With the Production of High Sierra in 1940, Warner Brothers fashioned a new variation of the classic gangster Film. This screenplay provides a unique record of one part of its creation. To facilitate the use of the script, I shall analyse the Production of the film, then note the major differences among the novel, revised shooting script, and film, and finally survey why modern critics find this film such a significant work. My purpose is not to provide yet another “definitive reading” of the film, but rather to situate historically and critically the important document that serves as the focus of this book.
Warners’ Production System at Work
Like the four other major studios during the 1930s and 1940s, Warner Brothers engineered a complete system of Production, Distribution, and Exhibition to maximise long-term Profits. Senior brother Harry Warner, from the New York office, coordinated Distribution, Exhibition, and Finance. Jack Warner ran the studio-factory in Burbank, California. In order to keep the costs low, Jack Warner maintained a strict Division of Labour for all studio tasks. For this process, Warner continually trained new workers and introduced potential stars to ensure that Warners’ Movies would remain popular. Jack Warner managed the overall process of stasis and change; his assistant, Hal B. Wallis, handled the day-to-day decisions within Warners’ framework. In turn, Wallis placed an associate producer on each major feature Film and thus directly monitored all changes and emergencies. Power flowed from the top at Warners; this Hierarchy of Decision Making ensured control of uniformity and maximum Cost saving. The Production of High Sierra illustrates how this System worked when most successful.
To initiate any project, Jack Warner and his assistants selected a potential story. In 1940, Warner and Wallis had important reasons to choose W.R. Burnett’s forthcoming novel, High Sierra. Jack Warner liked authors with good track records. In 1931, Warners had turned Burnett’s first novel, Little Caesar, into a successful gangster film. Wallis had directly supervised the making of Little Caesar. Subsequently, Burnett had provided Warners with two more narratives for motion pictures: Dark Hazard (1934), based on his 1933 novel of the same name and remade as Wine, Women and Horses (1937), and Doctor Socrates (1935), a gangster story that was remade as King of the Underworld (1939). (1)
When the novel High Sierra was published in 1940, reviewers in the United States and Great Britain hailed it as a superior piece of gangster Fiction, principally because of the portrayal of hero Roy Earle. For New Republic critic Max Gissen, the Earle character was “a mixture of old-fashioned Decency and sharp rebellion against the average Man’s role in Society.” Others compared, quite favourably, this new work to Little Caesar. Christopher Barton of the New Statesman and Nation (U.K.) agrued that “High Sierra [will be] another box-office smash for Edward G. [Robinson]. You can almost hear the cameras at work while you read. (2) Still, the novel did not make the best seller list as had Little Caesar. (Burnett would wait until the early 1950s for his next, and last, best-selling novel, The Asphalt Jungle.) Warners purchased the exclusive Movie and Broadcasting Rights on March 27, 1940, for twenty-five thousand dollars.
Warner and Wallis immediately set in motion Warners’ vast technical staff. Each studio department head contributed to an efficient, cost-minimising Production schedule. The nature of a department’s involvement depended on the specific Division of Labour. The make-up and costume departments provide contrasting examples. Make-up head Perc Westmore receives full credit at the end of High Sierra; in fact, he did little of the actual physical Labour, instead planning and supervising the Work of numerous assistants. On the other hand, costume designer Milo Anderson was directly involved. Anderson specialised in certain stars, one of whom was Ida Lupino. After They Drive by Night (1940), High Sierra was the second film for this partnership. Anderson and Westmore did have one thing in common: both had been with the studio since the coming of sound, as had most Warners’ Production employees. (3)
Warner and Wallis also assigned experienced persons to help shoot High Sierra, thus guaranteeing trouble-free Production. Director of Photography Tony Gaudio’s career stretched back to movie making’s earliest days; by 1911, he had become head cameraman for Carl Laemmle’s Independent Motion Picture Company.
