High Sierra, 1941. 8/10

One of the best Bogart films, if not the best. It’s almost intimidating to comment on it; a seminal cross-over of the gangster film of the ’30s into film-noir of the ’40s. As strong and nuanced as Bogart’s performance is as Roy Earle, the film as a whole doesn’t completely add up. The main problem is Earle’s insant relationship with the migrant family (good ‘ol Ma, Pa, and, of course, Velma–Joan Leslie). Earle already has a convincing love interest in Ida Lupino’s Marie, why does he need Velma? Her family never seems to wonder where his money comes from–even though he’s gone as far as to propose to her. Later on, at least, she does tell him off, but only after he’s been rude to her and her somewhat sappy fiancee. Marie’s character, on the other hand, is believable and interesting. She’s definitely a decent person, and wants just to be valued, and loved. Nonetheless, she’s thrown in her lot with gangsters. In getting close to Earle, she’s with a murderer, no less.

The caper is well-handled, with plenty of tension. It occurs roughly in the middle of the film; giving plenty of time for the set-up as well as the follow-up. Unusually for a film noir, there’s lots of action–maybe the legacy of the gangster genre. A flaming wreck to mark the escape after the robbery, and, later the mountain road chase leading to Earle’s entrapment.

In a way, Earle’s gunshot wound is symbolic of his life; he’s slowly dying. His personality is so dominant that he overshadows all the other criminals: ‘Big Mac’ literally dies off, as do Red and Babe; Mendoza (Cornell Wilde) starts off like a big shot, but is over-awed by Earle, and ends up betraying him. I can’t figure out why Earle bothers to rob the drugstore–surely he’s got enough change for a pack of smokes. I guess, at this point, Earle has begun to lose it. The ensuing chase scene is memorable; unlike in many earlier movies, the film isn’t speeded up, but Earle’s coupe really seems to fly.

Incredibly, Earle begins and ends as a sympathetic character. Maybe, for me, it’s because Bogart is just so cool in this film. He’s cruel, and not so bright either; not to mention the fact that he loses in every way. But he’s just so artistic about it all, in that cool way. Not at all suave, but a rough style that commands respect. It doesn’t hurt that Ida Lupino is fetching, loyal, and just right for him. If you throw in Pard, that’s a family. I like Joan Leslie as well, but she and her family are more of a gimmick, a distraction. The worst thing is Willie Best’s character Algernon, an out-and-out demeaning role. Even in that era of acceptable racism there were sometimes black characters who were given some depth–with knowing, if not witty observations and asides–undercutting the lead characters’ earnestness.

Rarely do I like a film that also bothers me. It’s better than the sum of its parts. This is not the more intriguing unsuspecting noir hero of the late-’40s; Earle isn’t a good guy. If the story were told from Marie’s point of view, then we’d have a conflicted protagonist, and maybe a slightly better movie. Or if Earle really had a history with Velma’s family–maybe he’s her jailbird fiancee–then things would be a bit more consistent. But, this is certainly an important, if flawed movie. 8/10.

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