High Sierra: When the bad guy is the good guy

I recently finished reading Stefan Kanfer’s Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart. (The title is from something Raymond Chandler said of Bogart.) So of course, I’m back to watching Bogart movies, at least for the time being.

High Sierra stars Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino. Directed by Raoul Walsh, Bogart was also in Walsh’s earlier movie, They Drive by Night (1940) (and also with Lupino). But it was this movie, High Sierra, that opened the door for Bogart, a door that didn’t read “journeyman actor” but read instead “star.”

This movie is really where we get the entire Bogie for the first time.

High Sierra (1941)

Directed by Raoul Walsh

The movie High Sierra is notable and highly watchable for a number of things not the least of which is its status as Humphrey Bogart’s first starring role.

It’s the one that placed him pretty firmly in everyone’s eyes as a top rate star, despite Warner Brothers apparent obliviousness to that.

It is also a film that works what is now a pretty standard, even over-used, dichotomy: the bad guy as good guy.

The main character, Roy Earle (Bogart) is a stone cold killer who doesn’t think twice about killing someone. He is also a life-loving man filled with kindness.

How can such qualities co-exist?

Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino in High Sierra.

They are what the film presents with Roy Earle because it knows such qualities, so apparently in opposition, are utterly fascinating to an audience, especially when they are presented through one of Humphrey Bogart’s best performances.

(The movie is often considered the first real ‘Bogart’ film.)

One of the last of the gangster movies that were so popular in the 1920s and 1930s, High Sierra is in part about the end of the gangster era.

The movie begins as Roy Earle is released from prison after a companion in crime paves the way for his release (presumably through bribes, threats etc.)

But from the start we don’t see the hard-boiled gangster, we see Roy Earle the man, grateful to be free of the prison and back into the world. One of the first things he does is make another gangster wait for him as he takes a walk saying he wants to make sure the leaves and grass are still there.

Humphrey Bogart, mid-heist, in High Sierra.

We quickly see the other side of Earle when he meets another gangster to get details on why he has been released and what he must do.

He clearly doesn’t like the other gangster (a former cop) and as the first act plays out we see a back and forth of character introductions – good guys and bad guys that elicit one of the two Roys.

The back and forth continues through the film as the plot develops and the story unfolds, scenes alternating between the gentler Roy and the tough Roy. We can’t resist liking him even as we see he’s indifferent to killing and unapologetic for who and what he is.

Inexorably, the movie moves toward its tragic end as Roy finally “crashes through.”

Ida Lupino and a toothy Humphrey Bogart.

In many ways, this movie gives us the stoic, cynical and tough Bogart template. You see many of the mannerisms that impersonators would use even today.

It’s interesting how much Bogart uses his teeth here in showing both sides of Earle. There is a big, happy smile with the softer Roy and there is the now-famous sucking of teeth that precedes a tough guy moment.

It’s often used as a transition from the good Roy to the bad.

Bogart had very much wanted to do this movie, likely because he saw that there were two key, opposing aspects to the character of Roy and it would allow him to show a range people were unaware he had. (He had previously been a tough guy in almost every movie he had been in.) He was probably hoping this would allow him to finally break through.

And it did, but he only got the part after Paul Muni and George Raft turned it down.

Ida Lupino as Marie and Humphrey Bogart as the graying Roy Earle in High Sierra.

High Sierra is also the first movie he was in that John Huston was involved with (as screenwriter). Not long after, in his directorial debut, Huston would get together with Bogart for The Maltese Falcon.

Finally, there is a wonderfully visual conclusion to the movie only made possible by director Raoul Walsh’s insistence that the final scenes be shot on location.

Yes, there are many fascinating aspects to High Sierra. However, as interesting as they are, they take a back seat to the fact it is still a gripping story, one that has great pacing and few if any superfluous scenes.

It’s just a damn good movie, one with a bonus: Humphrey Bogart.

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