Humphrey Bogart finally became a star in 1941.
He was hardly an overnight sensation. The New York actor -- blessed with good luck and what would become a powerful, irresistible presence on screen – failed and quit films once already. Hollywood wasn't exactly looking for Humphrey Bogart in 1935. While on Broadway Bogart landed the role of fugitive gangster Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest. The role was much bigger than the one he was up for, but he was perfect for the part. Audiences flocked to see the stubbly-bearded actor on stage; audibly gasping when he would make his entrance. When it came time to make the hit play into a film, Warner Bros. decided to cast Edward G. Robinson in the part of the “gangster on the lam.” It was an obvious choice, but Robinson wouldn't have it. He was trying to break away from gangster roles and turned the part down. Bogart – with the support of star and friend Leslie Howard – landed a part perfect. The role of murderous gangster would stick with Bogart for the rest of his career.
Bogart, now under contract with WB, was put in crime movie after movie. Many of them are now considered the best gangster films of the 30s and 40s. Many are worth forgetting. Edward G. Robinson – ultimately unable to break free from gangster movies – was usually the lead – playing the guy that would gun down second-banana Bogart. Along with Robinson, James Cagney, George Raft, John Garfield and Pat O'Brian, Bogart was part of Warner Bros. gangster roll call. (He did fit the tough guy part perfectly. Occasionally Bogart would be cast against type and do a comedy (It All Came True), Western (The Oklahoma Kid) and even a horror film (The Return of Doctor X). They're best left unseen unless you're a Humphrey Bogart completest.)
High Sierra was never meant to be a Bogart movie. George Raft turned it down, complaining that he was told he wouldn't be offered “Humphrey Bogart-type parts.” Paul “Scarface” Muni was also contacted. He was also not interested in doing gangster films. Muni's “serious” movies are forgotten. Raft may now be more famous for the roles he dismissed than the movies he was in. After High Sierra, he turned down the Maltese Falcon, and later Double Indemnity (much to the relief of John Huston and Billy Wilder). Muni and Raft were two of the biggest stars of the day, but Bogart is still a household name.
Colorful producer and old speak-easy friend of Bogart's, Mark Hellinger – a journalist turned producer who came up with the idea for The Roaring Twenties – thought more could be done with Bogart (you can glimpse a look at Hellinger at the end of the trailer below). A film version of W. R. Burnett's High Sierra was to be made and he didn't want a typical Bogart performance. The lead was a complex criminal – much different than the thugs played by Bogie up until now. John Huston was to co-write the story with Burnett. Scribe Huston and actor Bogart first worked together in the now-unfortunately named The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse released in 1938. Directing was tasked to Raoul Walsh – the patch-eyed man's-man who directed Bogart in his previous film They Drive By Night. Walsh, Huston, and Hellinger each consulted privately with the actor to convince him to to make “Mad Dog” Roy Earle a tough criminal with a decent soul.
Bogart was given second billing behind 22-year-old rising star Ida Lupino (who was also in The Drive By Night.) It's understandable when you watch They Drive By Night. George Raft and Ida Lupino eclipse Bogart in the film. Lupino was nominated for an Oscar for her part. It probably was hard to imagine Bogart outshining Lupino in their next film. But he does. No one has ever called High Sierra a Ida Lupino film. Bogart owns it.
After years in films and on stage honing his craft, the actor as old as the century gave one his best performance to date. His facial expressions and body language throughout say more than anything spoken in the film. A giving man who could have been more if he was something other than a thug. A man whose only real friendship is with a dog and a “dime-a-dance” girl.
The story is about a career criminal (in the book, he's part of the Dillinger mob) released from prison by Big Mac- a crime boss-- who arranged his release so he could spearhead a crime with a big pay off. (I'm sure the studio didn't like the idea of a crooked judicial system. Huston would face that again when he peppered The Asphalt Jungle with crooked cops). The parolee heads to the Sierra Nevada mountains to meet up with his young, inexperienced crew (all future film noir faces: Arthur Kennedy, Cornell Wilde, and Alan Curtis). Unimpressed, he then then drives to L.A. to meet Big Mac. He nearly literally runs into a farmer's family as they're on the road to California after losing their farm. Earle strikes up a romance with the much-younger daughter who has a clubbed foot and old fashioned, simple farmer that becomes a surrogate dad to Earle. He arranges to have Velma's clubbed foot looked at by a former doctor (a defrocked doc now working for the gang). 'Doc' says the foot could be fixed by a simple operation. Earle arranges the surgery and – despite the protests of the family- will pay for the surgery with some of his take from the crime. Further motivating Earle is Big Mac – a friend from the old days --who is very ill and need the money from the crime. Earle returns to the mountains and immediately starts straightening out the crew. The older man makes it clear he's no cream puff.
