20 July 2001 | telegonus
W.R. Burnett's novel High Sierra is maybe his best book; it's certainly a classic of its type, and very readable and moving even today. The movie version of the book isn't quite as good, but it does something few adaptations do: it captures the spirit of the original.
The story is about a John Dillinger-like criminal, Roy Earle, just released from prison, and his planning of his last 'heist', as he moves from the Midwest to California. It's as much a character study as anything else, and here the book is better, as Burnett seems to get inside the heart and soul of Roy Earle in ways that screenwriter John Huston and director Raoul Walsh can't. This isn't their fault. Burnett gives us Earle's inner life in interior monologues, and movies simply can't do this. Nevertheless, we get a feeling for Earle, a lonely, extremely sentimental and romantic man, essentially a frontier type, or with more brains an artist, who cannot fit into modern life. The reason is simple: he doesn't understand it. He is driven by two things, strong emotions and extreme professionalism. The problem is that his profession is crime. Between these two extremes he is unsocialized, or rather doesn't understand the subtlety of contemporary life. To put it in current parlance, he's not hip, which is to say he has no detachment, no capacity for pulling back and reflecting, unless, that is, he is in love, and even then he gets it wrong by misunderstanding an attractive, crippled girl's reliance on him for love, and taking her country girl disposition for naivite (i.e. like him), which isn't true. This tragic aspect of Roy Earle is beautifully and perceptively described by Burnett, and while it's present in the film, it makes Roy seem obtuse, while the truth is his emotions run deep, and are sincere. He wants to give up crime and marry a small-town girl so that he can go back and get it right again. In the lead role Humphrey Bogart gives a major performance. Superficially he's wrong for Roy Earle: too urban, flip, smart and clever. But he trades in his natural big city persona for a moony, brooding romanticism, and it works. He doesn't seem the least bit sophisticated, and in his quieter moments he comes off like a man who can kill the way other men write checks
He has a true girl-friend in Ida Lupino, but he doesn't realize that she's more his type: life-weary, straightforward, deep and caring. He prefers the one he can't get, and this gets him in trouble, as his commitment to her puts him in a dreamy, dissociative state that is dangerous for a man in his line of work. The story builds on little things, and the bucolic mountain and small-town setting of the film is terra incognita for Roy, and we sense this even if he doesn't. He is, for all his professionalism, way out of his league, and is looking back to his idealized, romanticized early life, and longing for an ideal girl that he can 'fix', rather than doing the right thing and going off with Lupino and stating anew, which is his only chance for happiness.
Roy is a man who lives in two parallel worlds, the real, vicious one he must cope with, and the fantasy one he longs for and sees in the crippled girl he so tenderly loves. There is no in-between for him, as his head is in the clouds much of the time. It is therefore fitting that the movie ends up literally in the clouds, or so it seems, atop a mountain, as Roy shoots it out with reality one last time.