The movie that made Humphrey Bogart, at last, comes to Blu-ray in a special two-disc Criterion edition. Bogart's portrayal of aging gangster Roy "Mad Dog" Earle ranks among his best work, and High Sierra stands as one of director Raoul Walsh's finest films. Packed with atmosphere, uncommon warmth, and finely etched performances and capped by a thrilling mountain pursuit, this absorbing adaptation of W.R. Burnett's novel proves bad guys also can be good guys at heart. An impressive, brand-new restoration, solid audio, and an array of comprehensive supplements distinguish Criterion's Blu-ray presentation, which comes very Hghly Recommended.
The Maltese Falcon catapulted Humphrey Bogart onto Hollywood's A list, but the role of detective Sam Spade never would have come Bogart's way had it not been for High Sierra, which at last provided the journeyman actor with a juicy part that perfectly suited his persona. Director Raoul Walsh's searing portrait of Roy Earle, a lifelong criminal who hopes to pull off one last heist, might seem like a typical hard-boiled Warner gangster flick, but don't be fooled. High Sierra has a soul. There's as much heart and heartbreak in this adaptation of W.R. Burnett's novel than in any number of straight dramas, and when coupled with Walsh's patented brand of tension and excitement and Bogart's magnetism, the result is a classic and enduring motion picture.
Although most Warner gangster movies showcase compelling and fascinating figures like Little Caesar's Rico Bandello, The Public Enemy's Tommy Powers, The Roaring Twenties' Eddie Bartlett, and White Heat's Cody Jarrett, they're all unrepentant bad guys. Roy Earle breaks that mold. He's a "good" bad guy, a three-dimensional character to whom we can relate and for whom we can feel and root. Sure, he's involved in nefarious, illegal activities and has committed violent acts, but there's a warmth and genuine humanity about Roy that endears him to us. Tough yet tender, ruthless yet caring, and plagued by an aching loneliness and debilitating fatigue, Roy may be on the wrong side of the law, but he's really no different than any average Joe who tries to survive day to day. And it's that emotional core - not any fistfights, shootouts, or even a thrilling climactic pursuit - from which High Sierra draws its strength.
Sprung from prison by Big Mac (Donald MacBride), an aging, ill kingpin who engineers his pardon, Roy agrees to head-up a plot to rob a resort hotel in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Planning the crime is stressful, but Roy's toughest task is finessing the egos and hormones of his young, hotheaded cohorts, Red (Arthur Kennedy) and Babe (Alan Curtis), who lack the patience, restraint, and nerves to handle such a complex job. Roy views Babe's girlfriend Marie (Ida Lupino) as a dangerous distraction, but the sensitive, damaged young woman who's been beaten down by life (and Babe, too) appreciates Roy's maturity and quiet strength and forms an instant attachment to him.
Roy, however, only has eyes for Velma (Joan Leslie), the sweet, handicapped daughter of Pa Goodhue (Henry Travers), whom Roy meets by chance at a remote gas station. Drawn to her fresh-faced naïveté and wholesome decency, Roy vows to help Velma overcome her infirmity while Marie waits loyally in the wings. Of course, the robbery goes horribly wrong, and the violent fallout forces Roy to go on the run in a last-ditch effort to remain free and find the peace and security he's always craved.
Combining rough-and-tumble action with an emphasis on mood, atmosphere, and character development, Walsh expertly bridges the gap between the gangster movies of the 1930s and the burgeoning genre of film noir that would soon dominate the 1940s. Walsh also highlights the story's in-bred western elements, which would so intrigue him, he would remake High Sierra as a western eight years later, retooling the tale and calling it Colorado Territory. (The movie is included in the bonus features of this Criterion edition.) A thrilling and lengthy car chase up the rugged face of California's Mount Whitney (the highest peak in the contiguous 48 states) caps off the literate screenplay by Burnett and John Huston and provides High Sierra with a memorable and devastating denouement.
On the strength of her electrifying work in the previous year's They Drive by Night, Lupino received top billing in High Sierra, much to Bogart's chagrin. (He made sure he never would be billed second again.) Her earthy, intense, and passionate portrayal greatly enhances the film, but Bogart dominates the proceedings. As the aging criminal up against a new breed of cocky hoods ("Sometimes I feel like I don't know what it's all about anymore," Roy wistfully opines), Bogart projects a world-weary heaviness and cynical air that mask Roy's tortured soul and make his quest for beauty and purity in an ugly, tainted world doubly moving. After playing countless cardboard thugs for years in support of Cagney, Robinson, and Raft, the macho Bogart puts a kinder, gentler spin on the archetype they created, and before our eyes he at last becomes not just a star, but a romantic leading man. Within two years, the transformation would be complete with the release of Casablanca, and though Lupino can't quite generate the same crackling chemistry with Bogart that he would enjoy with Ingrid Bergman and especially Lauren Bacall, she makes a fantastic foil. It's just a shame the two would never share the screen again.
