Friday, September 13, 2013

Raoul Walsh | High Sierra

rushing toward death
by Douglas Messerli
John Huston and W. R. Burnett (based on a novel by W. R. Burnett), Raoul Walsh (director) High
Sierra / 1941

Pardoned from prison, Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) is sent for by west coast gangster, Big Mac (Donald MacBride), to pull off a jewel heist in a High Sierra resort. Roy, an old-timer in the gangster world, is joined by two hot-headed and inexperienced young criminals, Red (Arthur Kennedy) and Babe (Alan Curtis), the latter of whom has also brought along a woman, Marie (Ida Lupino). Arriving at their mountain hideout, Roy tells the men to send the woman back to Los Angeles, but she attempts to convince Roy that she should stay, to which he reluctantly agrees.

      For the most part, Roy is a hard-headed cynic, but the film shows us what critic David Thomson has argued is the other highly romantic side of actor Bogart, as Roy falls for a farm girl, Velma (Joan Leslie) whose family are on the way to Los Angeles, offers to marry her, and, soon after, reluctantly adopts (or what might suggest “pardons”) a dog, Pard (Bogart’s own dog Zero), who the motel’s Black caretaker declares is bad luck, the animal having attached himself to various figures who have all died.

     Discovering that Velma is club footed, Roy arranges for the gangster “doctor” to operate on her foot, and befriends her loving Pa (Henry Travers)—all incidents that, despite Roy’s outward coldness, reveal a deeper, more conflicted man, a farm boy who has become a criminal, a dangerous killer who is nonetheless outraged when the press later dubs him as “Mad Dog Roy Earle.” Even when he ultimately discovers that Velma is more interested in a married drunkard than in anything he might be able to offer her, Roy, rather than becoming bitter, takes up with Marie, hiding any pain inside.

      It is, in fact, this dichotomy between the inner and outer selves of this figure that make this film so fascinating. The man who would kill at a moment’s notice—and has—also seeks to love and protect the weaker people he meets. In short, it is the perfect role for Bogart, and predictably, this is the film that catapulted him into leading roles.

      One might explain this tension played out through his contradictory acts as emanating from an understanding of who he is and what is his certain fate. Throughout this film, Roy, described at one point as “rushing into death” is somewhat like a drugged man, wishing he might turn back to find another life he somehow missed out on, but unable to change, moving forward with a deep acceptance of his mortality. And for that reason, he becomes, despite his destructive occupation, a kind of hero. He and Big Mac both are of the old school, men who have lived and seen too much of life to think they might truly get away with such an audacious heist. As Big Mac, dying of alcohol puts it, “If I don’t lay off the booze, it’s gonna knock me off. But I’m gonna die anyhow. So are you. So are we all,” insisting at the same moment that Roy bring him his bottle. Mac, prepared for his death, even gives a letter to Roy, telling him what do with the jewels should, in the interim, he die. So too does Roy make plans with Marie to “stow” her should things turn bad.       

      As we might well expect, that is exactly what happens. The heist is interrupted by a local guard, who is shot, and in the escape Red and Babe, along with the hotel clerk, Mendoza (who has served as the inside man) crash, with Roy’s two associates dying and Mendoza arrested. Roy and Marie escape, only to discover that Big Mac has died, and Roy is forced to wait for a few days to get rid of the jewels, during which time Mendoza confesses to the police. Marie is given a ticket to Los Angeles in order to protect her, while Roy attempts to escape back into the mountains. Hearing that Roy is trapped on a mountain cliff, Marie turns back from the bus ride to seek out Roy, the dog Pard, at the last moment, escaping from her arms and running toward Roy with a trail of barks. Calling out Marie’s name, Roy comes into the open and is shot dead by a sharpshooter, fulfilling the Black caretaker’s prediction, but at the same time, finally “crashing out,” freeing himself from his life of regrets.

     In the end, it is not Roy’s toughness that engages us with his character, but his unexpressed empathy and emotional needs. He is a crook with a conscience, a kind of existentialist figure who perceives there is no exit from the life he has chosen but death itself.

Los Angeles, September 11, 2013

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