I find it a bit strange that the List places “High Sierra” AFTER “The Maltese Falcon” when chronologically it was the other way round. “High Sierra” leads up to the “Maltese Falcon” in several ways. First of all through Humphrey Bogart himself. “High Sierra” was his first starring role in an A-list film, so in many ways this was his breakthrough and in a movie that did well too, both critically and at the box office. However Bogart was still typecast as a gangster so he got this part mostly because he fit the bill and since none of Warners other gangsters were available.
He is a hard man, Roy Earle, and Bogart plays him with an iron spine and a hard gaze but also with a soft spot and a tenderness that I have some difficulty seeing in James Cagney or Edward G Robinson. That may sound like a contradiction to combine those qualities in the same person, but I actually think it makes Roy Earle a complete person and not some gangster caricature. I believe in Bogart’s Earle and I am willing to root for him even though he is a criminal who readily shoots and talk freely of killing people.
And that brings up the second issue where this predates “The Maltese Falcon”. “High Sierra” is so film noir before the genre has really been defined. In that sense it has a lot more in common with “The Maltese Falcon” and its kin than the gangster flicks of the early thirties. It is almost less important that Earle is a gangster. It is just what he happens to be and with fatalistic gloom he has a job to do and like the doctor tells him, he is just racing to his doom. We know going in he is not going to make it, we just do not know exactly what it is that will bring him down. Is it the amateurs he has to work with (Alan Curtis and Arthur Kennedy as Babe and Red)? Or the two girls, Velma (Joan Leslie) the innocent girl he falls in love with or Marie (Ida Lupino) the tag-on to the gang and his essential soul mate. Or maybe the alleged cursed dog? Yeah, the gangsters always go down, but the style, fatalism and gloom is essentially film noir.
I would have loved to have seen “High Sierra” before “The Maltese Falcon”. It would have prepared me better and I could better have seen Bogart as the new star without the falcon in fresh memory.
But I did enjoy watching “High Sierra” and not just because of Bogart. Ida Lupino was top-billed as the star of the film, which may be odd in hindsight, but she was a true joy to watch and not just because she is a pretty girl. She did really well here. Joan Leslie probably did her part just as well, it is just a much less sympathetic character and we are made not to like her, though in a sense she is just being honest. Nobody asked Earle to pay for fixing her foot and it would be quite unfair if the price tag would be marriage to an essential stranger. The relationship was mainly a product of Earle’s imagination.
Another element to enjoy is the technical quality of the film. It is a general thing of the period that compared to the thirties movies have technically become much better by the early forties. That is all the way round, sharpness in the picture, excellent sound quality, crafty use of shadows and speed and timing in the action sequences, not least the car chase up the mountain. Speaking of cars, I fell in love with the car Earle is driving around in. It is totally awesome. I know you can get these gangster cars today, I once rented a Chrysler Cruiser (which for the record was terrible, it needed an entire parking lot to turn), but this one is so much more right. I want one of those.
The only glitch I can see really is near the end. Earle sends Marie and the dog off to Las Vegas on a bus before his own appointment with destiny. On the way Marie learns that Roy is trapped on a mountain by the police. A person in her right mind would think A) Better get as far away as possible B) Earle has enough to worry about as it is, do not add to it and C) Do not hand the police another weapon to catch him. If they announced that they had his girlfriend he would yield to protect her. Instead she returns and blunders right into the party. Roy Early would have lost anyway, but now she became the trigger. The problem for the movie is that it portrays Marie as a smart girl and hard boiled enough to do the right thing and what needs to be done. So to me, by returning in such a clumsy fashion she breaks character. That is annoying and unnecessary, but also the only blemish I can find on an otherwise excellent film.
As I wind my way through the movies of the forties I just know that I am going to enjoy it and particularly Humphrey Bogart.