Thursday, January 24, 2013


Raoul Walsh's High Sierra is my favorite Humphrey Bogart movie. The first of Bogart's 1941 breakthrough pictures that made him a leading-man star, it's overshadowed by the other one, The Maltese Falcon. So successful was Falcon that Warner Bros. stopped making films of Dashiell Hammett's novel after that third try. The studio did not retire W. R. Burnett's source novel for High Sierra, however. Walsh himself put it in western dress as Colorado Territory in 1948, and seven years later Stuart Heisler brought the story back into the 20th century with a brand new title that suggests something closer to despair than the tragic grandeur of the original movie. Admittedly, the High Sierra story could benefit from color and Cinemascope in ways not obviously beneficial to The Maltese Falcon. While the location work often looks good, Heisler lack's Walsh's more poetic sensibility and his feel for atmosphere. He makes a mistake right out of the gate, dispensing with the opening scene in which Roy Earle, an aging Dillinger type, is released from prison. In the original, you immediately get the contrast between imprisonment and the freedom that matters so much to Earle -- not to mention the mockery of freedom resulting from his surprise pardon, engineered only so he can take part in a hotel heist. Heisler's film opens with Earle already on the road to the tourist camp where his partners await him. Blame that on the script or on studio editing, but Heisler lacks visual flare. He usually stages scenes in long shots that emphasize the wide screen in a way that makes the sets, particularly the criminals' quarters, look oversized and artificial. The color throughout is overly bright and garish. The most interestingly thing Heisler does occasionally is tilt his camera, but you get the impression that he does that mainly so he can fit the heads of tall actors into shots where other performers are laying down. That and the actors are what you'll most likely remember about this film.

The actors face a greater challenge than Heisler. The biggest challenge faces Jack Palance, the remake's Roy Earle. I Died comes from the brief period when Hollywood contemplated making Palance not just a star but a leading man, maybe a Bogart for his time. He's just a little too young for the role, however -- bear in mind that Bogart himself was made to look older to play Earle. Palance is too strange a figure with his height and his angular face to match Bogart's everyman gravitas -- in his dark suits in the film's bright settings he becomes something like a piece of abstract animation. There's an odd serenity about him, when he isn't shooting people or keeping his punk partners in line, exemplified by his line, "I'm not angry at anybody." Maybe coldness is the word I'm looking for, but his co-star is partly to blame for that. If Palance is no replacement for Bogart he's at least an honorable alternative, but in place of High Sierra's Ida Lupino I Died casts Shelley Winters, and it's game over right there. If Palance seems too young for his part Winters definitely seems too old for the role Lupino played. She's too intense, compared to Lupino's slow burn, yet without achieving any real chemistry with Palance. I suppose her performance does help you understand why this film's Earle is initially more interested in the clubfooted but pretty Velma (Lori Nelson replaces Joan Leslie), whose surgery he pays for only to be rebuffed by the shallow girl. But you believed it anyway the first time, while it's harder to understand Earle's attraction to the Winters character. You really shouldn't have that problem watching this story.

Otherwise, this film is a feast of familiar faces, from Lon Chaney Jr. having an easy time (and a good scene) as a bedridden, boozing gangster to Lee Marvin implausibly cast as a mere "punk" whom Palance pistol-whips in one of the few scenes more impressively staged here than by Walsh, to fleeting glances of Warners prospects Dennis Hopper and Nick Adams. The cast deserves a better film than Heisler made, and the idea of remaking High Sierra with modern movie technology wasn't a bad one. But if Heisler was just going to plant Palance in soundstage mountains during the climax while the second unit romps on the real mountain, you can't help asking why anyone bothered.

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