Film Review: High Sierra (1941)

Release Date: January 23rd, 1941 (Los Angeles, Louisville and Providence)
Directed by: Raoul Walsh
Written by: John Huston, W.R. Burnett
Based on: High Sierra by W.R. Burnett
Music by: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, Alan Curtis, Arthur Kennedy, Joan Leslie, Willie Best

Warner Bros., 100 Minutes

Review:

“Of all the 14 karat saps… starting out on a caper with a woman and a dog.” – Roy Earle

High Sierra came out just before The Maltese Falcon, which is one of the films from 1941 credited with the birth of the film-noir style. However, like a few other Humphrey Bogart crime pictures before it, High Sierra is very much film-noir.

The story sees an aged criminal named Roy Earle get out of prison, only to plan one big retirement job so that he can give himself a big nest egg before he hangs up his criminal ways for good. Along the way, he meets the young Velma and her family. Velma needs a surgery to give her back her mobility. Earle, falling for the young girl, has plans to do the job, pay for the girl’s surgery and then ride off together in the sunset. But a lot of curveballs are thrown and Ida Lupino’s Marie has her eye on Earle.

Even though Bogart plays a criminal, planning a big heist, he is a likable and charismatic character, often times acting with his hearty instead of his head. Watching the film, there is a part of me that felt that he was a character that could redeem himself by film’s end. But being that this is noir, bad things happen to people that don’t walk the straight and narrow.

The performances from all the main players were really good in this movie. Bogart and Lupino had fantastic chemistry and I feel as if the world should have seen them play off of each other more than what we got. I loved Lupino in this and Bogart was typical badass Bogart.

I also liked the dog that always tried to save the day and Willie Best’s character Algernon was a delight.

The movie has a sadness to it because you are pulling for Earle to make it out of this thing unscathed but you also know that it’s not possible.

The big standoff in the Sierras was really well shot and executed. Raoul Walsh was a fine director and his work here was no different. Also, he was working off of a script form John Huston, who would become a great filmmaker in his own right.

High Sierra is a very layered film with a lot of emotional depth from it’s two top players.

All in all, a great early film-noir with powerful leads and a good amount of energy and emotion in the big finale.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: other Bogart noir and crime pictures: The Maltese FalconKey Largo, Dark Passage, etc.

Film Review: White Heat (1949)

Release Date: September 2nd, 1949 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Raoul Walsh
Written by: Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts
Based on: White Heat by Virginia Kellogg
Music by: Max Steiner
Cast: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Margaret Wycherly, Steve Cochran

Warner Bros., 114 Minutes

Review:

“Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” – Cody Jarrett

White Heat takes the gangster genre that made James Cagney famous and marries it to the film-noir style of the 1940s with absolute perfection. Sure, there are a lot of noir movies with gangsters in them but none quite hit the perfect note like this motion picture, a true triumph for all parties involved in its creation and execution.

Having just revisited this after several years, I can’t think of any other actors that could have captured their characters as well as the top three billed stars here.

James Cagney, as great as he was before this, has never been better as a sadistic gangster. It’s as if everything before this movie was training, prepping him for the role of a lifetime and while this might not be his most famous picture, it is my personal favorite and it also comes with the most famous line he ever spoke. He was scary, calculating and had this sort of reptilian body language that kept you on edge, not knowing what and how he was going to react to anything.

Virginia Mayo was an incredible femme fatale in this and while she may at first seem pretty text book, she just has this extra edge to her that pushes her to the forefront of the noir style, as one of the absolute best women to ever exude evilness on the silver screen.

Edmond O’Brien hit all the right notes as the undercover cop sent into prison to infiltrate the gang of Cagney’s Cody Jarrett. He was convincing on both sides of the coin, as a noble cop and a loyal gangster, winning over Jarrett’s trust.

While Raoul Walsh is a stupendous director, he had great help from the script by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts. While I haven’t read the original Virginia Kellogg novel, the duo of Goff and Roberts really crafted a script that moved at a great pace and had several layers worked in, adding more luster and depth to the narrative, as well as fantastic dialogue and intense action scenes that were better than what was the Hollywood norm in the late ’40s. I love the whole sequence towards the end with the police radio cars and the cops using the big map to pinpoint Jarrett’s location before the big finale.

Walsh also benefited for having the right people for the right job in regards to the cinematography. He had Sidney Hickox at his side, who by 1949 already boasted over three decades worth of cinematography experience. Coming into White Heat, he already had some solid credits to his name with his work on To Have and Have NotThe Big SleepAll Through the Night and Dark Passage. Being one of the top visual architects of the noir style, Hickox’s work here was no different. The scenes in Jarrett’s jail cell, the prison factory and the big finale all look majestic and are clear examples of how visually magical Hollywood was at the time.

I also can’t ignore the score of Max Steiner, one of the heavyweights of the era. He worked in mellow and melodic tunes in the lighter scenes but went with some real intensity with the bigger action sequences. Steiner could generate a lot of musical flare and his work here added more tension to the biggest scenes in the movie.

White Heat is pretty much a perfect film that has aged incredibly well and is fast paced enough that it will probably resonate with the attention deficit audiences of today, assuming they can put their phones down for more than fifteen seconds. This comes in at just under two hours but it uses that time well and is actually a great character study of Cagney’s Jarrett character, his ticks and his skewed world view.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: Cagney’s original claim to fame Public Enemy, as well as Angels With Dirty Faces, ‘G’ MenThe Asphalt JungleThe Big Heat and Smart Money.