Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) is released from prison after eight years, his pardon bought and paid for by ailing mob boss “Big” Mac (Donald MacBride) – perhaps the only eminence grice in American crime cinema who shares a name with a hamburger – and given instructions to make contact with his new partners Red (Arthur Kennedy) and the curiously named Babe (Alan Curtis). Along with inside man Mendoza (Cornel Wilde), this is the crew “Big” Mac has lined up for a casino robbery.
Roy finds them holed up in a cabin at an out-of-season resort, bickering over dance hall girl Marie (Ida Lupino). He is immediately distrustful of their callow behaviour and lack of professionalism (thus establishing jitterbugging loudmouths as the 1940s equivalent of shell-suited chavs), nor is he enamoured of Marie’s clingy attachment to him. Things are complicated when he helps out disenfranchised farmer Pa (Henry Travers), en route to L.A. to lodge with family after the repossession of his farm, and finds himself sympathetic to – and then falling for – the old man’s granddaughter, the club-footed Velma (Joan Leslie).
Nicknamed “Mad Dog” by the press, particularly after the heist goes south and fatalities ensue, Roy Earle is both hard as nails and a man of honour. He stands no nonsense from Red and Babe, but by his own admission is soft-hearted towards Marie and the mongrel who befriends them. He remains loyal to “Big” Mac even as the treacherous Healy (Jerome Cowan) tries to depose him on his deathbed. He’s a friend to Pa, who recognises him as an old-school on-the-level type. He foots the bill (pardon the pun) for Velma’s surgery, even though she spurns him for an oily insurance salesman with a pencil moustache and a nasty suit.
Adapted from W.R. Burnett’s novel by John Huston and Burnett himself (Burnett’s novels include ‘Little Caesar’, ‘Dark Hazard’ and ‘The Asphalt Jungle’, all filmed) and directed by Raoul Walsh, ‘High Sierra’ marked Bogart’s move from memorable supporting roles (‘Angels with Dirty Faces’, ‘The Roaring Twenties’) to bona fide leading man status. Released in 1941, Bogart went on to star in ‘The Maltese Falcon’, ‘Casablanca’, ‘Sahara’, ‘To Have and Have Not’ and ‘The Big Sleep’ in the next five years alone.
In many respects, ‘High Sierra’ – never mind its gangster trappings – is pure melodrama. The crippled heroine who turns into a vituperative good-time girl the moment her club-foot is cured. The good-time girl who turns out to have a heart of gold. The hideously stereotyped comic relief black character. The heist that turns ugly. The yellow-belly who squeals. The wound that slows our hero down. The net that closes in on him. The sentimental commitment to a woman and a dog that proves his undoing. And our hero himself, the career criminal with a code of honour that suddenly doesn’t seem to count for much.
And this is what makes ‘High Sierra’ a classic, flawed and clichéd as it is in more than one respect. Roy Earle is a man who has outlived his times. Time has passed him by in jail. When he’s released in the opening scene, he immediately goes to a park; later, he accepts the fact that he’s been pardoned on Mac’s coin and is in his pocket. It’s not difficult to see the beginnings of Doc McCoy three decades later in ‘The Getaway’. Roy’s old-time ways find vicious contrast with the juvenility of Red and Babe, not unlike Thornton’s enforced association with T.C. and Coffer in ‘The Wild Bunch’. Roy’s final stand is measured against the timeless grandeur of the mountains, like Steve Judd’s in ‘Ride the High Country’. Roy Earle is the prototype Sam Peckinpah hero. “Times sure have changed,” Mac observes at one point, to which Roy responds, “Yeah … sometimes I feel like I don’t know what it’s all about anymore.” Right there, my friends: right there.
In a moment heavy with foreshadowing, Doc Banton tells Roy: “Remember what Johnny Dillinger said about guys like you and him? He said you're just rushing toward death. That’s it – you’re rushing towards death.” In movies like ‘High Sierra’ and ‘White Heat’, Raoul Walsh began to tap into an aesthetic that Peckinpah would render as visceral cinematic poetry.