Humphrey Bogart played yet another gangster in Raoul Walsh’s HIGH SIERRA, but this time things were different. Bogie had spent the past five years at Warner Brothers mired in supporting gangster parts and leads in ‘B’ movies, but when he read John Huston and W.R. Burnett’s screenplay, he knew this role would put him over the top. James Cagney and Paul Muni both turned it down, and George Raft was penciled in to star, until Bogie put a bug in his ear and Raft also refused it. Bogart lobbied hard for the role of Roy Earle, and his instincts were right: not only did HIGH SIERRA make him a star at last, it led to him getting the lead in his next picture THE MALTESE FALCON , the directorial debut of his good friend Huston.
Roy Earle is an old-school criminal pardoned from an Indiana prison thanks to the machinations of gang boss Big Mac, who wants Roy to take charge of a big-time money and jewel heist at a California resort. Roy’s been locked up a long time, and this caper will finance the freedom he’s always longed for, a way to “crash out” of the life for good. Along the way, he has an encounter with the Goodhue family, farm people like himself, whose pretty daughter Velma was born with a club foot. Roy’s enchanted by the young girl, and gets the idea in his head to pay for her operation and ask her to marry him after his job’s complete.
Roy heads to a camping grounds in the Sierra mountains to meet his new cohorts, a pair of inexperienced hotheads named Red and Babe, who’ve brought along a “dime-a-dance” girl, Marie, and “inside man” Mendoza. The veteran gangster doesn’t like the idea of having a dame around, but the girl, who has nowhere else to go except back to her sordid dance hall life, persuades him to let her stay. A mutt in the camp called Pard starts following Roy around, and the two kind of adopt each other, despite warnings from caretaker Algernon that the pooch brings bad luck to whomever he attaches himself.
Things start to go downhill, as Roy returns to the now-cured Velma, who rejects him. The heist goes awry when a security guard shows up and Roy is forced to plug him with lead. A police chase ensues, with the panicked Mendoza tagging along, leading to death for the wet-behind-the-ears thugs. Roy and Marie manage to escape, but Mendoza rats, and the manhunt is on. Big Mac dies of a heart attack, and his lieutenant Kranmer tries to pull a fast one, resulting in another notch on Roy’s belt. He sends Marie away and makes it for the High Sierras, where “Mad Dog” Earle (as the papers have salaciously dubbed him) makes his last stand….
Everyone seems to be damaged goods in the powerhouse screenplay by Huston and Burnett. Roy Earle can’t shake his past, no matter what he does, and in the end finds his elusive freedom only in death. Marie, played by top-billed Ida Lupino , is a broken soul from an abusive home, who creates a family of her own with Roy and Pard. Velma (Joan Leslie) was born with a deformity, yet when she has her operation turns ungrateful towards Roy. Red and Babe (Arthur Kennedy, Alan Curtis ) are wanna-be tough guys in way over their heads. Kranmer (Barton MacLane) is an ex-cop now on the wrong side of the law. Big Mac (Donald MacBride) suffers from a “bum ticker” due to his life of excess. Even Pa and Ma Goodhue (Henry Travers, Elisabeth Risdon), decent folks they may be, are fleeing a life of poverty in their native Ohio.
Walsh’s direction is top-notch, as always, and DP Tony Gaudio gets some breathtaking location shots on Mount Whitney. The rest of the cast features Henry Hull as a crime doctor, Willie Best in a rare dramatic role as Algernon, young Cornel Wilde as Mendoza, Jerome Cowan as a reporter, and Eddie Acuff, Dorothy Appleby, Wade Boteler, Spencer Charters, James Flavin, Isabel Jewell, and George Lloyd. Pard is played by Bogie’s real-life pooch Zero! And stuntman Buster Wiles appears on camera as the sharpshooter who nails Roy… and performs the stunt of tumbling down that treacherous mountain, which basically means Wiles kills himself!
There’s a strong MALTESE FALCON connection, with Bogart, Huston, Cowan, and MacLane all participating in the film noir classic. But it’s HIGH SIERRA that made that movie possible, again thanks to George Raft, who turned down the part of Sam Spade to appear in Walsh’s next film, MANPOWER. Walsh remade this film eight years later as a Western, COLORADO TERRITORY, with Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo, and the story was refilmed in 1955 as I DIED A THOUSAND TIMES with Jack Palance and Shelley Winters. I haven’t seen the former, but have viewed the latter, and there’s no comparison. HIGH SIERRA is mountains above it, and remains a bona fide gangster classic.