Crime movies often eschew such subtleties as character development in favor of car chases and gun fights. Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra is a rare type of crime picture that is first and foremost a character study of a man who knows he wants to change his life in some vague, abstract way, but has no idea how to go about it. The obligatory robberies and gunfights are there, but they aren’t nearly as compelling as watching Humphrey Bogart’s Roy Earle struggle with the only life he knows – crime – and his apparent desire for a quite, honest life and to do right, both for himself and others.
At the start of the picture Roy has just been paroled from prison in Indiana, but going straight is never a consideration. He immediately breaks his parole by leaving the state to go to California to reconnect with Red (Arthur Kennedy), his former crime boss. What, after all, would Roy have done in Indiana? Honest businesses aren’t usually lining up to hire aging ex-cons. In California Red sends him to a lakeside resort in the Sierra Mountains to meet up with a couple of other hoods. Together they are to plan and execute a jewelry heist in a ritzy Palm Springs-esque desert resort on the other side of the mountain with Roy as their leader.
The hoods Roy meets up with are young crooks in awe of the legend of “Mad Dog” Earle, a nickname that belies Roy’s calm, quiet demeanor. Roy takes charge of the operation with efficiency and menace, batting down any indications of dissension, conflict, or challenges to his authority. One possible wrinkle in their plans is the presence of a girlfriend, Marie (Ida Lupino). One of the crooks brought Marie along for the company (or the prestige of having a beautiful woman on his arm), but it doesn’t take long for the two young men to start squabbling over her. Naturally Marie takes the opportunity opened by the bickering to cozy up to Roy.
Roy is tough and is committed to pulling off this job, but years in prison and his approach to old age (I love the touch of grey hair at his temples) makes him hunger for something deeper than money, they only positive asset one can acquire through a career of crime. While he is putting the jewelry heist together and kindling a romance with Marie, he also develops a friendship with a salt of the earth type Midwestern family that he met on the road traveling to California. Roy is attracted to their values and honesty, but he is especially taken with their 20-year-old granddaughter Velma (Joan Leslie). He is charmed by her innocence, intrigued by her beauty and naivety, and moved by her clubbed foot that causes her to walk with a pronounced limp. He vows to get the money to pay for her operation, giving Velma a new lease on life and possibly beginning to reclaim his own soul (though he never grapples with the dilemma of using stolen money to do it).
Humphrey Bogart gives a masterfully nuanced performance as the conflicted criminal. He is almost schizophrenically divided between what he wants to be and what either history, tradition, or nature has demanded he has to be. Though tension between Bogart and Ida Lupino reportedly caused Lupino to vow never to work with him again (which probably ultimately hurt her career), they have good chemistry together. I especially like that we’re never sure how things are going to work out, even though the Hayes Office ensures we know what will happen to Roy. After Velma gets her operation the outcome is unexpected both for Roy and for us. It seems he really can’t get away from his past, no matter how pure his intentions. He corrupts everything he touches and it’s a poignant moment when he realizes he can’t even perform an act of charity without negative consequences. And it’s not just that operation that goes wrong. The heist backfires and Roy has to go on the run. The only question is will Marie be dragged down with him?