Director: Raoul Walsh
In 1936 Humphrey Bogart got a contract at Warner Bros. on the basis of his sizzling performance as the gangster Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest. For the next five years Warners couldn't figure out what to do with him, typecasting him as a vicious thug in pictures like Dead End (1937) or giving him roles for which he was clearly unsuited, like the stableman (complete with unsteady Irish brogue) besotted with Bette Davis in Dark Victory (1939). It wasn't until Bogart got the lead in High Sierra (a part he campaigned hard for after several other actors turned it down) that he got a role which allowed him to showcase the paradoxical qualities of toughness and vulnerability in the same character that later became a trademark of his screen persona. The movie made him a star.
In High Sierra Bogart plays Roy "Mad Dog" Earle, a jailed criminal who has seen better days. His former gang boss bribes corrupt officials to pardon Earle so that he can lead one last big heist, a jewel robbery at a swanky mountain resort in California, that will set them up for the rest of their lives. From the beginning, it's clear the plan has big problems. The inside man at the resort (an unrecognizable Cornel Wilde) is clearly unreliable. The two men who are supposed to help Earle in the robbery are rebellious and, worse, at odds over a woman (Ida Lupino) who ends up falling for Earle. And Earle becomes enamored of a handicapped young woman (Joan Leslie) he meets on the way to California who doesn't return his affection but is willing to let him pay for a healing operation before dumping him.
The screenplay was co-written by John Huston. High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon, which Huston wrote and directed later the same year and which also starred Bogart, are seminal forerunners of film noir, the genre that dominated American films of the late 1940s and early 1950s and was a huge influence on the French New Wave. These two pictures are the transitional works between the two studio genres that prefigure noir—the gangster movie and the private detective movie—and full-blown film noir of the postwar period. Between them they contain most of the key elements of film noir: a self-sufficient outsider as the movie's hero, criminal activities (High Sierra's focus on a heist anticipates noir masterpieces like The Asphalt Jungle and The Killing as well as countless other examples of the genre from the late 40s and early 50s), treacherous comrades, lurking danger, pervasive cynicism, and external circumstances that lead to a tragic outcome from which there is no escape. Add to the proto-noir sensibility of these two movies the high-contrast Expressionistic look of Citizen Kane, also released in 1941, and a good case could be made that this was the year American film noir was born.
Aside from its importance as a defining moment in Bogart's career and in film noir, High Sierra is tremendously entertaining. Bogart lands on his feet in this movie, and as an actor he never faltered again. (Although plainly the main character, Bogart was second-billed after costar Ida Lupino and even received a lower salary, an indication of his status at Warners at the time and of the studio's uncertainty about him as a leading man. After this picture, he would always receive top billing.) Lupino, whose character, like Bogart's, is at once gutsy and sensitive, expertly conveys these contradictory traits. Like Bogart, she would become a specialist in this kind of role. Raoul Walsh's direction is typically forceful, creating a vivid atmosphere of isolation and doom against the landscapes of the Sierra Nevada. The end of the movie—as Bogart drives higher and higher into the mountains, pursued by the police, and the trap tightens—goes beyond the Production Code stricture that crime must be punished and pushes into the noir concept of a flawed but somehow noble man betrayed by people and by fate.