Made in 1940 but not released until 1941, High Sierra, directed by Raoul Walsh, is a stunning example of top talent working with the new technological possibilities and distilling from them the essential film noir themes. W. R. Burnett (author of Little Caesar) teamed with John Huston to write the script from Burnett's novel of 1940. They preserved the plot and most of the dialogue verbatim, but they cut the protagonist's socialist lectures about how the country had been corrupted. The era when a member of the Dillinger gang (Humphrey Bogart as Roy Earle) could appear conventionally heroic was over. This is, as Clarens writes, the essential "twilight of the gangster" picture. 10
Humphrey Bogart, one scholar has remarked, did not have the luck to star in the early crime movies or he would have been a celebrity sooner. Bogart had first appeared in movies in 1928. Bit it was only with the Broadway production of The Petrified Forest (1934) and his selection to play the same role in the movie (1936) that Bogart began to develop a special persona. The play describes his character as "well built but stoop-shouldered, with a vaguely thoughtful saturnine face. He is unmistakably condemned… the last great apostle of rugged individualism." As another character says, "He ain't a gangster, he's a real old-time desperado. Gangsters is foreign. He's an American." 6 Bogart repeated the role of charismatic angster in Dead End (Director: William Wyler, 1937), in which he befriends the tenement kids of Manhattan, warning them against a life of crime, and again in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938). Meeting Bogart in these roles, audiences were prepared to attribute depth and humanity to his character when he finally appeared in a bigger role in They Drive By Night (Raoul Walsh, 1940). Bogart had been appearing in four or five movies a year, so the public "knew" him when he starred in The Maltese Falcon and High Sierra, both appearing in 1941.
Under the opening credits appear the Sierra Nevada, rugged and untamable. Then a montage of increasingly tighter shots shows the power of nature's opponent, mankind, as figured by government, prison and a governor's pardon. Accompanied by music rather than voice-over, this framing information prepares us to meet Roy Earle, "a wayward farm boy who joined up with the Dillinger gang." 11 But Dillinger epitomized the Depression, which was almost over in 1940, so Earle finds himself part legend, part irrelevancy. On his release from prison, he goes to commune with nature in the local park. Then he begins a trip to California, land of the future, and a new narrative about nature takes shape. Stopping at the old family farm in Indiana, he finds the catfish no longer bite at the fishing hole, and the farmers are hayseeds. This "old nature" becomes a threat to Earle and he flees. The landscape changes as Earle crosses the country from lush Indiana to Mojave desert, emphasizing nature's harshness.
When Bogart arrives at the Sierras, even Walsh's best shots of the mountains seem bland, and we see that they were a cinematic as well as a larger technological problem. The Sierra resisted the infusion of production values that could be added by technique on a set. This problem Walsh solved for most of the movie by treating his landscape like an interior; when Bogart and his young collaborators are planning and botching the resort holdup, they pass most of their time inside cabins, and when Walsh used outside locations, he treated them like complex interiors.
Against this technology, Walsh posed the moral ambiguity of Roy Earle, who befriends a sweet, club-footed girl (Joan Leslie) for whom he plans to finance an operation. But his real soulmate is Marie (Ida Lupino), the gun-moll who sticks by him, but whom Earle never appreciates. This romantic triangle only exists because Earle is willing to sacrifice himself for the "old values."
Only in the final scenes did Walsh use the dark scenes typical of film noir. Here his fatalistic rendering of technology becomes unmistakable. A montage of shots depicts the communications and police grid closing down on Bogie, whom we now understand to embody an archaic notion of nature's goodness and nobility, like the park that initially delighted him. Walsh worked hard to subsume the Sierra to technique in a celebrated car chase (a double 360 degree shot following Earle, then the police, as they drive up a hair-pin curve in a mountain road), but the swirling dust only emphasizes his battle for control. When Earle reaches the "Road Closed" sign and scrambles up the cliff with a machine gun, we understand that nature is no refuge; there are no "Earle family farms," there is no longer a frontier or pastoral ideal. The technological matrix that traps Earle is constituted by police lines, the radio reporter, the searchlight and the report of an airplane coming to bomb him. Earle may be living a romantic narrative of alienation, but the Average Folks in this movie, who have turned out to see him die, live a narrative of technological improvement, against which Earle rebels.
6. Carlos Clarens, Crime Movies (New York: Da Capo Press, 1997), 142. 10. Clarens, 168. 11. Ibid.