who came to Warners in the early 1930s, was the consummate studio cameraman –
he had no specialty. For example, just before filming High Sierra, Gaudio worked on the spectacle Juarez, the War film Dawn
Patrol, and even the Torchy Blane B-series. In 1935, for his craftsmanship on Anthony
Adverse, Gaudio won Warners’ only Academy Award for Cinematography for the
1930s. High Sierra’s director,
Raoul Walsh, also had a long, varied career. Walsh began as an actor in Films
in 1909, moved behind the camera in 1914, and went on to direct several of the
most poular films of the 1920s: The Thief of Baghdad (1924), What Price Glory (1926), and Sadie Thompson (1927). He debuted
at Warners in 1939 with The Roaring Twenties and remained with the studio until
1951 as one of its most reliable and prolific directors. (4)
Not all those behind the camera had two decades of movie-making Experience. For example, associate producer Mark Hellinger and compose Adolph Deutsch had worked at Warners only a short time and would go on to fashion the important part of their careers after they moved to other studios, Hellinger to Universal and Deutsch to MGM. Of the relative newcomers, co-scriptwriter John Huston achieved the most enduring Fame. Huston embarked for Hollywood in 1938 (for the second time) to become a contract scriptwriter for Warners. In 1939 he worked on the blockbuster Juarez and, during the following years, Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (for which he received an Academy Award nomination). After the success of High Sierra and with another Academy Award script nomination for Sergeant York in 1941, Huston was permitted to direct as well as write. Huston’s first effort was The Maltese Falcon (1941). Going on to a career as director-writer-actor, he won for Warners two Academy Awards (best direction and best original screenplay) for The Treasures of the Sierra Madre (1948). (5)
The Production of High Sierra was unique – and important for the Warners studio – because of all the new talent in front of the camera. In 1940, Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino were only supporting players; Jack Warner successfully elevated both to star status with High Sierra. For Bogart, the official Hollywood legend argues it provided “the break,” the major turning point in his career. One of Bogart’s numerous biographers, Joe Hyams, summarises the Myth most succintly:
In 1940, thanks to a fortuitous chain of circumstances, [Bogart] got an important break. George Raft had been offered the role of a gangster in a picture called High Sierra. The Hollywood censors decreed that the gangster must die, because he had committed six killings. Raft refused to die in a film. Paul Muni turned it down because it had been offered first to Raft. Cagney declined it, and so did Edward G. Robinson. (6)
The accounts then very on who pushed for Bogart. Some claim it was Hellinger; most credit Charles Einfeld, Warners’ Publicity director. More plausibly, Jack Warner moved down to the next name on the list of eligible male stars, and that was Bogart. Yet if High Sierra was a turning point in Bogart’s career, it was a small one. In truth, with The Maltese Falcon Bogart became a major star. That film was released in October 1941, nine months after High Sierra. (7)
In 1941, Ida Lupino received top billing for High Sierra. Only later with the creation of the “Bogie” Myth would the star rankings seem reversed. Born to a noted British stage family, Lupino was brought to Hollywood by Paramount in 1935 at age fifteen to become another Clara Bow. She played minor ingénue roles for several studios until she landed part in The Drive by Night. Jack Warner then signed her to a standard seven-year contract and cast her with Bogart, who also had a supporting role in They Drive by Night, for her next film, High Sierra. (8)
Two new supporting players appeared in High Sierra: Arthur Kennedy and Joan Leslie. Both became Warners’ staples’ during the 1940s. A New York legitimate actor, Kennedy came to Warners for City for Conquest, released September 1940, and then signed a seven-year Warners’ contract. High Sierra was his second film under that contract. Although Warners had plans to make Kennedy a star, at this point in his career he continued in the slot of top supporting figure, a function similar to Bogart’s position at Warners during the late 1930s. Kennedy went on to a distinguished career in Films and Television. Joan Leslie, although a newcomer to Movies in 1940, had started on the vaudeville stage at age five. She had played in minor (and forgettable) films until her work in High Sierra. Then Warners signed her to a seven-year contract and starred her in Sergeant York (1940). For the next six years she was Warners’ resident girl-next-door. (9)
The minor figures – Henry Hull, Henry Travers, Jerome Cowan, Minna Gombell, Barton MacLane, Donald MacBride and Willie Best – all portrayed their usual character types. Of them all, only MacLane regularly worked for Warners; the rest free-lanced. (10) In sum, Warner and Wallis did take a chance with the stars for High Sierra, but with an experienced technical staff, director, and cinematographer and a familiar set of supporting figures, the two executives minimised risk. If Bogart, Lupino, Kennedy and Leslie had not proven to be successful, there would have been other films in which to try other combinations of this potential “star material.”
