Based on a pulpy novel, it chronicles the story of Roy Earle, sprung from a life sentence in prison so that he can knock over a casino along the California-Nevada border. It's easy to miss, but notice the first minute of this picture closely: it's of course the Governor -- bought off by a mobster -- who gets Roy released from his life sentence, indicating that the corruption has finely infested the top of the social order. This is the usual tough-minded, whistle-blowing gangster-picture stuff that Warner Bros. specialized in. But there's also something else at work here, perhaps something new: one gets the sense that what happens to Roy in this movie has been engineered from On High, in advance . . . in other words, he's in the Jaws of Fate. And thus we're in the unforgiving world of Film Noir.
More than the opening scene, it's Bogart who almost single-handedly invents film noir with his groundbreaking work in *High Sierra*. Not cocky like Cagney and Muni, not psychopathic like the early Edward G. Robinson, not as smooth as Raft, Bogart is a ruthless professional with a wide stripe of sentimentality. His Roy never shirks from killing, but he doesn't get off on it. He's more a rebel than a gangster, a poetic soul denied respectability, a man longing for the innocence of his youth. Unfortunately, he thinks he finds in the personage of a transplanted Okie farm-girl (Joan Leslie) a reasonable facsimile of that innocence. Competing for his affections is Ida Lupino, a sour "dime-a-dance girl" who's been up, down, and around the block a time or three. She's the baggage that comes with the two new-generation hoods whom Bogart is assigned to babysit for the casino heist. Not until later in the picture does Bogart recognize Lupino's better suitability to his own temperament and experience. (They share in common, among other things, suicidal impulses, a desire to escape a corrupted world.)
Roy Earle was a new type of character -- the truly romantic criminal. Bogart would play variations on Earle throughout his career, though he rarely exceeded his triumph here. And while I've given the actor much of the credit, some more credit must be extended to the screenwriter, John Huston. *High Sierra* was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Oh, and did I mention that the movie -- aside from its importance in American film history, yadda yadda -- is quite simply a good time? Witty dialogue, great on-location direction by Raoul Walsh, a cute dog, and a climactic car chase that wouldn't be equaled until 1968's *Bullitt*, are just some of this movie's other virtues.
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