Roy 'Mad Dog' Earle is broken out of prison by an old associate who wants him to help with an upcoming robbery. When the robbery goes wrong and a man is shot and killed Earle is forced to go on the run, and with the police and an angry press hot on his tail he eventually takes refuge among the peaks of the Sierra Nevadas, where a tense siege ensues. But will the Police make him regret the attachments he formed with two women during the brief planning of the robbery.
Ida Lupino ... Marie
Humphrey Bogart ... Roy Earle
Alan Curtis ... 'Babe'
Arthur Kennedy ... 'Red'
Joan Leslie ... Velma
Henry Hull ... 'Doc' Banton
Henry Travers ... Pa
Jerome Cowan ... Healy
Minna Gombell ... Mrs. Baughmam
Barton MacLane ... Jake Kranmer
Elisabeth Risdon ... Ma (as Elizabeth Risdon)
W.R. Burnett's novel High Sierra is maybe his best book; it's certainly a classic of its type, and very readable and moving even today. The movie version of the book isn't quite as good, but it does something few adaptations do: it captures the spirit of the original.
The story is about a John Dillinger-like criminal, Roy Earle, just released from prison, and his planning of his last 'heist', as he moves from the Midwest to California. It's as much a character study as anything else, and here the book is better, as Burnett seems to get inside the heart and soul of Roy Earle in ways that screenwriter John Huston and director Raoul Walsh can't. This isn't their fault. Burnett gives us Earle's inner life in interior monologues, and movies simply can't do this. Nevertheless, we get a feeling for Earle, a lonely, extremely sentimental and romantic man, essentially a frontier type, or with more brains an artist, who cannot fit into modern life. The reason is simple: he doesn't understand it. He is driven by two things, strong emotions and extreme professionalism. The problem is that his profession is crime. Between these two extremes he is unsocialized, or rather doesn't understand the subtlety of contemporary life. To put it in current parlance, he's not hip, which is to say he has no detachment, no capacity for pulling back and reflecting, unless, that is, he is in love, and even then he gets it wrong by misunderstanding an attractive, crippled girl's reliance on him for love, and taking her country girl disposition for naivite (i.e. like him), which isn't true. This tragic aspect of Roy Earle is beautifully and perceptively described by Burnett, and while it's present in the film, it makes Roy seem obtuse, while the truth is his emotions run deep, and are sincere. He wants to give up crime and marry a small-town girl so that he can go back and get it right again. In the lead role Humphrey Bogart gives a major performance. Superficially he's wrong for Roy Earle: too urban, flip, smart and clever. But he trades in his natural big city persona for a moony, brooding romanticism, and it works. He doesn't seem the least bit sophisticated, and in his quieter moments he comes off like a man who can kill the way other men write checks
He has a true girl-friend in Ida Lupino, but he doesn't realize that she's more his type: life-weary, straightforward, deep and caring. He prefers the one he can't get, and this gets him in trouble, as his commitment to her puts him in a dreamy, dissociative state that is dangerous for a man in his line of work. The story builds on little things, and the bucolic mountain and small-town setting of the film is terra incognita for Roy, and we sense this even if he doesn't. He is, for all his professionalism, way out of his league, and is looking back to his idealized, romanticized early life, and longing for an ideal girl that he can 'fix', rather than doing the right thing and going off with Lupino and stating anew, which is his only chance for happiness.
Roy is a man who lives in two parallel worlds, the real, vicious one he must cope with, and the fantasy one he longs for and sees in the crippled girl he so tenderly loves. There is no in-between for him, as his head is in the clouds much of the time. It is therefore fitting that the movie ends up literally in the clouds, or so it seems, atop a mountain, as Roy shoots it out with reality one last time.
*High Sierra* is almost excruciatingly important in the development of cinema, laying to bed the "gangster picture" of the 1930's while simultaneously giving birth to American film noir. Oh, and it made Humphrey Bogart a major star while it was at it. Therefore, I'm not entirely sure that your film collection, if you have one, can survive without it.
Based on a pulpy novel, it chronicles the story of Roy Earle, sprung from a life sentence in prison so that he can knock over a casino along the California-Nevada border. It's easy to miss, but notice the first minute of this picture closely: it's of course the Governor -- bought off by a mobster -- who gets Roy released from his life sentence, indicating that the corruption has finely infested the top of the social order. This is the usual tough-minded, whistle-blowing gangster-picture stuff that Warner Bros. specialized in. But there's also something else at work here, perhaps something new: one gets the sense that what happens to Roy in this movie has been engineered from On High, in advance . . . in other words, he's in the Jaws of Fate. And thus we're in the unforgiving world of Film Noir.
