The year 1941 was a good one for Humphrey Bogart, serving as his big professional breakthrough. Hurtling the New York-born actor from supporting roles toward and into a level of stardom that he would hold onto until his death in 1957 was a trio of movies. High Sierra opened in January, followed by the April debut of The Wagons Roll at Night, and then the October release of John Huston’s directorial debut, The Maltese Falcon. Of these, High Sierra would deliver best commercially for Warner Bros., the distributor of all three films. But The Maltese Falcon, shot quickly that summer in no small measure owing to the financial performance of the first film, would be nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. And in the grand canon of Bogart, it would be that title from 1941 which would most stick with cineastes. Casablanca would follow the next year, and it and other titles from Bogart’s estimable filmography — The Big Sleep, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, The African Queen, In a Lonely Place, The Caine Mutiny, and Sabrina among them — would overtake High Sierra on lists of his touchstone projects, eventually relegating it to arguably something approaching curio status outside of hardcore cinephiles.

Ida Lupino and Humphrey Bogart star in director Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra, now available in a new 4k digital restoration as part of a superb new Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection

Adapted by W.R. Burnett and the aforementioned Huston from the former’s novel of the same name, High Sierra find Bogart cast as Roy Earle, a career criminal whose recent parole from prison comes via the pulled strings of an old gangster friend. The payback? Said associate wants Roy’s assistance on an inside-job heist at a swanky hotel in the resort town of Tropico Springs. Roy, a float-through-life type of guy, is all too happy to oblige, and sets off on a cross-country drive to meet up with the team with whom he is supposed to connect for the big steal, Red (Arthur Kennedy) and Babe (Alan Curtis).

Along the way, Roy runs into an old couple, the Goodhues, and their granddaughter Velma (Joan Leslie), who suffers from a clubbed foot, traveling west together in search of some financial surety. When Roy makes it to the secluded cabin that serves as his designated rendezvous spot with Red and Babe, whom he’s never previously met, he finds an unanticipated guest — hothead Babe’s girlfriend, Marie Garson (Ida Lupino). A runaway dancehall performer from San Francisco seeking her own type of terra firma, Marie immediately sparks to Roy, who at first wants her gone but eventually relents and agrees to let her stay while the group collectively waits for the right time to go ahead with their scheme. When Roy happens upon the Goodhues again, though, he becomes smitten with Velma, and hyper-focused on the notion of paying for surgery to correct her limp, which he does. Velma is gracious and appreciative, and is her family, but Roy’s marriage proposal is firmly declined.

Later, the heist goes off, but not without complications. Split from his team, Roy gets away and goes on the lam with Marie. When his name and face hit the newspapers Roy becomes concerned with Marie’s safety and insists they split up, making plans to eventually reunite. As the police dragnet closes in, Roy is left with nothing but some very tough and unappealing choices.

At the time of High Sierra‘s making, Walsh was coming off of just working with Bogart, on both 1939’s The Roaring Twenties and 1940’s They Drive By Night (the latter with Lupino as well), and without too much fanciful imagination one can envision a type of shorthand communication between the pair. This feels particularly evident in the framing of the movie’s male relationships. There’s an economy to Roy’s affinity toward Pa Goodhue (Henry Travers), as well as his standoffishness with Red and Babe. This is occasionally verbalized (“Sometimes I feel like I don’t know what it’s about anymore,” Roy allows at one time), but more often his severe dislocation of time and place is communicated through an expressive litany of silent, wistful glances and seething glares. Familiar enough with freedom to have a sense of the value of relationships, but locked up long enough to have a seriously eroded ability to forge meaningful connections or indeed judge the reciprocation of others, Roy is a character much in need of a good therapist in a decidedly pre-analysis era.

A lot of this small-scale, well-observed character interplay, the movie’s greatest success, can obviously be chalked up to the contributions to the script from Huston (who would of course go on to become one of Bogart’s most beloved collaborators, mining some of these same themes), and certainly Bogart’s smart performance. Those aspects keep High Sierra interesting, even as its plotting somewhat struggles to connect. There’s nothing about the heist — in its planning, execution, or aftermath — that is really notable, or clever, or even infused with much tension. Things just are talked about, and happen, in very direct fashion. There’s something to be explored about Roy’s criminality and the manner in which his wealth is accepted by those around him, even if they don’t ask exactly what he does, but the movie feels like it backs away from digging down into this in a truly engaging way.

The film’s extensive location shooting — and in particular its finale, taking place against the backdrop of Mount Whitney, give High Sierra a certain type of undeniable production-value appeal when stacked up against dozens of other films of its brethren. Even if, by modern standards, Walsh and cinematographer Tony Gaudio don’t necessarily evince a firm grasp of the staging to take full advantage of this stunning locale, it’s easy to understand how audiences of the time could and would be drawn to check out a film featuring vistas many had never had occasion to lay eyes on before.

High Sierra comes to Blu-ray spread out on two discs, in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, by way of a superb 4k digital restoration with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Some of the music cues, from composer Adolph Deutsch, at times sound a little bit flat, but dialogue is clear and consistent throughout, completely free of distortions or any tinniness, and in fact the dynamic range of the canyon-and-mountain-set finale really helps “plus” that sequence. Likewise, the visual presentation of the movie, created from a 35mm nitrate fine-grain master positive stored at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, serves up depth and definition. Some film grain is noticeable, and certain outdoor sequences seem a bit overexposed, but blacks and greys are expertly differentiated and the care of the transfer comes through most especially in close-ups, which serve an important role throughout. Anchoring the packaging, and its illustrated cover art, is a 10-page gatefold black-and-white booklet, spotlighting the film’s credits and featuring a nice essay by Imogen Sara Smith.

As with most Criterion releases, the bonus features serve as an elevating collection which offer invaluable context and perspective. Even by Criterion standards, though, this batch is something special. On disc one, there’s a 15-minute featurette, “Curtains for Roy Earle,” which explores the film’s genesis and production, anchored by reminiscences from actress Leslie, along with film historians Leonard Maltin and Robert Osborne; the film’s original trailer; a 28-minute vintage radio adaptation from 1944, in which Bogart and Lupino reprise their roles; a 14-minute oral history with W.R. Burnett, from a 1976 interview; a 14-minute salute, by Miriam Petty, of Willie Best, who appears in the movie as Algernon, an African-American handyman; and, finally, the 50-minute documentary “Bogart: Here’s Looking at You, Kid.”

Quite interestingly, Walsh also made another adaptation of Burnett’s novel High Sierra, in the form of 1949’s Colorado Territory, which is, quite gratifyingly, also included here on this release’s second disc. (This later movie’s sheer existence would seem to speak to some type of dissatisfaction or unresolved creative issues with its predecessor, but that is largely unremarked upon here, left for armchair psychologists to sort through and ponder.) There isn’t any attendant restoration of this movie, but it is quite interesting (and in certain ways actually better) when stacked up in comparison to its forerunner. There is also a 20-minute featurette in which Dave Kehr and Farran Smith Nehme discuss Walsh’s work against that of peers like Howard Hawks and John Ford, plus a wonderful feature-length documentary, The True Adventures of Raoul Walsh, that breathes full life into his incredible career, from portraying John Wilkes Booth in The Birth of a Nation to his life offscreen and the freak accident which cost him his eye.

Written by: Brent Simon

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By Brent Simon

A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International, Newsweek Japan, Magill's Cinema Annual, and many other outlets. He cannot abide a world without U2 and tacos.

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