High Sierra - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USA, 1941

Director: Raoul Walsh

Production: Warner Bros.; black and white; running time: 100 minutes; length: 8,964 feet. Released January 1941.

Executive producer: Hal B. Wallis; associate producer: Mark Hellinger; screenplay: John Huston and W. R. Burnett, from a novel by Burnett; assistant director: Russ Saunders; dialogue director: Irving Rapper; photography: Tony Gaudio; editor: Jack Killifer; sound: Dolph Thomas; art director: Ted Smith; music: Adolph Deutsch; special effects: Bryon Haskin, H. F. Koenekamp.

Cast: Humphrey Bogart ( Roy Earle ); Ida Lupino ( Marie ); Alan Curtis ( Babe ); Arthur Kennedy ( Red ); Joan Leslie ( Velma ); Henry Hull ( Doc Banton ); Henry Travers ( Pa ); Jerome Cowan ( Healy ); Minna Gombell ( Mrs. Baughman ); Barton Maclane ( Jake Kranmer ); Elizabeth Risdon ( Ma ); Cornel Wilde ( Louis Mendoza ); Donald McBride ( Big Mac ); Paul Harvey ( Mr. Baughman ); Isabel Jewell ( Blonde ); Willie Best ( Algernon ); Spencer Charters ( Ed ); George Meeker ( Pfiffer ); Robert Strange ( Art ); John Eldredge ( Lon Preiser ); Zero the dog ( Pard ).



Huston, John, and W.R. Burnett, High Sierra , edited by Douglas Gomery, Madison, Wisconsin, 1979.


McCarty, Clifford, Bogey: The Films of Humphrey Bogart , New York, 1965.

Michael, Paul, Humphrey Bogart: The Man and His Films , Indianapolis, 1965.

Marmin, Michel, Raoul Walsh , Paris, 1970.

Canham, Kingsley, The Hollywood Professionals , New York, 1973.

Hardy, Phil, editor, Raoul Walsh , Colchester, Essex, 1974.

Walsh, Raoul, Each Man in His Time , New York, 1974.

Benchley, Nathaniel, Humphrey Bogart , Boston, 1975.

Eyles, Allen, Bogart , New York, 1975.

Shadoian, Jack, Dreams and Dead Ends , Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1977.

Pettigrew, Terence, Bogart: A Definitive Study of his Film Career , London, 1981.

Comuzio, Ermanno, Raoul Walsh , Florence, 1982.

Winkler, Willi, Humphrey Bogart und Hollywoods Schwarze Serie , Munich, 1985.

Giuliani, Pierre, Raoul Walsh , Paris, 1986.

Fuchs, Wolfgang J., Humphrey Bogart: Cult-Star: A Documentation , Berlin, 1987.

Coe, Jonathan, Humphrey Bogart: Take It & Like It , New York, 1991.

Bogart, Stephen H., and Gary Provost, Bogart: In Search of My Father , New York, 1995.

Schlesinger, Judith, Bogie: A Life in Pictures , New York, 1998.

Sperber, A.M., Bogart , New York, 1998.

Cunningham, Ernest W., Ultimate Bogie , Los Angeles, 1999.

Duchovnay, Gerald, Humphrey Bogart: A Bio-Bibliography , Westport, 1999.

Meyers, Jeffery, Bogart: A Life in Hollywood , New York, 1999.


Variety (New York), 22 January 1941.

Motion Picture Herald (New York), 25 January 1941.

New York Times , 25 January 1941.

Cinema (Beverly Hills), 28 May 1941.

Monthly Film Bulletin (London), June 1941.

Times (London), 4 August 1941.

Whitebait, William, in New Statesman (London), 9 August 1941.

Vermilye, J., "Ida Lupino," in Films in Review (New York), May 1959.

Dienstfrey, Harris, "Hitch Your Genre to a Star," in Film Culture (New York), Fall 1964.

Huston, John, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1965.

Burnett, W. R., in Toronto Film Society Notes , 14 February 1966.

Alley, Kenneth D., "High Sierra: Swansong for an Era," in Journal of Popular Film (Washington, D.C.), vol. 5, no. 3–4, 1976.

Simons, John L., "Henry on Bogie: Reality and Romance in Dream Song No. 9 and High Sierra ," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), Summer 1977.

Magill's Survey of Cinema 2 , Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1981.

Mate, Ken, and Patrick McGilligan, interview with W. R. Burnett, in Film Comment (New York), January-February 1983.

Marling, W., "On the Relation Between American Roman Noir and Film Noir," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), no. 3, 1991.

Marling, W., "On the Relation Between American Roman Noir and Film Noir," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), vol. 21, no. 3, 1993.

Howard, T., in Reid's Film Index (Wyong), no. 15, 1995.

