High Sierra (1941)

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*. Bogart’s “breakout” role, and he was now over 40, playing a character with a code whose time has passed.
*. It almost didn’t happen. As it was, Bogart was bumped from star billing by Ida Lupino (the last time that would happen). Other, bigger names (Muni and Raft) had originally been wanted for the part. Bogart had been around, first attracting notice in The Petrified Forest and playing tough guys (that is, gangsters) for a decade. He’d even played opposite Lupino the year before in They Drive by Night, another film directed by Raoul Walsh. So this was all familiar territory.
*. Bogart is playing an older man here, which makes sense as he was the kind of guy who looks even older than his age (I’ve pointed out how ridiculous it is to see him playing Ann Sheridan’s kid brother in San Quentin). Here he’s Rip van Winkle, a part Pauline Kael would identify as seminal: both “the aging outlaw as an anachronism in a changing world” and “the man who just wants to pull off one more job so he can get out of what has become just a dirty business.” Michael Mann must have been taking notes.
*. It’s not just that Roy is out of time though. The gangster film as a genre was passing away. And I think it may be that meeting of the man and the moment that led to this being what David Thomson calls the “turning point” in Bogart’s career, “a key step in the transformation of Humphrey Bogart,” not just into a star but into “Bogie” the film icon.
*. What was the nature of that icon? A tough guy whose toughness is a kind of self-torture. He’s not so much reluctant at the role he has to play as physically pained by it. Every time those lips pull back and he bares his teeth in a rictus grin you sense a jab of conscience or despair.
*. It could have been creepy, or even ridiculous. As it is, the subplot involving the yokels who have come to L.A., including clubfoot girl Velma (Joan Leslie), is dreadful. Both because it’s hokey and because Roy is old enough to be Velma’s father. But then Bogart was old enough to be Lauren Bacall’s father and they got along well enough together.
*. It’s also typical of a breakout role in the way Bogart carries the movie on his back. Aside from the final gunfight in the mountains there is nothing else to recommend it but his performance. Much of the plot is either clichéd, conventional, or pathetic (it’s based on a book by W. R. Burnett, author of the novel Little Caesar and contributor to the screenplay for Scarface). It’s fun to hear Big Mac complaining about the lousy help he’s got these days — “screwballs . . . twerps, soda-jerks, and jitterbugs” — but that’s the only line I can remember. The heist is boring, the fallout rushed and silly (Roy didn’t even keep enough money to pay for gas?), and as already noted the entire Velma storyline is awful.
*. An aside: I couldn’t help seeing something of Steling Hayden in The Asphalt Jungle in Roy’s nostalgic desire to leave a life of crime and go back to the farm. Both movies were based on Burnett novels so perhaps the connection isn’t all in my head.
*. Raoul Walsh had a very long, very productive career. On the strength of this he’s rated highly by a lot of critics and film historians. I don’t see where he was much more than the kind of professional you could count on to get a movie done on time. Out of his massive filmography this film is considered one of his best. Another highlight is White Heat. I like both movies well enough, but when I watch them I don’t see where Walsh was responsible for doing much that made them special.
*. I don’t even care for Lupino much as Marie. She has the look, but her voice is wrong. She doesn’t sound like a moll or dime-a-dance girl and I can’t imagine she was that thrilled to find herself in such a worthless part. Especially when the ending has her echoing Roy’s faithful mutt Pard, holding the hand the dog had just been licking. I guess Marie is showing she can be as blindly devoted and loyal as man’s best friend, but really, they could have given the dog (played by Bogart’s own dog, Zero) higher billing.
*. All that’s left is Roy alone in the mountains, that final western frontier, hounded to death by the law and thus achieving an ironic freedom. And yet who would be better suited than Bogart to play a man who sees death as an escape from the pain of existence? It was written all over his face.

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