High Sierra (1941)
Release Date: January 25th, 1941 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Raoul Walsh Actors: Ida Lupino, Humphrey Bogart, Alan Curtis, Arthur Kennedy, Joan Leslie, Henry Hull, Henry Travers
t the Office of the Governor, a pardon is signed for notorious Indiana bank robber Roy “Mad Dog” Earle (Humphrey Bogart), who has been incarcerated for over eight years at Chicago’s Mossmoor Prison. After release, Roy’s first stop is the park – to make sure that grass is still green and that trees are still growing. Shortly thereafter, he heads to the home of Big Mac (Donald MacBride), an old crime boss who is sure to have a new assignment for the famed thief. Instead, Roy is greeted by former cop and current liaison Jack Kranmer (Barton MacLane), who ushers him off to California in a fresh car and with a wad of dough. Roy has little choice, considering that Mac spent a fortune to get him out of prison.
And so, Roy heads to Tropico Springs, a wealthy resort town atop the Sierra Mountains, with the aim of knocking off a hotel’s strongbox. But when he arrives, he discovers that his crew is mostly young amateurs, including Red (Arthur Kennedy), Babe (Alan Curtis), and Marie (Ida Lupino). And their inside man, the perpetually nervous Mendoza (Cornel Wilde), doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut.
Ida Lupino gets top billing as an unusually capable dame (but a damaged-goods sort, who can’t seem to be recognized as anything other than an ineligible partner) amidst a bevy of cocky gangsters, though she’s still second in importance to Bogart’s weathered hood. A romance brews early on (not only with attention from Marie, but also with the conspicuously young Velma [Joan Leslie]), routinely superseding the tough guy routines throughout – many of which are generic for this kind of crime drama. But there’s plenty of focus on Earle retaining an uncommon sense of decency, despite being a lifelong heister; Bogie can’t be a questionable hero, even if he’s in the thick of a looming tragedy. He remains positive during great adversity (“I ain’t sore at nobody”) and goes well out of his way to help strangers – particularly those plagued by pitiable situations themselves. But this type of drama is oddly misplaced in the world of “High Sierra,” which is additionally intent on showing the darker side of gangsterism, chiefly with the violence toward women and the hotheaded outbursts by inexperienced brutes.
The pacing suffers a bit from this split, where sequences of melodrama occupy the screen, waiting for the inevitable robbery and its anticipated predicaments. In fact, so much time is spent on building up Roy’s character and his misguided motivations for financially helping Velma that the film noir elements never quite take hold. Roy’s an old-timer with a good heart and a soft spot for the underprivileged, but he’s still a man who profits from ill-gotten gains (even a poignant engagement ring is, amusingly, stolen). In the end, it’s evident that Roy is no longer cut out for his signature line of work, ironically paralleling the fidgety, fledgling nature of his cohorts – who can’t handle stepping into the big time. The finale is bittersweet but expected, considering the release date and the Production Code, and is just as drawn out as the setup as it escalates to a point of no return. Sadly, “High Sierra” attempts to tackle too much, unable to do justice to either the suspenseful heist crux or the doomed romances.
– Mike Massie