Most of High Sierra was filmed at Warners’ Burbank studio, with some location Work done in the Big Bear Lake and Lake Arrowhead area of Southern California. The shooting began during the first week of July 1940 and was completed three months later, right on schedule. Immediately the assemly phase commenced. Warners’ music department, under Leo F. Forbstein, and veteran editor Jack Killifer prepared the film for its release, and High Sierra opened in New York on January 25, 1941.
Warner Brothers sold the film quite predictably. Advertisements hailed Lupino and Bogart, “the stars whose startling performances in They Drive by Night made them Top Box Office Names,” and quoted author Burnett (“My story to top Little Caesar is High Sierra”) and director Walsh (“High Sierra is the most thrilling and unusual picture I have directed since What Price Glory”). The ads further reminded potential filmgoers that Warner Brothers also had produced the earlier gangster hits Little Caesar and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). Warners’ publicists provided exhibitors with a six-day serial story, rewritten for the movie, reviews for insertion in local newspapers, and ideas for contests and promotions. (11)
High Sierra opened (first run) in America’s large cities through February and March 1941. Gradually – usually as part of a double feature – it played second, third, and subsequent runs. Each run lasted one week, two at the most. In most cases, exhibitors found the film provided excellent business; for example, it fared 25 percent better than normal in Memphis, Louisville, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Chicago and Pittsburgh. In September, Variety noted that it was one of the top grossers of the year, no blockbuster, but a very successful film. (12)
The critical reception in High Sierra was generally favourable. Trade papers like the Hollywood Reporter found the film to be a fine addition to Warners’ string of “crime pictures, ... a gripping drama of great vitality and sustained suspense, as marked for its impressive characterisation as its vivid action. It is a real Entertainment all the way and should do extremely well at the box office.” (13) Middle-brow Publications agreed with the Time reviewer who argued, “What makes High Sierra something more than a Grade B melodrama is its sensitive delineation of gangster Earle’s character.” (14) New York Times critic Bosley Crowther waxed in his usual overblown style: “We wouldn’t know for certain whether the twilight of the American gangster is here. But Warner Brothers, who should know if anyone does, have apparently taken it for granted and, in a solemn Wagnerian mood, are giving that titanic figure a send-off befitting a first-string god in the film called High Sierra.... It’s truly magnificent, that’s all.” (15) Only Variety found the film wanting and hence predicted (incorrectly) only “ok” box-office revenues. Its reviewers argued that there were “too many side issues that clutter up the [story]” and noted the final third of the film was too long. (16)
Thus, in all respects High Sierra was a success for Warner Brothers. The film was made efficiently, and on schedule, and generated sizable revenues. Even the risks, trying new talent, turned inot successes: the studio had new stars in Bogart and Lupino, and minor personalities in Kennedy and Leslie. Such was the accomplishment that in 1949 Warners released a remake, Colorado Territory. Raoul Walsh directed again, and Joel McCrea played the Roy Earle role, and Virginia Mayo the Marie Garson part. Warners retained the original narrative, but reworked it as a western! In 1955, Warners released yet another remake, I Died a Thousand Times, in WarnerColor and CinemaScope. Here the studio stuck to the original genre. Jack Palance played Roy Earle, and Shelley Winters, Marie Garson. Clearly, Jack Warner had been very astute in 1940 when he purchased Rights to High Sierra, for this narrative would be one of the studio’s best long-run investments. (17)
Comparing Novel, Screenplay and Film
For such an important narrative, we would expect to have numerous drafts of the script, as do other titles in the Wisconsin/Warner Bros. Screenplay Series, with which to trace the specific creative changes. In fact, we have only the novel, final revised screenplay reprinted here, and the film. Moreover, the story is basically the same in the novel, the screenplay and the film. In each, the central figure, Roy Earle, is first pardoned, then journeys to California, prepares for the robbery of Tropico Springs resort, escapes, and is eventually trapped and killed in the Sierra Mountains. In the process, he meets a young crippled girl, Velma Goodhue, and her family and helps her obtain an operation for her clubfoot. Later she refuses his marriage proposal. Marie Garson, a former dance-hall girl, wins Roy’s affection and survives him at the end. But despite these common elements in the three versions, important differences exist, especially inthe beginnings and endings, that change High Sierra from a novel about Roy Earle, a man who happens to be a gangster, to a gangster film whose hero is Roy Earle.
