“High Sierra” was the 27th feature-length film British-born actress Ida Lupino had made in just under ten years, all but a handful of them in the U.S. She would turn 23 a week after the film’s premier in late January of 1941. Her co-star Humphrey Bogart, a veteran of stage and film, was in his 41st feature, the previous 40 being mostly supporting and character roles, with top billing in a handful of “B” pictures, nearly all for Warner Brothers since he signed his first contract with them in 1932. He was just over forty at the time of “High Sierra,” and if he looked a good ten years older, that suited him just fine as Roy Earle.
After the nearly disastrous jewel robbery of the Tropico Hotel and Resort in which Roy is wounded by and kills a lawman, and their three partners disappear in a fiery car crash, Marie and Roy manage to survive and escape — along with the jewels and the little dog “Pard.” As they flee the desert resort, they certainly hope a better day is dawning. The beautifully shot Northern California sunrise signals a change in tone for the film as it opens up from the claustrophobic environs of their cabin hideout in the first half of the film.
Bogart had given little indication in his most recent screen assignments that he was about to make a giant leap from “character” to “leading man,” from “B” movie headliner to “A” pictures and stardom of the first magnitude. The part of Roy Earle in “High Sierra” had reportedly been offered first to George Raft who turned it down. Raft had just starred in what was his best film and role to date in “They Drive By Night,” and for the time being he was probably looking to avoid playing his stereotypical gangsters and ex-convicts, of which Roy Earle was both. For Raft, passing on Roy Earle and “High Sierra” may seem as folly, but his deadpan face and monotone delivery, which played effectively against the whirling dervish of Ida Lupino as Lana Carlsen in “They Drive By Night,” would have fallen deadly flat opposite the introspective longing and loneliness that practically oozed from Lupino’s Marie in “High Sierra.”
In what is probably the most relaxed scene in the film since the opening shots of Roy’s first sunlit day outside prison walls, he and Marie stop to rest along the road, after having driven from the southern desert to the northern mountains. They begin to contemplate a future together.
“High Sierra” proved that Bogart could play convincingly a leading man and love interest, and equally important, he showed an ability to carry a scene and, if need be, an entire film. For “High Sierra,” paired with Ida Lupino, he didn’t have to do either, at least not in the scenes with Marie. But it’s not at all surprising that his work in this film, co-written by John Huston, would naturally lead Bogart to more good opportunities including his next film, one which despite a fantastic supporting cast he did dominate, “The Maltese Falcon,” co-written and directed by Huston who was by then a good friend and enthusiastic supporter of the now-legendary star.
It is in these location shots, well into the second half of the film, that the work of Director of Photography Tony Gaudio commands your attention almost as much as the action in the film’s plot. By 1941, Gaudio was already, a semi-legendary cinematographer. The son of a photographer, born in Italy and working in the earliest Italian cinema, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1906, where he shot films for Vitagraph, Carl Laemmle’s I.M.P., Biograph, First National and Warner Brothers, in the years leading up to “High Sierra.” He was a favorite cameraman of Norma Talmadge and Bette Davis.
Much of Bogart’s prior film work consisted of scowling characters who growled, twitched and snarled — roles in which he was typecast, partly because of his saturnine appearance, but also by his tremendous success on Broadway as the murderous Duke Mantee in the stage drama “The Petrified Forest,” which he was able to reprise in the 1936 Warners film version. Bogart had been part of the early wave of Broadway performers to migrate west to test the waters of motion pictures with the advent of sound, but his Broadway roles up to then had been leading men, romantic leads. In his early film work, his romantic leading man persona didn’t translate to film. He wasn’t the second coming of William Powell that some in Hollywood may have hoped for.
Had Bogart gotten his start in films with Warner Brothers, as did Cagney, playing similar roles as Cagney’s, the two of them might have risen simultaneously to the top of the heap at Warners. Instead, Bogart suffered the cinematic ignominy best exemplified by his character, the despicable mob boss, ex-pal of Cagney’s Eddie in Raoul Walsh’s epic elegy to the Prohibition-era gangster, “The Roaring Twenties” (WB, 1939), in which he is shot to death by Cagney’s destitute, alcoholic ex-gangster Eddie while cowering on the floor in a corner, literally crying “Please, Eddie, Please don’t Eddie, crazy, please, Eddie, please . . . !”
These shots of Roy and Marie with their car at the rest stop (also in the next set below) foreshadow eerily the more relaxed moments along the road in another film about a different pair of criminals on the run. Real life contemporaries of the fictional character Roy Earle, their brief lives outside the law were depicted in a film made almost thirty years later — “Bonnie and Clyde.”
Ida Lupino had been making movies as long as Bogart, with about as much success — a tune with the same tired refrain — supporting roles in a few good films, leads in B movies, the butt-ends of a double bill. She had attracted positive critical notice for her work in “The Light That Failed” in 1939, her final effort at the end of her contract with Paramount, and the press couldn’t help but notice her in the role of the homicidal adulteress Lana Carlsen in “They Drive By Night,” her first project with Warner Brothers. Paramount’s loss was Warners’ gain for most of the decade of the 1940s.
