic of the care put into this fantastic release.

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