We’ve been watching a lot of Coen Brothers films of late, which display so much love for the Golden Age of Hollywood that we’ve started to revisit some of those old movies ourselves. Of course Spouse and I remember them from their endless TV re-runs from the 1960s to the 1980s, but it’s amazing how much you can forget. Significantly, while it’s easy to recall their style and their implausibly charismatic dialogue, one tends to forget their editing and dramaturgy. Coming to a classic like High Sierra after watching a lot of neo-Noir flicks is a bit of a shock, because later films made in homage to pictures like this tend to employ an extremely modern cinematic vocabulary, one to which we’re so accustomed that we rarely notice it. It’s only on returning to the source that you can see how much has changed.
I don’t know what it’s like on set, then or now, but I’m guessing that contemporary directors such as the Coens usually find good actors and give them their head, whereas directors in the Golden Age studio system, like Raoul Walsh who directed High Sierra, demanded that his actors do precisely what he told them—and he was probably doing precisely what the producer told him. This is my guess because in every scene of this film, the actors that aren’t directly involved in the dialogue tend to just stand there waiting for their lines. Even a family travelling in a car that’s just narrowly avoided a fatal accident appear almost completely unmoved by the incident, and other than a few of the principal actors, nobody here seems to be doing more than delivering their lines. Only Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino give the impression they’re actually inhabiting their characters.
As we noted when we watched Bringing Up Baby, editing in that era was also far less crisp than it is in later film-making, but I guess that when we watched these films as kids this was just what we expected to see. It goes to show how hard it is to make yourself aware of some of the technical aspects of film-making, even though they’re on display right in front of you: only the dedicated cinéaste will get to the final reel with much of an idea how many cuts there were, what kinds of shots were used and so on. The rest of us just see the story, unless we happen to watch a film where all of those things are handled very differently from what we’re used to.
So leaving all of that aside, this is a classic film noir, starring Bogart in his first leading role—and also his last role as a gangster. The Hays code was in full force when High Sierra was made, so it wasn’t allowed to end well for him, and all the violence and sexuality is pretty low-key, but overall it’s a very sympathetic portrayal of a hardened criminal. The presence of a cute dog sub-plot seems slightly out of step with the predominant tone of the movie, but the dog playing the part belonged to Bogart, so this may have been an indulgence. It offered an opportunity for his character, who kills and steals without any compunction, to demonstrate his kindness and compassion—a theme also developed when he pays for a young woman with a club foot to have corrective surgery.
This is a heist movie. The heist goes wrong, and Bogart’s ambition to ‘crash out’ of his life of crime with Ida Lupino (whose dime-a-dance gal he ends up with after the lass with the club foot rejects him) is inevitably thwarted. I won’t bother to paraphrase it any more than to say that it has all the obligatory scenes and tropes of the heist movie, as recently outlined in Mark Kermode’s entertaining and informative Secrets of Cinema series. The entire edifice is constructed around Bogart and Lupino. The peculiar magnetism of the Golden Age screen star is in full play here, an alchemical amalgam of looks, stylish delivery and the way that every scene is made to revolve around them.
The chemistry between the principals is also palpable. Bogart is obviously best known for his screen partnership with Lauren Bacall, but there’s a complementarity between the strength and poise of these two charismatic actors: individually they can own the camera, but together there’s a synergy that it’s hard to look away from. Lupino didn’t enjoy being an actor. She was an English, RADA trained thespian with enormous talent and intelligence, and she was never happy with the clichéd, secondary roles available to women in the Golden Age. She went on to crash out of the studio system, and found an independent production company. She also directed eight films, including The Hitch-Hiker (1953), the first film noir to be directed by a woman.
So this film is a real pleasure, but it is of course one that can only be enjoyed if the viewer is willing to make some allowances for the enormous changes to cinematic technique that have occurred since 1941 when it was filmed. It’s stylish and exciting, and uses a lot of location shooting, which makes it feel less artificial than many films of the era. It’s also not at all moralistic in its tone, and the only real ‘bad guy’ in it is an ex-cop, despite the era’s censorious standards in depictions of criminality—although of course the code mandated that Bogart’s character crash out of life altogether in the final reel. Lupino and Bogart might be a great cinematic partnership that never was, and for me, as the studio doubtless intended, it’s their scenes together that light this movie up.
I think another reason the background and supporting actors tend to kind of just stand around in movies like this is that back then, movies were more directly linked to stage plays. The staging and mise en scene tended to resemble a play, with a kind of static frame built around the two or three main characters in the scene. On stage, background actors often don’t do a whole lot of “acting” because it pulls focus from the main characters, but magnified by the lens of the camera, it looks weird. Just my conjecture.
I agree, the whole thing feels very stagey—except when Bogart or Lupino are on screen, when it feels quintessentially cinematic! I didn’t know about Ida Lupino but she’s superb- she only acted in a few flicks then went in to direct.