Saturday, May 31, 2008

Raoul Walsh's "High Sierra" (1941)

Raoul Walsh's "High Sierra" is a one of a kind film noir. Rather than putting star Humphrey Bogart into a dirty, run down, urban city setting, this film transplants all the qualities of film noir into the great mountains of the Sierras. Among the beauty of nature the grim downfall of one of the most notable criminals is about to occur.

Notorious criminal Roy "Mad Dog" Earle, portrayed by Bogart, is released from prison and is put right back into the caper game. This time the idea is to knock off a luxurious hotel resort at the peak of their business. Along the way he makes connections he may regret making. On one side there's the sweet and pure Velma (Joan Leslie). On the other, the hard to resist bombshell Marie (Ida Lupino). There's a clear distinction between these two women and it's obvious that it wasn't by mistake. John Huston, the screenwriter of this classic noir, does a great job painting the difference between the two. Velma appears to be sweet, soft, and kind on the outside but ultimately leads Earle into thinking she is interested in him. Marie, on the other hand, throws herself all over Earle, and he really doesn't realize her dedication and love for him until it's far too late.

The downfall of Earle's character will go down among the classic noir downfalls. Sam Earle was such an interesting character to watch. The moral ambiguity seen so often in noir was ever so present right from the get go. Earle stops to chat with farmers near his old place, cares for animals, is kind to young children, and helps hard luck travelers like Velma and her family. On the other hand, he's a criminal. He's a killer. Perhaps this is simply the portrait the media portrayed of him. This concept is also present in the film through the medium of journalism. This makes his collapse harder to watch. You realize that the picture painted of him is not true to form. He isn't really a "Mad Dog". The public thinks different of him because they don't have the inside point of view we as viewers have. It makes you think twice about the media today, in a way. Perhaps there is some, or a lot, of good in some persons who are painted as being truly awful people. It's an interesting concept that is really just briefly touched upon in this film.

In terms of the technical aspects of this film, I can't complain at all. Bogart is great as the ambiguous Earle and Ida Lupino comes alive as the emotional and dedicated follower. The conclusion of this film is thrilling with some very high octane car chases followed by a near epic mountain side standoff. Walsh did a great job shooting this picture. It's a different type of setting but he was able to make it film noir, despite the unavailability of some defining noir aspects.

Overall, High Sierra is a different type of film noir than you're going to be used to seeing. It's funny, it's sweet, and it's dark, all at the same time. I would definitely consider it essential viewing for fans of the genre as this film is important to the genre and the career of Humphrey Bogart.


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