High Sierra (1941)

Although High Sierra (1941) is likely perceived by the public as a ‘Humphrey Bogart’ picture, it is not entirely fair to see it that way. 

Indeed, High Sierra is notable in many ways for how Ida Lupino’s character develops, and how she is portrayed. 

Viewers will also note that Ida has top billing too, before Bogart, and that is worth something!

Critically, Ida Lupino plays a fairly ‘straight’ role here, and hers is not a character the readily fits into the various tropes and stereotypes which it is often said, dominate the female portrayals in the style.

By ‘straight role’ we can confidently say the following of Ida Lupino in High Sierra ― her character is consistent and develops across the course of the action. 

While not cast as a femme fatale, or domestic simp of some sort, Ida's character, Marie, falls in love with Humphrey Bogart’s character, Roy, and remains true to the end. The entire episode is presented as her story, and her journey, with the viewer experience being hers.

Conversely, Bogart’s character is typical of a certain type of male from this era of film noir ― he may try to be doing good, but fate and his lower nature are in fact in control. 

This means Roy Earle (Bogart) regularly makes wrong decisions, and not just when he is railroaded into them. 

Humphrey Bogart (Roy) and Joan Leslie (Velma) in "High Sierra" 1941

The greatest inconsistency in High Sierra comes from Roy’s own strange love interest, and attraction to the young girl Velma, played by Joan Leslie.

First, the infatuation is barely age appropriate and second, the love interest only really materialises fully in Roy’s consciousness when he sees that she has a malformed foot, which requires medical attention. 

Roy’s ‘love’ then becomes predictably noble and protective. He barely notices Velma when she is seated, but when she stands and moves, and he sees her condition for the first time, the way he is awe-struck is a protectionism that he can’t distinguish from love. Combined with the vacillating and quite noble attempts to do the right thing, this makes Roy Earle, a convicted criminal, a pretty weak and sometimes awful character.

Sure, Roy saves Ida Lupino from the violence of the other men in their appalling little mountain gang. And even though Ida's character loves him for it, it is barely enough to qualify him as a decent person, because it is almost as if he were doing it for himself, and not her.

Willie Best as Algernon in "High Sierra"
If he wanted to do any saving in fact, Humphrey Bogart as Roy Earle could have saved one of the hard-working, unappreciated African-American actors of Hollywood's "Golden Era, Willie Best, from the awful stereotyping in the character Algernon, who is seen as ignorant, lazy and comic.

That aside, Humphrey Bogaret as Roy Earle does manage to acvhieve something that film noir was always pulling off: the bad guy as lead.

Not only is Roy a convicted and unrepentant robber, but he resorts to force when he can, and makes little attempt to change his ways. His love for Velma is confusing, because it makes him seem so sympathetic for a while. At the same time, Humphrey Bogart has a handsome and kind face, with which it is hard not to sympathise.

He hangs with a bad lot however, and their robbery plans are lousy.

And worse is to come! Roy manages to save Velma, and he hires a specialist to fix her foot. The greatest curiosity of High Sierra occurs after this operation when Velma transforms from a demure, shy and polite young woman who barely speaks, to a fairly brash party girl ― it is as if the fact that can now dance liberates her from being a nobody, and she becomes thoroughly unlikeable in a blink.

Ida Lupino’s (Marie’s) method of saving Roy from himself and the grubby hands of fate is far more normalised and typical ― she loves him and continues to do so, showing emotional consistency and fidelity in the face of his vague attempts to control himself and elude fate. She holds her head in her hands, and he drives on through crime after crime, actually believing he is doing the right thing by her and everybody else.

That’s something that can be so exciting about film noir characters ― they can be tough, and able to handle the insults and the beatings they take from other people ― but never can they elude fate, sometimes even when real love is at hand ― as here. Marie’s love is real and worthwhile. It’s better than Roy’s and it’s better than Velma’s.

Yes, and Roy has worse luck than that. Twice during a hold up, does a law enforcement official walk in! What are the chances? Well, it always happens to Roy

And at the end of the picture, Roy completes a high speed car chase up into the mountains, including some speeded up footage and charming mountain photography. 

Exiting from his car at the ROAD CLOSED sign which forces the end if the drama, Roy instinctively runs UP towards the top of the mountain. Now I've seen this film a lot over my life, and even when I was a very young person watching it on television, I used to wonder why Roy didn't take the more obvious - yet less exciting - escape route - and opt to run DOWN the mountain?

Roy Earle admires the mountains in "High Sierra"

It is because the Sierra Mountains are here the real stars. High Sierra was in part shot by director Raoul Walsh on location at Whitney Portal, Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada of California.

The filmography is great as are the jutting angles, panoramas and various viewpoints, one of which Roy escapes to at the climax. He's of course gunned down from someone even higher up the mountain than he is, but the point is that he is always aiming high, aiming to be free.

The cops are dumb, but Roy is dumber!

The mountains are a symbol of this, but a heel like Roy is never going to be free, not until he's dead. Losers like this just can't escape from themselves, even if they have the good fortune on screen to be played by Humphrey Bogart. 

"Useless Dog" at large in the beautiful Sierra Nevada.

Right at the end, the action takes another twist towards a further common-enough film noir theme: the role of the press. 

Here, Roy gets irritated at being called 'Mad Dog' by the newspapers that are covering his story, but even if it is not 100% fair, he really does need to be called something derogatory.

Perhaps 'Useless Dog' might have been more apt?

Roy Earle: I can't see nothing wrong with it. If the boys don't blow up on me, it's a cinch. But Mac, it's gonna make an awful big noise in the newspaper.

Big Mac: Well, that's your headache, not mine. The jewelery that's all I'm interested in. look my friend, once you get your mitts on it, keep your mitts on it. Deliver it right here. If you're hot, telephone. This caper means a lot to me. I spent a pile of dough setting it up and I'm in deep. So don't let me down Roy.

Roy Earle: I never let nobody down, Mac. You know that.

Big Mac: Oh I know, I know. But I've been dealing with such a lot of screwballs lately, young twerps, soda-jerks and jitterbugs. Why it's a relief to talk to a guy like you. Yeah... all the A-1 guys are gone. Dead or in Alcatraz. If I only had four guys like you Roy... this knock-off would be a waltz. Yup... times have sure changed.

Humphrey Bogart as Roy Earle, second fiddle in "High Sierra" (1941)

Roy: [reading from a newspaper] Listen to this: "Police are hot on his trail. He's traveling with a woman called Marie and a little white mongrel dog who answers to the name of Pard"

Marie: Mendoza?

Roy: Yeah, he squawked. I should have taken care of him when he followed me out. Look at the tag they hung on me? "Mad Dog" Earle, them newspaper rats!

 High Sierra on Wikipedia

1 comment:

  1. Classic Warner Bros. music, amazing Owens Valley locales (along with soCal mountains, lakes). I'm fascinated with the locales: I'd love to know where the "Roy Earle admires the mountains in "High Sierra" photo above was taken. My guess is around Keeler, off Hy 136. I'll watch close the next time I view the film.