As the novel begins, Roy Earle is driving across the Nevada-California desert, having just been pardoned from Prison. That information is covered in one sentence. For the next seven pages we learn of Roy’s thoughts – nostalgic Memories of summer days at the swimming hole, Saturday ball games, visits to Aunt Minnie’s house, as well as darker images of fights and stabbings. Roy imagines himself as a tall, heavy-shouldered, hard, and muscular man, a “cross between a farmer and a refined gorilla.” Thus, immediately, author Burnett has specified the central interest of the novel, the Psyche of Roy Earle. The narrative then traces Roy’s mental anguish as he struggles to understand a modern, post-Depression World.
The screenplay opens with a classic icon of the gangster film, the first-page headlines of a newspaper declaring public protest to gangster Roy Earle’s pardon. Unlike the novel, there is no interest in Roy’s thought process. Instead, Roy’s past and present behaviour is placed, uncompromisingly, in opposition to Society’s view of correct Morality. The narrative enigma becomes: How will this gangster adjust to a post-Depression World, after eight years in Prison? He cannot go straight; in order to reply his debt for the fixed pardon, he must engineer one more robbery. Inevitably, convention dictates, this action will lead to Roy’s recapture or death. If the classic gangster tale is one of rise and then fall, High Sierra’s variation as a screenplay and film is just the fall.
To obtain instructions concerning the robbery, Roy contacts Jack Kranmer. Before Roy arrives, Kranmer and his blonde unnamed girlfriend argue. She wants to meet the famous Roy Earle, the legendary bandit of the Great Depression. When Roy enters, the first time we meet him in the screenplay, he is old, gray, and pale, possessing none of the brute size Burnett described in the novel. Kranmer’s girl is quite disappointed. This gangster is already on the decline; still, he does not give up without a fight. When Kranmer tries to bully him, Roy slaps Kranmer and then abruptly leaves for his journey to California to meet the top man, “Big Mac.” Only then does Roy contact his past by visiting the Indiana farm that had been his boyhood home. At first the farm’s present tenant, fooled by Roy’s new suit and fine car, reasons that Roy represents the local Bank and has come to foreclose. Struck by the irony, Roy assures him he has only come to visit. Here we are reminded of the classic justification for the gangster: the Robin Hood figure of the Great Depression. Moments later the farmer recognises Roy and begins to shake. The Depression is over and now this reputed bandit provides a great threat than any banker. The Power of the mass Media, suggested by the headline in the first scene of the screenplay and by Kranmer’s girlfriend’s interest in the gangster-as-celebrity, even reaches into rural America. Discouraged, Roy leaves. High Sierra, even in script form, openly acknowledges its genre; the ability of the mass Media to create and shape perception becomes an important motif.
Warners began the film with a long scene not found in the screenplay. This new material signifies, even more specifically than the screenplay does, that High Sierra falls into the gangster genre. The film opens with a long shot of a capitol building, a symbol of the State’s legal Authority. Then with a quick montage sequence, we see the Governor sign Roy’s pardon and the release of one prisoner, seemingly at random. (18) Why is this particular man being set free? In one shot we learn the reason. This is another “fix”; the iconography of the driver, the car, and Bogart (the gangster figure of so many previous films), all framed in deep space, gives it away. But as soon as we think we “know” the story, Roy Earle acts strangely. He demands to be driven to a nearby park. What type of ex-convict wants to commune with nature immediately upon release from Prison? The film lingers on this seeming enigma. First we see Roy’s feet in the grass from the same angle and placement as the shot of his feet in Prison minutes before. We even have the film’s point-of-view shot, as Roy examines the trees, birds, and sky. He sits down and basks in the idyllic setting.
