Humphrey DeForest Bogart was born in New York City on Christmas Day 1899, the son of a surgeon and a magazine illustrator. “Bogart,” on the other hand, was born forty-two years later, alone among the rocks of the Sierra Madre, to a sound of gunfire.
Bogart made High Sierra eleven years and over forty films after his first feature, and five years after his supposed “breakthrough” movie, The Petrified Forest, in which – after almost losing out to Edward G Robinson – he recreated the role he had first originated on stage of Duke Mantee, the psychotic gangster on the run, terrorising the inhabitants of an isolated hotel.
From here, Bogart had drifted as a type under contract through the violent worlds of the Warners lot, usually looking shifty in convict’s clothes or gangster’s duds, once in a black cowboy hat – but always in the background, eclipsed by the hoodlum stars of that firmament: Robinson, James Cagney, George Raft, Paul Muni.
As it happened, Robinson, Muni and Raft had all already turned down director Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra, adapted by screenwriter John Huston and WR Burnett from the latter’s novel; Raft rejected it because he refused to end anymore movies riddled with bullets. Bogart, however, saw in the part more scope, more room for shading the complex space between tenderness and astringency, than he had ever been offered before, and he seized his opportunity.
Here, with greying prison hair, Bogart (still second-billed to Ida Lupino) hitched up his trousers that way he did and finally stepped out from the shadows, discovering at last that he should have been doing the anti-hero thing all along, playing a good bad man, rushing towards death in the mountains.
He plays Roy “Mad Dog” Earle, the last lonely Dillinger. Earle is an aging, once-notorious bank-robber, out on jail on a bogus parole to take part in one last job for his dying boss, holding up a small holiday resort. Travelling to the heist, Earle encounters on the road an elderly couple driving to a new home, and he finds himself infatuated with their crippled young granddaughter, Velma. Meeting up with his gang for the job, he discovers he has to work with two squabbling, hot-headed young hoods, one of whom has dragged his ex-dancehall girlfriend, Marie (Lupino), along for the ride.
Trying to ignore Marie’s growing love for him, Earle pays for an operation on Velma’s foot, dreaming of settling down with her after the job, only to see her reject him for kicks with a man her own age as soon as she’s healed. The robbery comes off, after a fashion, but complications and double-dealing soon set in and Earle, finally embracing a more mature form of love with Marie, finds himself on the run, at first with her, but finally, definitively alone.
Two years earlier, with The Roaring Twenties, Walsh had sounded the death knoll for the lost gangsters of the Warners thirties – Cagney rolling to a dead stop at the foot of a snowy flight of church steps – and at the end of the decade he would conclusively cremate the genre with White Heat (1949). But here, in the lull, he composes its elegy, a lament whispered into the face of whatever comes next, which happened to be the tenebrous delirium of film noir, already gathering on the perimeter of this film.
Roy Earle is a man out of time, come both metaphorically and literally to the end of the road, entirely aware of his situation and his fate (in this respect, High Sierra stands as an early marker on the path leading eventually to the likes of Sam Peckinpah’s Billy the Kids and Pike Bishops). Walsh uses environment and landscape to explore and amplify Earle’s character. As he progresses through the film – rejected in terror by the new inhabitants of his rural childhood home, isolated out along lonely desert highways that seem to have sprung from his mind – he moves further and further away from the urban context that is the gangster’s usual milieu, the structures breaking down around him.
Finally, there’s nothing left but the bleak, cosmic stage of his ultimate showdown, the mountains dwarfing and imprisoning Earle, even as they set him in a mythic frame and point toward the freedom of the skies; the freedom glimpsed and understood by Lupino at the film’s beatific fade-out.
George Raft, meanwhile, was busy turning down the role of Sam Spade in the same year’s Maltese Falcon, this time because he didn’t want to work with its novice director, John Huston. Bogart took his second step into immortality.