Lupino was a delicate-looking porcelain beauty — almost too pretty to be thought of as sexy, at least in the heyday of the platinum blonde. Aside from featuring her beauty, and her pleasant soft but measured speaking voice– cultured and precise — she wasn’t often required to do much more than look pretty and smile or occasionally pout. Had Lupino gotten her start similarly at Warners with, say, Joan Blondell or Bette Davis, she might have been pushing them to make room as one of the tough-girls who stood up to the gangsters and assorted sociopathic characters that Warners featured so strongly in their action films of the early and mid-thirties. Yet despite years of treading water, Bogart and Lupino eventually found stardom at the same time, and in the same film: “High Sierra.”
The tension is palpable between Roy and Marie (Pard pays them no mind). They are driving to see Roy’s friends from Ohio, including Velma. Roy is only doing so out of courtesy — he had promised Velma that he would return to see her once she was able to walk. But Marie is still suspicious. Roy asks her to stay in the car while he goes inside — he won’t be long.
But Marie uses Pard as a ploy to gain entry, “inadvertently.” She “chases” the little dog through the front door and into the house . . .
Marie and Velma (Joan Leslie) finally meet. Face to face. Each wondering what the other really means to Roy.
They seem to actually like each other. But their smiles may owe more to relief — that Velma has a “new” man, that Roy has another woman.
But Roy takes an instant dislike to Velma’s new man, a total phony in Roy’s eyes — “Get your hands off me!”
Roy would love nothing more than to take a swing at him. Marie pulls him back ever so subtly, and exhibits a new-found confidence in their relationship that allows her this tiny bit of possessiveness . . .
And back in the car, Marie is all smiles. Even more so when Roy gives her a ring (one that he would presumably have saved for Velma, had she not rejected him). Marie asks nothing further; she is overwhelmed by Roy’s proposal.
Roy’s gunshot would hasn’t healed and is getting worse, but it doesn’t affect the joy they feel . . .
until Roy catches a “stalker.” Someone who has identified Roy by his photo in the newspaper — Roy clubs the man and locks him in a closet. He scans the paper angrily . . .
The papers are referring to him now as “MAD DOG EARLE.” Roy, despite his pain, angrily throws the paper to the floor.
Now Roy has been brought back down to earth, down to reality, the reality of the situation he — they both — are now in. He knows that their being together puts Marie in the same situation and exposes her to the same potential harm as him — an armed robber, a “cop killer” on the run from the law.
Marie’s sad reverie is interrupted — from a loudspeaker she hears the name “Roy Earle” “fugitive” and news of a massive manhunt in which the forces of the law have surrounded “Mad Dog Earle” high in the Sierras.
Marie makes her way back to the mountains to the police rope surrounding the area — which she crosses . . .
As a deputy tries to push Marie back behind the rope, a radio news reporter on the scene sees her — she fits the description of Roy Earle’s “female companion named Marie,” travelling with a little dog . . .
He gets closer and begins to talk to Marie . . . and the little dog Pard peeks out from the basket . . .
He turns to the deputy who has stopped her, and intones “Meet Marie.” Marie is then led to the police who have Roy, high up on the mountain, under siege. And as the sun starts to set, the law and Roy and Marie, appear headed for a long night.
Roy from the beginning of the film wants nothing more than to go straight, but he is convinced that to do so, he must complete one last job. Then he can be happy and be with the girl he has fallen for. He can have Velma’s foot fixed, marry her and with the money from this last job, he can live out the remainder of his life happy and in peace.
But from the time of his pardon, he has made a series of bad choices, each one compounding his problems, keeping him from his goal. Velma is a spoiled brat who did not tell Roy until after her foot surgery that she has a serious boyfriend back home and that she wants to marry him. Roy learned this only after he had been blinded to any alternative by his infatuation with this immature girl half his age.
Roy could have dumped his inept partners, Red and Babe. His first impression of them as “jitterbuggers” was right on target. He kept allowing them to stay, even after Babe beat Marie and Red. He took a huge risk knowing that his old mob boss was terminally ill and could either die or become incapacitated or be “rubbed out” by competing interests before, during or after the heist took place.
He has one positive in his life since parole: Marie. And he almost throws her under the bus. He saves his one good decision for Marie — sending her out of harm’s way on a bus heading to San Francisco. But for Roy, there is no easy way out — and there would be no more alternatives. All his other poor decisions combined led to his final “crash-out” in the High Sierras.
“Especially, is Miss Lupino impressive as the adoring moll,” Bosley Crowther, NYT review of “High Sierra,” Jan. 25, 1941.
In her first decade in movies, Ida Lupino failed to find a niche. Or more accurately, the industry as it functioned at the peak of the Hollywood studio system could not place her. She was beautiful, which is never a problem, but in a delicate way. She seemed fragile in an era where brassy blondes seemed to get the youthful roles. The roles Lupino was suited for — despite her looks — were those of more mature, even older women. Roles that Bette Davis more or less inherited from Ruth Chatterton at Warners — two actresses who were, respectively, ten and twenty years older than Ida Lupino. She had the talent, but she had to grow a bit, pay the dues, like a penalty for her somewhat premature arrival in Hollywood. By the time of “They Drive By Night,” barely out of her teens, she was sure enough of her ability to tackle a role that would cause any other 20-year-old to crumble.
