By 1941, the gangster cycle was winding down.
After 1939's THE ROARING TWENTIES, Cagney would not star in another
true gangster film until 1949's WHITE HEAT. Edward G.
Robinson was giving up guns, dames and dough for more interesting
character parts, though, like Cagney, he would play one more classic
gangster part late in the decade in 1948's KEY LARGO.
space was opening up for Humphrey Bogart at Warner Brothers.
Muni's surprisingly short career was
coming to an end, and George Raft was unknowingly mangling his
career by refusing great parts. Both Muni and Raft
meaty part of Roy "Mad Dog" Earle in HIGH SIERRA; Muni didn't like the
Raft, reportedly egged on by Bogey himself, didn't want to play another
gangster who would get shot at the end.
Which meant Bogart, last man standing, got the part and finally became a star. He had had superior parts before - Duke Mantee in THE PETRIFIED FOREST, Baby Face Martin in DEAD END - but Roy Mantee was clearly his best-written part yet, and Bogart, who lobbied hard to star in the film, knew it was his make or break chance. Supported by Ida Lupino, who had just broken through a year before with THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, Bogart gave the best performance of his career to date, one which surprised and delighted audiences. Who would have expected back then that Bogart, second-string screen tough guy always getting slapped around by Cagney or Robinson, could display such sensitivity and heart? Other tough guys like Robinson and Cagney were dynamic, filled with kinetic energy. Bogart? Bogart had a soul.
That HIGH SIERRA impresses me less than many other Bogart films is just one of those things. All we film fans have our quirks, and we love some things and shrug our shoulders at others. I love Bogart's characterization of Roy Earle and I am happy to discover that I was wrong and audiences of the 1940s were right about Ida Lupino in THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT. She did deserve to be a star. Those audiences saw something in that over-the-top, hysterical turn as the murderous wife that I could not. They saw in her a promise, and she delivered on that promise in spades in HIGH SIERRA with a sweet, intelligent and subtle performance as the down and out gal who falls for Bogey.
I think, however, that I have been spoiled, however, by so many superior Bogart films such as THE MALTESE FALCON, CASABLANCA, THE BIG SLEEP, THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE... do I really have to name them all? HIGH SIERRA was one of the last major Bogart pictures I got to see growing up and it didn't live up to expectations. HIGH SIERRA is a good film, mind you, and an excellent start for Bogart's second career. It is also historically important for introducing a more nuanced shade of gangster into films, as well as a sense of isolation, doom and fatalism that would act as one of the links between the fading gangster cycle and the oncoming film noir cycle. But HIGH SIERRA just doesn't grab me. Add another half a star if you like. It probably deserves it. ½ - JB
COLORADO TERRITORY (1949) (Also directed by
I DIED A THOUSAND TIMES (1955)
IS THAT WHO I THINK IT IS?
HIGH SIERRA co-stars so many outstanding character actors, including Henry Travers, Paul Harvey, Barton MacLane and Donald MacBride. One forgotten character actress in HIGH SIERRA is Minna Gombell. She is best known for her unforgettable turn as Mrs. Oliver Hardy in one of Laurel and Hardy's funniest features, BLOCK-HEADS. In HIGH SIERRA, she plays Paul Harvey's wife in one scene and is as sharp-tongued as ever.
BEHIND THE SCREEN
It looks like Warners knew Bogey was a hit but didn't have anything quite ready for him yet. It's possible they rushed him into his next film, the circus picture THE WAGONS ROLL AT MIDNIGHT, simply to keep him on the screen until they could find something better. In it, he plays, of all things, a lion tamer. One of the film's taglines was "a three ring cyclone of romance, drama and thrills!" Oh, buh-rother! It was essentially a remake of KID GALAHAD, a film in which Bogart supported Eddie G. Robinson and Bette Davis.
Luckily, the next film to come along after THE WAGONS ROLL AT MIDNIGHT would be THE MALTESE FALCON, although, once again, Bogey would only get a great part, this time private eye Sam Spade, after George Raft turned it down. You would think that Raft, a dancer, would know better than to keep shooting himself in the foot like that!