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Jean-Luc Godard canonizes High Sierra at the end of Breathless when he mimes the orphic structure of Raoul Walsh's action melodrama. Walsh depicts an army of police chasing his hero up Mount Whitney, enlisting a sniper to shoot him in the back and send him plummeting down the slope. His body is mourned by a girlfriend, Marie (Ida Lupino), and a cynical bystander, a news reporter named Healy, amidst a chorus of troopers. Godard flattens the hubris that Walsh obtains from a mix of Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, and film noir by having his two adolescents "play" at the fear and terror evinced in High Sierra . If Godard's first feature figures at a threshold

High Sierra
High Sierra
between two eras of film, it suggests why Walsh's feature owns a central place in the history of cinema.

On the one hand, the film concretizes elements common both to Walsh as an auteur and to the Hollywood industry in general. Destined to die, an ordinary figure is caught in a skein of tragic forces woven in the later years of the Depression. The protagonist figures as a hero set in a world that has lost its legends, but he is ultimately a pawn in a plot of magnitude beyond his ken. Following Warner Brothers' affiliations with the New Deal, the film shows a world of humans caught in social contradiction. Fate is cast, the film implies, either by gods of nature, the failure of capitalism, or a highly corrupt government. In a montage following the credits that scroll upwards to the majestic sky over Mount Whitney, the initial dissolves suggest that an unnamed state official—ostensively a governor—has Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart, whose name bears resemblance to "King Lear," a figure too late for his milieu, and to a sign of energy, or "oil," the hidden term of the film) sprung from prison in order to engineer a holdup at Palm Springs. Between the narrative and the visual design the plot is staged to show how profit can be gained when common news items are inflated into national media events. The "real" story does not entail the holdup at the Tropico hotel in Palm Springs but, as Godard intuited, at the end of High Sierra itself: when Earle is pursued up the mountain, a limelight is projected onto its rocky curtain. A radiocaster hypes the silence of the landscape into a drama that inculpates all viewers and listeners as agents of a crime, like the film, collectively contrived.

On the other hand, High Sierra makes obvious its own mechanism of illusion. The image-track effectively theorizes the tenets of the narration. When the squadron of police cars and motorcycles pursues Earle up the winding road, a panoramic shot of 720° encircles the steeplechase. Poised at the opening of the angle of a hairpin turn, the camera follows Earle's coupe, pans around and down to catch the oncoming motorcade, and continues its career. It thus spots its presence in the film as the origin of the narrative "destiny." Elsewhere it portrays the hero incriminating the spectator with his brutally frontal stare. Facing the windshield of his car, the camera registers Bogart's looking directly at the viewer, almost in defiance of the laws of obliquity that hold in films of the period. Ocularity becomes so pervasive that all illusion of narrative space and time is flattened: Earle stares us down as he looks ahead and into the space moving away in the rearview mirror. The depth of field contains elements that utterly flatten it. Optical stratagems kill the hero. Before he is ambushed Earle appears as a speck on a landscape that has lost all cardinal bearings. And earlier, quick dissolves superimpose characters over writing of vitrines and billboards so as to show how fate legibly casts its spell over the characters and narrative alike.

These objects locate where Walsh's signature is written into the film. Through car mirrors, headlights, monocular forms (an eight-ball, a ring, the circular marquee heralding the Circle Auto Court), and bar-like shadows cast over the frame, tragedy is rendered both deep and matte. Forms arch back to the director's own history of enucleation. In High Sierra , however, it is seen as symbolic castration that literally produces the viewing "subject," the spectator whose vision is skewed and access to nature denied. In a sequence located in neither W.R. Burnett's novel that inspired the film nor John Huston's screenplay, a volley of shots catches a jackrabbit crossing the highway on the western mesa just as Earle overtakes a jalopy sputtering westward. The animal darts across the road, the two cars swerve and almost collide. Although the near-miss primes the fate of the narrative, inner allusion is made to an event that deprived Walsh of his right eye in 1928: when he was driving from the site of In Old Arizona , a hare jumped in front of his vehicle and struck its windshield, smashing the glass and lodging a splinter in his right eye. The traumatic instant of his own enucleation is tipped into High Sierra as if to draw attention to a simultaneous play of monocular and binocular views, or of coextensive flatness and deep focus, that Walsh uses, along with Renoir, Ford, and Welles, to theorize the visibility of cinema in general. Staged carefully in this film, the event recurs often throughout his oeuvre (in The Cockeyed World , They Drive by Night , Colorado Territory , a western remake of High Sierra , Pursued , White Heat , and so on), but in High Sierra it is turned toward broad questions entailing the ideology of Hollywood cinema. Out of the same visual trauma come elements of film noir and, of course, much of the speculations of New Wave theoreticians.

High Sierra shows that Raoul Walsh is far from the simple "action director" of fast-paced films of keen craft and slight content. Close viewing reveals a wealth of transfilmic themes and obsessions that mark an output of over 120 films (his longevity and productivity making him a Victor Hugo of American cinema), but also the strategies of Hollywood and their transformations from the silent period to the 1960s. The film is a complex study of visibility concealed in what it is: a timelessly captivating, fast-paced, action melodrama.

—Tom Conley

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