Bogart had to fight for the role, and only got it after Paul Muni turned it down and Bogart slyly convinced George Raft to pass on it. (The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca were two other notable - and boneheaded - Raft rejections.) Though he effortlessly carries the film on his slight, often hunched shoulders, Bogart fits in snugly with the strong supporting cast. In just his second film, Kennedy shines as the brash, boisterous Red, and in her first feature with her new name, 16-year-old Joan Leslie almost steals the spotlight from Lupino. Velma is one of the film's pivotal parts and Leslie plays it with an assurance and insight that belie her tender age. Henry Travers, Jerome Cowan, Barton MacLane, Isabel Jewell, and a young Cornel Wilde - who sports a strange European accent in his first billed role - also make important contributions to this finely crafted film.
Some uncomfortable racial humor and stereotypes somewhat tarnish High Sierra (a fascinating featurette on actor Willie Best that cogently analyzes the challenges black actors faced in Hollywood during the Golden Age is included in the disc supplements), but Walsh's film nevertheless remains a textured, absorbing, and profoundly moving character study of a cornered man trapped in a stifling life who's desperate to breathe some fresh, clean air. Walsh masterfully juggles tender interpersonal scenes with harsh, violent confrontations, while the Sierra Nevada and Death Valley locations lend the movie an essential grit and authenticity that help it resonate.
In the end, though, it's Bogart's understated portrayal that heightens the impact of this memorable movie that's sadly too often overshadowed by his more famous films. Lest we forget, High Sierra is the picture that started it all and led to such iconic Bogart roles as Sam Spade, Rick Blaine, Philip Marlowe, Fred C. Dobbs, Charlie Allnutt, and Captain Queeg. Roy Earle may be the quietest of the bunch, but he holds a special place in the Bogart film canon, and it's about time he received his due.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
High Sierra arrives on Blu-ray in a two-disc set packaged in a standard Criterion case. A 10-page fold-out booklet featuring an essay by author Imogen Sara Smith, a cast and crew listing, transfer notes, and a couple of illustrations of Lupino and Bogart is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is LPCM mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with scene excerpts immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
High Sierra makes its long-awaited Blu-ray debut sporting a high-quality 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that immerses us in the rugged mountain locations while remaining faithful to Tony Gaudio's naturalistic cinematography. According to the liner notes, "This new 4K digital restoration was undertaken by the Criterion Collection. The picture was originally released at 100 minutes in 1940 and cut down to 95 minutes for a reissue in 1948; no original camera negative survives for either version. The complete 100-minute version is presented here, created from a 35 mm nitrate fine-grain master positive stored at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Because of damage, some scenes were replaced using a 35 mm nitrate fine-grain of the shorter version. Scanning of both film elements was done in 4K resolution..."
Though scenes taken from the alternate version are easy to spot due to their slightly softer and grainier texture, the overall presentation boasts excellent clarity and contrast, strong shadow delineation, and a nicely varied grayscale. Some exterior shots seem a tad over-exposed, but that's typical for the period. Rich blacks and bright yet stable whites anchor the image, costume fabrics are distinct, patterns resist shimmering, and sharp close-ups showcase the creases and faint scars on Bogart's face and natural beauty of both Lupino and Leslie. Fine details like road dust on Roy's car windshield and the rough-hewn contours of tree bark and mountain rocks are crisply rendered, and though a few stray threads occasionally pop up on the bottom of the frame, the picture looks remarkably clean. Without a doubt, High Sierra has never looked better on home video, which is great news for gangster and Bogart fans.
The liner notes state "the original monaural soundtrack was remastered form the 35 mm original soundtrack negative of the shorter version, stored at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., as well as from a positive track sourced from the Museum of Modern Art's fine-grain." The resulting LPCM mono track supplies clear, well-modulated sound throughout, but the intensity really ramps up during the climax. Sonic accents like screeching wheels, honking horns, wailing sirens, gunfire, motorcycle engines, and the rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns are wonderfully distinct, and a wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of Adolph Deutsch's music score without a hint of distortion. All the dialogue is easy to comprehend and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle disrupt the purity of this robust mix.
This two-disc set includes a delectable array of quality supplements that salutes the film, Bogart, and Walsh.
Featurette: "Curtains for Roy Earle" (SD, 15 minutes) - This slick 2003 featurette covers the genesis and production of High Sierra and analyzes the film's themes. It also charts Bogart's rise through the Hollywood ranks, addresses his marital problems at the time, and reveals a surprising accusation that threatened to derail Bogart's burgeoning career. Actress Joan Leslie reminisces about making the movie and working with Bogart, and film historians Leonard Maltin and Robert Osborne and Bogart biographer Eric Lax provide insights and perspective.
