Saturday, February 07, 2004

High Sierra

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 3 February 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Humphrey Bogart: The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of)

Cynicism goes with the territory in film noir, and there's plenty of it from Bogart's anti-hero, Roy "Mad Dog" Earle. What's somewhat surprising - and what makes High Sierra so interesting, and probably was a big part of what catapulted Bogart to stardom after this movie - is that there's a certain wistfulness to it. Earle is not a malicious man, though he will use violence against those that get in his way, and though it's never spelled out, an early scene where he visits his family's old far suggests that he sort of backed into a life of crime. His family likely lost the farm in the Depression, driving him into the city. When he meets a family of similarly dispossessed people on the road, he's compelled to help them, and takes a shine to the daughter, perhaps seeing it as a way to reconnect with the life he really wants.

Alas, it's not to be, but he does meet Marie Garson (Ida Lupino, who gets top billing), a more pragmatic girl who is clearly more intelligent than Earle's partners, who picked her up in a dance hall. He also picks up a scruffy dog, "Pard", though the dog's previous master (Willie Best in an annoying Steppin Fetchit role) warns Earle that he's bad luck. This, of course, is before the heist and everything related to it goes wrong, leading to the chase and final sequence that gives the film its name.

Many films noir and their descendants are relentlessly dark, or cynical, but what makes High Sierra so much better than most of them is that there is the potential for redemption and decency underneath. It's the dashing of that hope that makes this movie a tragedy as opposed to just another crime story.

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