More than the opening scene, it's Bogart who almost single-handedly invents film noir with his groundbreaking work in *High Sierra*. Not cocky like Cagney and Muni, not psychopathic like the early Edward G. Robinson, not as smooth as Raft, Bogart is a ruthless professional with a wide stripe of sentimentality. His Roy never shirks from killing, but he doesn't get off on it. He's more a rebel than a gangster, a poetic soul denied respectability, a man longing for the innocence of his youth. Unfortunately, he thinks he finds in the personage of a transplanted Okie farm-girl (Joan Leslie) a reasonable facsimile of that innocence. Competing for his affections is Ida Lupino, a sour "dime-a-dance girl" who's been up, down, and around the block a time or three. She's the baggage that comes with the two new-generation hoods whom Bogart is assigned to babysit for the casino heist. Not until later in the picture does Bogart recognize Lupino's better suitability to his own temperament and experience. (They share in common, among other things, suicidal impulses, a desire to escape a corrupted world.)
Roy Earle was a new type of character -- the truly romantic criminal. Bogart would play variations on Earle throughout his career, though he rarely exceeded his triumph here. And while I've given the actor much of the credit, some more credit must be extended to the screenwriter, John Huston. *High Sierra* was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Oh, and did I mention that the movie -- aside from its importance in American film history, yadda yadda -- is quite simply a good time? Witty dialogue, great on-location direction by Raoul Walsh, a cute dog, and a climactic car chase that wouldn't be equaled until 1968's *Bullitt*, are just some of this movie's other virtues.
"High Sierra" was the film that changed the course of Bogart's career and lifted him up to stardom…
As Earle, Bogart was expanding on the criminal characterization he had already mastered in a dozen earlier films, giving it greater depth by adding contrasting elements of warmth and compassion to compensate the dominant violence…
Bogart helps a clubfooted girl, Velma (Joan Leslie), who repays him only with disregard and indifference…
Bogart's interpretation already showed signs of the special qualities that were to become an important part of his mystique in a few more films…
Here, for the first time, was the human being outside society's laws who had his own private sense of loyalty, integrity, and honor… Bogart's performance turns "High Sierra" into an elegiac film…
As a film, "High Sierra" has other notable qualities, particularly Ida Lupino's strong and moving performance as Marie, the girl who brings out Roy Earle's more human emotions…
The movie was remade as a Western, "Colorado Territory," with Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo, and as a crime film in "I Died a Thousand Times," with Jack Palance and Shelley Winters in the Bogart and Lupino roles… Neither came up to the stylish treatment given "High Sierra" by director Raoul Walsh from an exceptionally good script by John Huston and W. R. Burnett…
# Humphrey Bogart's's part in this movie was originally intended for Paul Muni. Muni did not like the first draft of the screenplay which was authored solely by John Huston and given to him by Hal B. Wallis, so Wallis got the book's author W.R. Burnett to assist John Huston in a second rewrite. This rewrite was presented to Paul Muni who still disliked it and turned the movie and the role down completely. In the meantime, On May 4th, 1940, Humphrey Bogart sent a telegram to Hal B. Wallis reiterating his continuing desire, which he had mentioned several months earlier, to play the part of Roy Earle. After Muni turned down the script the next person on the list for Warner Brothers was George Raft. Bogart, knowing that Raft was trying to change his image and move away from gangster roles, found out about this and mentioned to Raft when he saw him next that the studio was trying to get him do another gangster movie where the gangster gets shot at the end. Raft marched into Hal B. Wallis office and flatly refused to do the movie. Bogart finally ended up with the role he wanted all along by default.
# This was the last movie Humphrey Bogart made where he did not receive top billing. The studio thought that Ida Lupino should have top billing given the fact that she had been such a big hit in They Drive by Night (1940) and so her name ended up above Bogart's on the title card. Bogart was reportedly unhappy about receiving second billing but never complained.
# "Pard" played by "Zero the Dog" was Humphrey Bogart’s dog in real life.
SPOILER: In the climactic scene, Humphrey Bogart's character slides 90 feet down a mountainside to his death. His stunt double, Buster Wiles, bounced a few times going down the mountain and wanted another take to do better. "Forget it," said Raoul Walsh. "It's good enough for the 25-cent customers."