I was excited to see this cuz Bogart’s one of the figures, like Lauren Bacall and Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis and Charlie Chaplin and Cary Grant, that I wanna come out of the Project knowing a lot about. I keep meaning to get the biographies of these people but so far I’ve only read a handful, mainly cuzza time and lack of funds (feel free to contribute to Thousand Movie Project’s book budget by finding us on Venmo and PayPal!). But I didn’t like it. I was compelled by about the halfway point of High Sierra to be like, “OK I hate this and I’m probably gonna write something scathing or miserable,” but now that it’s done I think I was just wallowing over there not being as much action as I thought there’d be. I made a mistake of looking at the trailer before I watched it, and also sifting through the terrific poster art, and it’s pretty misleading. Makes it seem like the whole movie is gonna take place on a mountain where our hero, Roy (Bogart) is in a tommy gun standoff with police.
But that’s literally just the final scene.
And, spoilers, Bogart dies. But, of course, that has to happen. The Hays code demands it. He’s a troubled criminal with a heart of gold, tryna pull off One Last Score by robbing a bank. But, for all of his good intentions, the movie has to punish him. Cuz in the eyes of censors he’s a criminal first and they wanna create at least a movie world where the criminals all get punished. That and, as we’ve mentioned here before, the code was genuinely concerned with setting a bad example that audiences would emulate. The code doesn’t appear to’ve been all about just making filmmakers’ lives more difficult. It’s almost adorably earnest and naive, in some respects. Not letting married characters sleep in the same bed for fear of corrupting minds with a celebration of sex and intimacy.
Whatever. Anyway. The money Bogart steals from the bank goes toward the surgery that’ll repair the club foot of his love interest’s little brother, and he does his best not to get his girlfriend involved in the fallout from his robbery — where, after killing a guard, he’s on the lam worse than he anticipated. Not just robbery but murder. (Reminds me: I was watching Leon: The Professional with my high school sweetheart when, in the final shootout, she got really bent outta shape because the SWAT guys that the hero was murdering were probably decent people with families and dreams, just trying to do their difficult thankless job. She came to mind here because at the point when Bogart’s heist goes awry, and he kills the guard, I think my reflexive reaction, the one I was supposed to have, was concern for Bogart, whose character I’ve come to like at this point, and a hope that he’ll somehow get off the hook for this. At no point stopping to think, “Wow, the poor guard just got murdered for being an upstanding citizen.” The Hays code fails again.)
The movie felt kinda tedious at times but, as I think through it now, it’s got a good aftertaste. The beats of interesting scenes that come to mind have a nice flow to them: Bogart defending Marie from an abusive boyfriend, their first romantic rendezvous, the robbery itself, Boggart’s delivery of comeuppance to a double-crosser, and then I guess the shootout on the mountain is pretty interesting. It all just feels like less than the sum of its advertising.
My friend Pavel just wrote a review for Ant-Man and the Wasp and, after pointing out that all of the best action scenes were given away in the trailer, he mentions that, ten or fifteen years from now, when we just watch movies on the basis of their synopsis on a rental service, the trailers won’t matter. The movie will stand on its own. people will go to it without really knowing what to expect, and they’ll be delighted.
The List features lotsa movies that weren’t well-received at the time of release (Wizard of Oz being one of the most jarring examples) but that found their parade of fanfare somewhere down the line, sometimes decades later (Oz, again, didn’t really land with audiences until it started airing on TV in the ’60s), and one of the things I’d like to come away from the Project with — if it’s even possible — is the ability to watch a new release that people aren’t liking, or that they’re maybe just ignoring, and be able to see if it’s got legs or not, if it’ll age well.
I think the kinda movies where that down-the-road cult status is easy to anticipate are eccentric comedies with a distinct voice. One of my favorite comedies if Nacho Libre, which I virtually never watch in its entirety but I’ll sit through twenty or thirty minutes of it at a time, probably ten times a year. I love it. One of the biggest regrets of my moviegoing life is that I didn’t see it in theaters, when I was a teenager and would probably have shit myself laughing. But that’s a movie that, even if you don’t find it funny, you can’t deny there’s a distinct tone, a mood, the actors are clearly having a fucking blast and — one of the best traits in a comedy — they look like they’re trying to make each other laugh. I haven’t gone back to see how critics reviewed it at teh time of its release (they probably didn’t have a much different attitude than they’d have today), but I have to imagine that a seasoned cinephile would look at that movie, even ont eh night of its release, and predict two things: (1) critical derision and (2) enduring cult status.
So yeah: High Sierra. It was well-received at the time of its release and is now regarded as the movie that put Bogart on the map. Prior to this I think he’s only popped up on the List in Angels with Dirty Faces, where he plays a cowardly and duplicitous lawyer — farthest thing from the dashing Hollywood hero he’d become. It’s weird to see. He also has a big supporting role in The Roaring Twenties, an outstanding gangster flick that for some reason isn’t featured on the List (one of the gripes I’ve got with the editor, and an amendment I intend to make when I craft my own List at the end of this Project). I bought this Blu Ray box set called something like Ultimate Gangster Collection that features a Bogart movie called The Petrified Forest that I haven’t seen yet. So he was around before this, his name was known. Had some good titles under his belt. But I guess this is where he got his Leading Man status. And for that, if nothing else, its place on the List feels warranted.