Ida Lupino is famously quoted as calling herself “the poor man’s Bette Davis.” That may have literally been true at Warner Brothers in the ’40s where she was number two to Bette Davis and the big budget productions in which Davis was featured. But if it is a reference to acting style or persona, it is off the mark. Ida Lupino could be characterized as the female counterpart to James Cagney. Small, but tough, fast-talking — the delivery of her lines that she learned to vary in speed to great effect as she gained experience. Although it may be as much a function of the difference between the two characters, Lana and Marie, as well as the direction she was given, we can see mood swings of Marie made believable by the change in tempo most notable in the scenes in “High Sierra” in which she finds herself heading into conflict — with “Babe” in their first scene in the film, with Roy after he finds her bruised and in hiding at the cabin after returning from LA.
But Ida Lupino is most effective in the tearful scenes, which she performs without resorting to burying her face in a pillow or a man’s shoulder. She does it on three occasions, three different scenes in the film — the first two with Roy, the last at the very end of the film — without once seeming whiny or the least bit excessive. Again, this may be direction that she’s received, but the director obviously had confidence in the actor’s ability to pull it off convincingly.
Some final thoughts on “They Drive By Night” and “High Sierra.” Both were produced by Mark Hellinger nad Hal Wallis for Warner Brothers, both were directed by Raoul Walsh, both had Ida Lupino, obviously, and Humphrey Bogart, with solid supporting casts from the WB company of contract players. Both films, essentially had the same production units and were considered “A” pictures at the time of their release five months apart: a general American release in August of 1940 for “They Drive By Night” and January 1941 for “High Sierra.” But with all the similarities, there are significant, identifiable differences in the two films.
Let’s start with the smaller, or more accurately, the less obvious ones. “They Drive By Night,” despite its title and its first half story of the work and lives of over-the-road truckers, is an interior film. And not just the “courtroom melodrama” of the second half. The entire film was shot on Warner Brothers sound stages or back lots, including the driving sequences (which are actually minimal), with the exception of the special effects crash sequences.
“High Sierra,” despite its title and sunny opening and picturesque closing sequences, is also essentially an interior film until the final 20 minutes. Gangsters holed up in mountain cabin planning the robbery of jewels from a resort hotel safe. This does change after the disastrous robbery and the film moves outdoors in the final sequence leading to the climax literally high in the Sierras. The location sequences alone do not make “High Sierra” a better film, but it is almost unimaginable that “High Sierra” would be nearly as good if its story turned inward and finished with the capture, incarceration and trial of Roy Earle. Perhaps it is simply a better story, or a better screen adaptation of the original story, or as was the case in both films, a novel.
That John Huston was involved in “High Sierra” may not have made a difference in the general plot adapted from a novel, but that novel was written by W. R. Burnett who co-wrote the screenplay with Huston. Although I am not familiar with the source material, I am inclined to believe that Huston — never a timid storyteller, writer, director or actor — played a significant role in making the a script as powerful as writers possibly could.
The visual differences are also striking. Most of “They Drive By Night” is conventionally staged, lit and photographed — it may have had something to do with the budgets allocated for each production — “They Drive By Night” has simple camera set-ups, few exteriors. basic editing and storytelling. One primary reason visually, aside from the films’ budgetary considerations, was the choice of Tony Gaudio as cinematographer on “High Sierra.” Gaudio even in 1940 was an almost-legendary figure in his craft. He was born in Italy, Antonio Gaudio, son of a photographer. He worked in early Italian cinema and emigrated to America in 1906, where he became a cinematographer in the early years of American motion pictures.
Gaudio worked for Vitagraph, Carl Laemmle’s I.M.P., Biograph, First National and Warner Brothers. He was a founding member of the American Society of Cinematographers, and an early President of the organization. One of his more recent assignments prior to “High Sierra” was to shoot the all-Technicolor “The Adventures of Robin Hood” for Warners in 1938, their most expensive film project to date. Along with Sol Polito, he was typically assigned to work on the studio’s most important films. Having learned his craft in silent cinema, he brings an expressiveness — not simply in tackling the gorgeous Sierras of northern California, but in the faces, and in particular the face of Marie in the final sequence of the film, especially the final shot of Marie, essentially wordless — it is a scene that would not be out-of-place next to the best examples of the art of silent film.
These are the elements that make “High Sierra” an outstanding film rather than a simply good one. “They Drive By Night” is good “classic movie” fodder. “High Sierra” is an iconic work.
[“High Sierra” was directed by Raoul Walsh, with screenplay by John Huston and W. R. Burnett from the novel by W. R. Burnett, and produced by Mark Hellinger and Hal Wallis for Warner Brothers. It premiered in Hollywood January 21, 1941 and in New York on January 24, 1941, with general release in the U.S. January 25, 1941.]