As nearly everyone seems to know, Humphrey Bogart became a romantic star-leading man with the success of Casablanca (1943), in the role first offered to, and rejected by, George Raft, at that moment still a bigger star than Bogart on the Warner Bros. lot. What less people perhaps remember is that Bogart had already become an A-list star with the triumph two years earlier of another movie-role George Raft also turned down first: the over-the-hill modern outlaw Roy Earle in Raoul Walsh’s memorable 1941 gangster tragedy scripted by John Huston and W.R. Burnett, HIGH SIERRA (available on DVD). Among vigorous pioneer Walsh’s most representative and affecting films, it features transfixing, transcendent performances by Bogart and Ida Lupino…
When I first saw High Sierra, at age 13, I liked it a lot; in my new index-card file of movies I’d seen, I noted: “Very well acted and directed fugitive-on-the-run melodrama; fast and exciting.” Nine years later, I saw the film again, added to my card an “Exceptional” rating plus: “The last in the 1930’s-style Warner gangster films, with Bogart in the role of a disillusioned, aging gangster the world has passed by. Beautiful in its classic simplicity and epic conception, brilliantly played, superbly directed.” In the next three years, I saw High Sierra twice more, adding: “Certainly one of Walsh’s masterpieces, a deeply moving tragedy; Bogart’s performance of the doomed man is a masterpiece in itself. Among the great American films.”
Revisiting the picture over the years, I have been struck by its disturbing subversiveness: virtually everyone but Bogart’s and Lupino’s characters are betrayers, cowards or phonies of one kind or another. While the media calls him “Mad Dog Earle,” he is in fact the most sensitive person in the movie besides Lupino, who loves him though she knows he doesn’t really love her that much. He’s stuck on a young crippled girl (Joan Leslie), pays for the operation that cures her, then finds she’s not remotely interested in him romantically. Lupino is there for him through it all.
Apart from the writing and direction which make Earle a classic outsider in the mesh of a self-constructed trap headed for annihilation, there is Bogart: one of the previous few American actors who could play a thinking man. Along those lines, Orson Welles used to joke that it was tough to find an American star “who looked like he’d ever read a book.” Bogart did; which is why he often later on played reporters, writers and directors—-people who, ostensibly, read. This particular quality of the actor’s combined with the chemistry of the other components to High Sierra creates a disturbing frisson: Bogart as the self-aware tragic outlaw hero of mythic stature, like the part-legendary martyrs of Irish folk-songs or, for that matter, of Westerns. Indeed, Walsh himself remade High Sierra as a very effective Western eight years later with Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo called Colorado Territory.
An inevitable glorification occurs through the way the story is laid out and how Walsh tells it as well as through the persona of Bogart encouraged to let his poetic side emerge in a tough-guy role. Walsh had an uncanny ability to bring out the sensitive-vulnerable aspect to even the most macho characters, and his achievement with Bogart—-although he played older in High Sierra—-set the tone for the rest of the actor’s career, laying the first defining foundation of a star-personality that would have wide-ranging reverberations for the next decade and a half before Bogie’s early death at 57. And far beyond: His being chosen by the recent American Film Institute vote as the number one most important star of the 20th century begins here. High Sierra is essential Bogart; and Walsh.