Blu-ray Review: High Sierra

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Raoul Walsh | CAST: Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, Alan Curtis, Arthur Kennedy, Joan Leslie, Henry Hull, Henry Travers, Jerome Cowan, Cornel Wilde
RELEASE DATE: 10/12/21 | PRICE: DVD $14.99 Blu-ray $19.99
BONUSES: Colorado Territory, director Raoul Walsh’s 1949 western remake of High Sierra; conversation on Walsh between critics Dave Kehr and Farran Smith Nehme; 2019 documentary The True Adventures of Raoul Walsh; 2003 featurette on the making of High Sierra; 1997 documentary on Bogart; new interview with film historian Miriam J. Petty about actor Willie Best; video essay featuring excerpts from a 1976 AFI interview with novelist and co-screenwriter W. R. Burnett; 1944 radio adaptation
SPECS: NR | 100 mins | Crime drama | 1:37 | monaural

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie   | Audio | Video  | Overall 

“Things sure have changed” — a line of dialogue in High Sierra (1941) and also a summation of its main theme about the private life of a “bandit” gangster. The film is one of those works that transcends its heavily melodramatic aspect through the combined talents of its director, Raoul Walsh, and its star, Humphrey Bogart.

At 42, Bogart had been waiting for years to “break through.” High Sierra gave him the star-making vehicle that he needed and was reinforced by his next role, Sam Spade, in The Maltese Falcon. Bogie had played his share of criminals by ’41 (most notably in The Petrified Forest in 1936), but High Sierra found him playing the American cinema’s first fully sympathetic “mobster” figure — a thief who was kind and generous to old folk, the disabled and even a friendly dog named “Pard.” (Played by Bogart’s own dog at the time.)

His character, “Mad Dog” Roy Earle, is a country boy from Brookfield, Indiana, who looks older than his years, thanks to a cropped haircut that reveals he’s going gray. Earle is indeed a middle-aged crook who throughout the film reminisces with older lawbreakers about how times were simpler decades before.

Earle was the first movie “gangster” (the character actually more of a bank-robbing “bandit” than a gangster, his creator, writer W.R. Burnett, noted) whom viewers were allowed to unabashedly sympathize with. Earlier silver screen mobsters existed to give vicarious thrills to the average moviegoer, especially in the early 1930s when the Depression was at its worst. High Sierra encouraged identification with Earle, thus making his inevitable killing by the police all the more tragic.

We view Earle through the eyes of those to whom he shows kindness, including his eventual girlfriend Marie (Ida Lupino, Private Hell 36). Marie is herself a figure adrift who relates to Earle’s statements about “crashing out” (not out of prison, but out of society and a predetermined future as a sort of low-rent “dame”).

This package contains High Sierra and Walsh’s Western remake of 1949, Colorado Territory. The latter is a great Western but it pales beside the Bogart film as an adaptation of the W.R. Burnett source novel (which was adapted once again in 1955 for I Died a Thousand Times, starring Jack Palance.)

The two-disc set is loaded with extras. One featurette hails from an earlier U.S. DVD of the film. In this mini-doc it is noted that High Sierra reunited Walsh with two of the three stars of his earlier They Drive by Night (Bogart and Lupino). It is also noted that the film marked the beginning of the friendship between Bogart and John Huston (who coscripted and very shortly thereafter cast Bogart in the lead of his directorial debut, The Maltese Falcon).

Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino in High Sierra

One of the two original onscreen supplements created for this set is a discussion about the career of actor Willie Best, who played a supporting role in the film. Miriam J. Petty offers background on Best, including his early career in vaudeville and the fact that his stage work was done for primarily Black audiences.

After remarking that Best most likely got so many roles in film because of his resemblance to Stepin Fetchit, Petty stresses that the tradition of African Americans in servile roles continues today (with images of Green Book and the Kevin Hart vehicle Get Hard being shown).

The other supplement created for this package is a talk between film historians Dave Kehr and Farran Smith Nehme. Nehme maintains that one of the distinguishing elements of Walsh’s films is that you can “see his characters think.” This aspect of “watching people making decisions” is explored by the two critics, with Kehr calling Walsh “the philosopher” of Hollywood directors, as his protagonists exhibit “an American, naive existentialism.” Kehr’s summation? “There is no doom in Walsh.”

Another supplement, put together from 1976 audio interviews conducted with W.R. Burnett by the American Film Institute, provides the POV of the novelist-screenwriter who was a key figure in gangster movie history. (He wrote the novel Little Caesar, coscripted Scarface and coscripted and wrote the novel that inspired High Sierra.) Burnett reveals that the original title of High Sierra was “Rushing Toward Death,” a phrase used by John Dillinger to explain what criminals were really doing. (The phrase is used in the dialogue of Walsh’s film adaptation.)

Burnett reviews the history of the film from the point where Paul Muni bought the screen rights to the book to the moment when Bogart snagged the role from George Raft (whom he convinced that starring in High Sierra would be a terrible decision). Burnett makes an interesting distinction about his lead character. Roy Earle, he says, is not a gangster, since he works independently of a gang in the traditional sense. He is instead a “bandit,” like Dillinger (whom, it is mentioned in the film, Earle knew), working as a criminal “free agent.”

A South Bank Show documentary on Bogart finds his son Stephen dealing with his dad’s legacy. The doc moves through Bogart’s life from his privileged childhood and his early roles as a “pretty boy” to his eventual stardom as a tough-guy actor. The most interesting segments in the doc concern Bogart’s initial outrage over the HUAC blacklist and his eventual capitulation, and the fact that his marriage to Lauren Bacall was “cooling off” before he contracted the cancer that killed him.

The 2019 full-length feature documentary The True Adventures of Raoul Walsh by Marilyn Ann Moss chronicles the very colorful life of the director starting with his own, “enchanted childhood,” as his parents entertained as guests the Barrymores, John L. Sullivan and Enrico Caruso. After we learn of Walsh’s work as an actor in early film and his learning the ropes as a director by assisting D.W. Griffith (for whom he shot a film about Pancho Villa, in which there were actual execution scenes that were not faked for the camera), the film historians on hand praise Walsh’s ability to jump genres and make a great film in each one — it’s hard to believe the same man made the light-hearted Bing Crosby musical Going Hollywood, Errol Flynn vehicles including Gentleman Jim, the Jack Benny comedy The Horn Blows at Midnight and the “psychological Western” Pursued.

Peter Bogdanovich notes that Walsh made “the last great gangster pictures” with High Sierra and the James Cagney classic White Heat (1949). In a vintage interview, Lee Marvin sketches a portrait of Walsh on-set, carefully rolling a cigarette after calling “Action!” Jane Russell explains what was going on — Walsh, she says, rolled the cigarette and turned his back to the action because he “was listening” to the film as he shot it. A fascinating remark, given that the director began his career in the silent era and is indeed praised by most critics and fans for the beauty of his visuals.

Buy or Rent High Sierra

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”