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 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.