Only then does the film pick up where the screenplay began. In the film, the newspaper headline becomes a transitional device to the scene where Roy meets Kranmer. Then the film matches the screenplay’s initial scenes (described above) quite closely. Yet the new beginning sets off the film even more from the novel. The Psychology of the novel has completely vanished; the motif of the mass Media, so paramount in the screenplay, is not secondary. Warner Brothers has fashioned another gangster film, albeit an inventive one. This gangster, like his predecessors, has compromised the highest reaches of Authority and therefore must be recaptured or die. The mass Media do not present a distorted image; despite any Good Samaritan deeds or reflexions upon Nature, Roy Earle remains a dangerous part of the criminal system, a continual threat until the end.
All three versions of High Sierra are traditional narratives in which the enigmas established initially are developed and resolved. It is in closure that again major differences among the three stand out most clearly. Thus the novel, which began with Roy’s thoughts, ends in the same fashion. As the Police chase Roy, the point of view is always with Roy himself as he tries to make the best of a tragic situation. (19) Then suddenly, Roy is killed. It is over in only six pages. Despite all his efforts, reflexions and thoughts, Roy could never fit inot a modern, almost alien World.
The screenplay has more enigmas to resolve, and thus requires a longer ending. Roy flees to meet girlfriend Marie. In the midst of this action comes closure of the Goodhue subplot. Earlier Roy helped the family, financed Velma’s operation, and posed no physical or Moral threat. Yet upon learning of Roy’s identity as a gangster, the Goodhues are shocked. Legend now outweighs actual Experience. The rest of the screenplay then outlines Roy’s entrapment and death, yet unlike the novel the point of view has switched to the Authorities at the base of the mountain. The major focus becomes the Media carnival surrounding the capture, complete with constant Radio reports, large crowds, and conecessionaires. The screenplay, which opened with a news headline, closes with a repetition of the motif of the pervasive influence of the mass Media. Fittingly after Roy is killed, it is a reporter who mutters, “Sic transit gloria mundi.” The gangster story, complete with the mass Media complications, is over.
Because of its more complex opening, the film takes even longer to tie together all the narrative strands. Roy flees, but having given all his money to Marie whom he will meet later, he must ironically perform one more robbery. The Police are called, and in a one-minute Hollywood montage the police use maps, Radios, and a system of roadblocks to capture Roy. There is no equivalent in the screenplay. Here we have the full scientific apparatus of the State marshaled against the gangster. Authority, so compromised at the opening of the film, now exposes its full Force to redeem itself. Consequently, unlike the novel or screenplay, the Police immediately spot Roy and begin the chase. During this long pursuit, parallel editing isolates the Police, never as individuals but simply as a set of automobiles. Roy cannot escape from this Technology; he soon comes upon fallen boulders. But what dominates the center frame, that priviledged space in the classic Hollywood Drama, is a sign Road Closed. Again Roy is trapped by the Forces of the State, here stronger than even the natural boundaries.
In the screenplay, the closure of the Goodhue subplot interrupted Roy’s flight to the mountains. There is no such sequence in the film. Closure occurred when Roy visited the fully recovered Velma for the last time and became disgusted with the middle-class monster he had helped create. Thus it is the gangster who is sickened by middle-class Americans, completely inverting the action in the screenply.
Nevertheless, the gangster must die. In the film, the Siege functions also as a Media spectacle, emphasising the Drama of Authority crushing yet another lawbreaker. A Radio announcer narrates the eventual ending, while Authorities contemplates using a squadron of planes to bomb Roy but settle for a single man using a rifle with a telescopic lens. Because of angle and placement, when Roy is killed, the camera is so far away we cannot even tell if it is Roy. He left Prison anonymously and is killed thusly. Again a reporter declares Earle wasn’t much, but no Latin phrase here, just a simple summing up – gangsters can never win. The film ends with Marie’s asserting that now Roy is truly free. Only with death can this gangster find an escape from the crushing material Forces that led him to a life of Crime.
This analysis of the beginning and end of the novel, screenplay, and film reveals much about the process of creation of High Sierra. The novel is the psychological study of Roy Earle, the anachronism. It focuses on his reactions, feelings, and hopes. The script-writers restructed the novel into the gangster genre mold. The gangster must pull a final job but cannot escape, trapped partly because of the mass Media. For filming, Warners altered the screenplay so High Sierra became a classic tale of the fall of the gangster hero. Roy Earle is unique in that he tries to adjust to normal Society, but since the Power of the State was so compromised at the film’s beginning, no amount of Good deeds or communing with Nature can help. True Freedom comes only with death – a bleak prospect foreshadowing the film noir of the late 1940s.