Documentary: "Bogart: Here's Looking at You, Kid" (SD, 51 minutes) - Aired as part of the British TV series The South Bank Show, this 1997 profile of Bogart examines the actor's life and career through the eyes of his son, Stephen. Interviews with Bogart friend and biographer Joe Hyams, actresses Rose Hobart, Gloria Stuart, and Angie Dickinson, director John Huston, screenwriter Julius Epstein, producer-director Stanley Kramer, and of course wife and co-star Lauren Bacall, as well as an abundance of film clips distinguish this absorbing documentary that also analyzes Bogart's personality, appeal, and frailties.
Oral History with W.R. Burnett (HD, 14 minutes) - This 1976 interview excerpt, conducted by Dennis L. White, covers the High Sierra novel, the character of Roy Earle, and how Burnett became involved in the film adaptation. Burnett expresses his admiration for director Raoul Walsh, talks about his script collaboration with John Huston, relates some anecdotes, and shares his thoughts on screenwriting. Rare photos, clever illustrations, and script excerpts spice up Burnett's remarks.
Salute to Willie Best (HD, 14 minutes) - Film and media historian Miriam J. Petty honors Best, who appeared in 132 films and TV shows before his death at age 48 in 1962. She also discusses the African-American stereotypes that permeated movies during Hollywood's Golden Age and stymied the careers of many black performers.
Vintage Radio Adaptation (28 minutes) - Orginally broadcast on April 17, 1944 as part of the Screen Guild Theater series, this severely truncated radio adaptation of High Sierra allows Bogart and Lupino to reprise their film roles.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) - The film's original preview hypes Roy Earle as "the most dangerous killer since Dillinger."
Colorado Territory (1949) (HD, 94 minutes) - Walsh directed this western remake of High Sierra starring Joel McCrea, Virginia Mayo, and Dorothy Malone. Some notable narrative tweaks separate the film from its more renowned forerunner, but the basic story remains the same. The rugged Durango and Sedona locations and Walsh's typically muscular direction enhance the story's impact, and strong supporting performances, including ones from Henry Hull (who also appeared in High Sierra in a different yet equally pivotal part) and James Mitchell in his first billed role, spice up the drama. The script, however, lacks the original's fire and lyricism, and though McCrea is a very solid actor, let's face it, he's no Bogart. The always spunky Mayo lights up the screen as McCrea's Native American love, but her ethnic makeup leaves much to be desired, and Malone's role isn't as interesting or well-developed as Leslie's corresponding part in the original. Colorado Territory starts slow, but builds to a shattering climax and stands as a top-flight western, but it pales when compared to High Sierra. Regarding the A/V presentation, the LPCM mono track is clear and robust, but no clean-up has been performed on the print. The image boasts excellent clarity, contrast, grayscale, and shadow delineation, but a flurry of speckles, white blotches, scratches, and other damage consistently assaults the viewer. There are a couple of missing frames as well and at one point the picture even blacks out momentarily, presumably because there's no image to match the audio. Colorado Territory is in dire need of a complete restoration and hopefully the Criterion Collection will undertake that arduous task sometime in the future.
Documentary: The True Adventures of Raoul Walsh (HD, 95 minutes) - This compelling 2019 feature-length documentary chronicles the legendary director's life and career through dozens of film clips, interviews with an array of film historians and actors, and most importantly, Walsh's own words. Filmmaker Marilyn Ann Moss uses those words (voiced by Johnny Crear) to give this documentary its voice, and in his inimitable no-nonsense style, Walsh tells it like it is, despite his self-professed, lifelong penchant for embellishment and bald-faced lies. He relates personal anecdotes about such towering figures as Mark Twain, Pancho Villa, Theda Bara, Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn (including a bizarre Weekend at Bernie's episode involving a deceased John Barrymore), and many others; talks about the freak accident that resulted in the loss of his eye; relates how he discovered John Wayne; discusses his love of pre-Code movies; and bemoans the lack of good material in the 1950s. Rare photos, clips from very early silent films (including The Birth of a Nation, in which Walsh portrayed John Wilkes Booth, The Thief of Baghdad, and What Price Glory?), and excerpts from all his classics highlight this terrific tribute to the man Leonard Maltin calls "one of the pillars of American cinema."
Analysis of Raoul Walsh (HD, 20 minutes) - Film programmer Dave Kehr and critic Farran Smith Nehme discuss Walsh's style and compare and contrast High Sierra and Colorado Territory in this thoughtful piece. The two also ponder why Walsh isn't as revered as other iconic American directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks, praise his commitment to story, and marvel at his seeming spontaneity, lack of guile, and seamless shot compositions.
High Sierra remains a high point in Humphrey Bogart’s illustrious career. His breakout portrayal of a weary gangster on the run created an iconic persona that endures to this day, while director Raoul Walsh’s tough yet tender approach brings welcome warmth and sensitivity to a violent, often heartless genre. Criterion’s sumptuous two-disc set does this classic proud with an impressive restoration that features excellent video, robust audio, and hours of absorbing supplements, including Walsh’s own western remake of the film. In more ways than one, High Sierra scales the heights and comes very Highly Recommended.