Humphrey Bogart (High Sierra) – Best Actor of 1941

Other Noteworthy Performances: Humphrey Bogart (The Maltese Falcon), Charles Boyer (Hold Back the Dawn), James Cagney (The Strawberry Blonde), Charles Coburn (The Devil and Miss Jones), Gary Cooper (Ball of Fire), Gary Cooper (Sergeant York), Jean Gabin (Remorques), Cary Grant (Penny Serenade), Cary Grant (Suspicion), Will Hay (The Ghost of St. Michael’s), Chojuro Kawarasaki (The 47 Ronin), Laurence Olivier (That Hamilton Woman), Walter Pigeon (Man Hunt), Michael Redgrave (Kipps), Edward G. Robinson (The Sea Wolf), Orson Welles (Citizen Kane), Robert Young (H.M. Pulham, Esq.)

Humphrey Bogart goes on the run as Roy Earle (with Ida Lupino) in "High Sierra"

Humphrey Bogart played the tough guy better than anyone (with the possible exception of James Cagney). He had played a series of mostly supporting roles throughout the second half of the 1930s at Warner Bros., usually as a mindless goon mucking up the elegant plans of Cagney or Edward G. Robinson. Nineteen forty one was the year Bogart finally broke through with two roles that established the manly Bogie persona and him as a bona fide star: The Maltese Falcon and High Sierra.

The Maltese Falcon is the movie more popularly remembered, and rightly so. It’s a better film, but Bogart’s performance in High Sierra is layered and nuanced in a way that his Sam Spade isn’t. Roy “Mad Dog” Earle has vague memories of the ferocious tough guy he once was, but years in prison have smoothed him out. He uses violence, brutality, and intimidation, not because he is so irredeemably vicious, but because he doesn’t know how else to get what he needs. Bogart translates the moral conflict that rages inside Earle in a way that we are able identify with. We want him to get what he wants – not the jewels, but the quiet, decent life he longs for but has no ideas how to make a reality.

That is what distinguishes Earle from other tough guys we’ve seen, even those who want out. The kindness and sensitivity are close to the surface and when Earle does use violence, we understand it isn’t because he’s a monster, but because it’s what people expect and it’s all he knows. Earle’s connection with the young girl with the club foot and her folksy Midwestern family kindles his burgeoning decency, but his prior instincts usurp them. He steals jewels so she can get an operation. A bad deed followed by a fine outcome. But how else was he supposed to help her? Even if someone would hire the notorious ex-con at a legitimate job, it would take years to save enough to help her. He is a man essentially consigned to a life of crime by a society that will never trust him, no matter how badly he wants to change.

It’s a truly masterful piece of acting by a man often dismissed for playing the same roles over and over. Of course he didn’t play the same roles (though even if he did, he still played them better than most so-called actors). He may have specialized in the tough guy with a streak of compassion, but he had a range that his filmography shows was much broader than that. I still say, despite arguments to the contrary, that he gave one of his best performances late in his career as the paranoid Navy commander in The Caine Mutiny (1954). But High Sierra was the first truly great performance he committed to film with many more to come over the next fifteen years or so.



Filed under 1941, Yearly Best Performances

7 responses to “Humphrey Bogart (High Sierra) – Best Actor of 1941

  1. I think I agree with you that Bogart gives a greater performance in ‘High Sierra’ even though ‘The Maltese Falcon’ is the greater film, though I hadn’t quite thought of it like that before. Some other wonderful performances listed here too!

    • Ah, I see you weren’t carried away by rioters. I am glad to hear all is well and you can still consider classic movies as seriously as they deserve.

      I hadn’t thought of it before either. In fact I’m not sure I was completely aware that they were released the same year. That is part of the joy of this project. I get to see lots of great (and not so great) movies and make these connections that would have otherwise passed me by. And I get a relatively accurate overview of movie history. Though my life is crazier now and I have less time to devote to this, I am still loving it.

      • Thanks, Jason, all is well with me – I’ve been away on holiday in the New Forest for a week and go back to work today. Glad to hear you are still loving your project even though you don’t have so much time. I definitely agree that watching films made around the same time is interesting, to find connections and see how movie history developed.

  2. Jason:

    This is that rare disagreement. The Best Actor performance of this year is clearly Walter Huston for “All That Money Can Buy” (a.k.a. The Devil and Daniel Webster) which didn’t even place among your nearlies. I liked Bogar in HIGH SIERRA, but prefer him in THE MALTESE FALCON, and would place Orson Welles ahead of his HIGH SIERRA work too. But as always it’s individual taste and perceptions.

    Best Actor:

    Walter Huston (All That Money Can Buy)


    Humphrey Bogart The Maltese Falcon,
    Henry Fonda The Lady Eve.
    Jean Gabin Remorques,
    Peter Lorre The Face Behind the Mask,
    Joel McCrea Sullivan’s Travels,
    Laurence Olivier That Hamilton Woman,
    Eric Portman Forty-Ninth Parallel,
    Orson Welles Citizen Kane,
    Monty Woolley The Man Who Came to Dinner
    Humphrey Bogart High Sierra,
    Charles Boyer Hold Back the Dawn
    James Cagney The Strawberry Blonde,
    Lon Chaney Jnr The Wolf Man,
    Charles Coburn The Devil in Miss Jones
    Gary Cooper Sergeant York,
    Gary Cooper Meet John Doe,
    Errol Flynn They Died With Their Boots On,
    Cary Grant Penny Serenade,
    Cary Grant Suspicion
    Charley Grapewin Tobacco Road,
    Rex Harrison Major Barbara,
    Will Hay The Ghost of St. Michael’s
    Walter Pidgeon Man Hunt,
    Michael Redgrave Kipps
    Edward G. Robinson The Sea Wolf
    Robert Young H.M. Pulham, Esq.

    • I’m not sure we disagree all that much on the worth of Huston’s performance. He is fantastic in All That Money Can Buy. My disagreement with you here is he isn’t the lead in that movie. He was a supporting player and he made my runner-up list for best supporting actor. I know he dominates and we walk away from that movie not even remembering the lead, but remembering Huston, but he has a lot less screen time than James Craig.

      Bogart is great in both this one and Maltese Falcon, though as I said, this one edges it out. I agree though that Welles is great too in a performance that is often overlooked.

      A great and comprehensive nearly list as always.

  3. “He uses violence, brutality, and intimidation, not because he is so irredeemably vicious, but because he doesn’t know how else to get what he needs. Bogart translates the moral conflict that rages inside Earle in a way that we are able identify with. We want him to get what he wants – not the jewels, but the quiet, decent life he longs for but has no ideas how to make a reality.”

    This is really perceptively written. I love both The Maltese Falcon and High Sierra, but I place High Sierra perhaps a little above MF precisely because of this moral complexity at the heart of the movie. I’ve watched this film over 50 times and still I get something new from each viewing. Ida Lupino was one of the great noir actresses – and a not bad filmmaker in her own right.

    • Thanks Rohan! I take this as a high compliment from someone who has seen the movie so many times. I haven’t seen it anywhere near 50 time — more like 2 time — so I can only imagine how much more you have been able to get from it. And it occurs to me that I don’t think I have seen any of the movies Lupino directed. I will have to remedy that soon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s