Ida Lupino plays Mary. Red and Babe are fighting over her. She ditches both and stays with Earle instead. Earle isn't taken with her as much as he is the innocent farm girl in Los Angeles. In clever bit of foreshadowing, Earle bonds with a little dog – Pard (actually Bogart's dog, Zero). The dog has a “curse.” Everyone that's ever owned him has died. That's according to Algernon played by Willie Best. (It's a horribly dated black minstrel part. Best, although quite talented and still funny, is hard to watch without wincing.) Pard shows up at all the wrong times bringing bad luck wherever he goes. The “easy” robbery goes bad... as does everything else in Earle's life. One of the inexperienced crooks cracks after a violent standoff with the cops. Marie, Earle and Pard are on the run. No one will touch the stolen jewels from the robbery. Big Mac is dead. Nearly broke, Marie and Pard are put on a bus to L.A. and Earle ends up in the mountains surrounded by police in the now classic standoff.
This was the first film Huston and Bogart made together and you can see Huston's touches throughout the movie. Like The Maltese Falcon (Huston's first directorial effort), Huston was a master at taking the best parts of the book and managing to capture the feel of the novel in the much shorter form of a film. When Earle is released from prison the first thing he does is insist he be taken to a local park. He checks out the birds, sky, grass. Then he heads to the mobsters that released him for his assignment – a “piece of cake” holdup of a resort town hotel. It's a nice touch. And it would have never been in Bogie's earlier B-movies.
Bogart, now 40, has painted “Paulie Walnuts”-grey hair. He's just the right age for the part, but physically he doesn't match the hulking Hemingwayesque figure in the book. Warner Bros was initially reluctant to make the film about a noble criminal. Afterward, they continued to cash in on the story. In two remakes of High Sierra Joel McCrea in Colorado Territory (also directed by Walsh; but this time as a Western) and Jack Palance in I Died A Thousand Times come closer physically to the part, but were unable to capture what Bogart gave to the part of “Mad Dog” Earle.
Warner Bros. seemed to mark the beginning of the end of gangster movies with High Sierra. Of course it's still not over. But the golden era of Cagneys and Robertsons ended for the most part with World War II. The film noir era would begin with the shadowy High Sierra.. and even more so less than a year later with the Maltese Falcon. Again, it wasn't to be a Bogart movie. After High Sierra, Bogart was put into another stinker, The Wagons Roll at Night – a circus film for God's sake. Following that embarrassment, he was to star again with Ida Lupino in Out of the Fog. Lupino objected; refusing to work with Bogart again. John Gafield got the part. George Raft got him removed from Manpower – replaced with Edward G. Robinson. Bogart, disgusted, got himself suspended from WB for refusing to appear in his next film, a supporting role in a Western. After Raft was out WB had no one else to chose and Bogart got the part – the third attempt at making The Maltese Falcon a successful movie.
Bogart and Huston would continue to work together and make movie history (after High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon it was: The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Key Largo [Bogie finally gets to kill Edward G. Robinson], The African Queen, and Beat the Devil.)
Sixty years later, it would be hard to find another Humphrey Bogart-type in films. Most crime and gangster films and TV shows have stars with chiseled abs, faces like models, and perfect teeth. Why is it that a underweight, older-than-his-years actor would be so successful? After all, Hollywood then isn't as different as now. They always market the young, new, good looking star; and they seemed to miscast Bogart until he had some true pull after The Maltese Falcon. Maybe it's because Bogart was different and it took guys like Huston to see past his looks and see talent. In his eulogy of Bogart he said, “He is quite irreplaceable, there will never be anybody like him.” Not unique words but ones that were 100-percent true of Bogart. Talent, camera presence and some luck made him a movie star. His films are just too good to be forgotten.
High Sierra is a great Bogart movie.