HIGH SIERRA (Raoul Walsh, 1941)

There isn’t one of us who is unfamiliar with High Sierra, the good, solid film directed by Raoul Walsh from a script by John Huston and W. R. Burnett, adapted from the latter’s novel. This is the one about Roy Earle, a thief whose toughness invites the press nickname of “Mad Dog” that his streaks of civility and compassion, even poetry, dispute. Earle’s pardon releases him from an Indiana prison, usurping his ability to escape on his own—the result of a power manipulation behind the scenes so that his boss can put him in charge of a heist. Kris Kristofferson might have had this film in mind when he penned his most famous lyrics: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose./ Freedom ain’t worth nothing, but it’s free.” Throughout, the film shows that in the depressed American socio-scape the freedom that is pursued and hungered for doesn’t really exist, not for those at the bottom of the mountains, not for Earle, who scales Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the Sierras, only to be shot in the back and killed.
     I have no intention of discussing at length a film that we all know so well. Rather, I wish to address two points: one a factual mistake that has been attached to this film; the other, an open point of interpretation of what has been recently regarded as a closed matter.
     High Sierra is most celebrated for giving Humphrey Bogart the leading role at last and thus paving the way to his stardom later the same year as Sam Spade in Huston’s brilliant The Maltese Falcon. Roy Earle allows Bogart to give a lovely, involving performance, a thing of astuteness and grace. However, it is just plain wrong that Earle marks Bogart’s first starring role. That came four years earlier, in an even more important film than High Sierra, especially now, given the current Mexican immigration debate in the U.S. I am referring to Black Legion, which Archie Mayo directed from a script by Abem Finkel and William Wister Haines that was based on an Oscar-nominated original story by Robert Lord that, in turn, was based on an actual Michigan murder by an organization of hooded fascists. Bogart plays Frank Taylor, a factory worker who, enraged when he is passed over for a promotion that goes instead to a fellow named Dombrowski, joins the xenophobic group of superpatriots. Bogart creates a profound portrait of a simple-minded man that the National Board of Review honored at year’s end—as it would his Roy Earle and Sam Spade in 1941. Why may you not have heard of Black Legion? Its financial failure sent Bogart back to supporting roles.
     Although Bogart certainly has the central role in High Sierra, top billing went to Ida Lupino, who had scored a personal triumph in another Walsh film the previous year, They Drive by Night. For the record, Lupino is superb as Marie Garson, a taxi dancer looking to “crash out,” “just a woman with a hungry heart.” When Earle, whom Marie loves, is taken down, Lupino’s acting shatters. At year’s end the National Board of Review likewise cited two performances of hers: this one, and her Ellen Creed in Ladies in Retirement.
     The final segment of my informal comments about High Sierra concerns Willie Best’s Algernon, the young servant attending to the gang in their remote cabins. Nowadays commentators disdain the portrayal of Algernon’s lazy, lackadaisical manner. Doubtless, Walsh erred by consigning the character to a regrettable stereotype too typical of the way that African-American males were portrayed in Hollywood movies for too long. (And at times still are.) But that was hardly Huston and Burnett’s intent, and possibly not even Walsh’s intent, and in any case something of the actual intent punctures the primitive, bug-eyed impression that Best’s behavior makes. In one exceptionally witty scene, we see Algernon Tom Sawyerishly asleep on the dock while a convoluted contraption enables him even while snoozing to catch a fish. Yes, Algernon puts forth a minimal effort, but one that ironically underscores his capacity to get the job done. By delicious contrast, the two white men who are constantly fighting over Marie, we are told, “never catch anything,” no matter how persistently they try with their fishing poles. It is also worth noting that Algernon’s capture of the fish is one of the few times in this film that something pans out.

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