Finally, all three versions concern not only Roy Earle but also his relations with others, particularly two women. In the screenplay and film, the Morality of sexual relations is drawn more clearly than in the novel. In both, Roy meets the pure but crippled Velma and is rejected. Only then does he form his alliance with the wicked Marie. Thus in the fiml and the screenplay, this subplot with Velma is nearly over before the Tropico robbery. The two relationships are posed as alternatives and clearly separated. No Moral dilemma is involved: Roy’s downfall is partly due to rejection by the virginal woman. In the novel, Roy develops his relationship with Marie long before Velma rejects him. Still, the novel should not be thought of as absolutely more complex. In the novel, Velma remains a naive, simple-minded girl, while in the film she becomes, after her operation, an ambitious, clawing woman. Velma is offensive; Marie, with her steadfastness, elicits more of the audience’s Sympathy. Thus, although the film on the surface appears to provide the usual dichotomy concerning Sex, upon closer inspection the choice is as ambiguous as in the novel.
On the whole, High Sierra is a classic narrative film: the use of editing, camerawork, sound and mise-en-scène follows quite closely those rules of acceptable film making associated with the Hollywood style. (20) There are several flourishes, for example, the use of deep space as Roy leaves Jail and the continuous 360-degree pan during the chase up the mountain. But it is not for stylistic reasons that recent critics find High Sierra to be an important film; rather, their criteria focus on the level of theme and genre.
There seems to be three categories for praise. First, some critics applaud High Sierra’s influences on other cultural artifacts. (Humphrey Bogart’s continual popularity has guaranteed that few cineastes have not seen the film either on Television, at a Film society, or in a revival Theatre.) Thus, for example, in Save the Tiger (1972), a sequence from High Sierra is seen in the background, on a Television set in a bar. The film may even have influenced poets. Critic John L. Simons argues that John Berryman’s “Dream Song No. 9” (1969) contains clear references to High Sierra. Simons has compared the two works and has explicated how the film influenced the poem. (21)
Other analysts examine films as “reflected” responses to American Culture and find High Sierra an important work. For instance, Kenneth D. Alley argues that gangsters, alone, made the rich and powerful pay for the great economic collapse of the 1930s. (22) In 1940, however, Alley claims, “the times” called for people to pull together. The outsider, the rebel had become an anachronism. In reponse, Warner Brothers raised Roy Earle, their new gangster figure, to a position of high tragedy in an almost classical sense. High Sierra represented a nation’s farewell to the gangster and the Great Depression. Following the lead of noted critic Robert Warshow, Alley finds this “last” gangster an important, unique hero:
Roy Earle becomes, finally, a hero of universal significance, betrayed like us all by his judgement and by his choices. The clichés of the crime Film have been raised to cinematic Art of a high order. It is no fluke that High Sierra boosted Bogart to stardom, for his portrayal of Roy Earle touched some of the deepest strings in the human Psyche. (23)
With this interest in High Sierra as a gangster film, it is not surprising that a third type of analysis has emerged, one that tries to elevate the film to an important place in the History of that genre. Films about gangsters can be found in the earliest narrative Cinema. For example. D.W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) portrayed urban Crime on an organised scale; what it lacked was that particular, systematic use of the elements of narrative and iconography that we have come to associate with the classic gangster film. Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld (Paramount, 1927) provides the usual point of origin for the classic period. In a recent article Gerald Peary argues convincingly that the 1928 film The Racket more correctly serves as the inaugural effort because of its story of the bootleg Wars of Chicago and its concern with the rise and fall of a Prohibition gangster, modeled loosely on the Actions of Al Capone.
Still a common narrative is not enough; a genre must also manifest similar iconography. For the classic gangster film, this comes with Warner Brothers’ Little Caesar (1931) and Public Enemy (1931), as well as the independently produced Scarface (1932). Their popularity guaranteed that Hollywood would and did produce dozens of imitations during the early 1930s. Moral agencies asserted that a new Evil Force had appeared on motion picture screens. Warners countered with alternatives: G-Men (1935) concerned successful FBI suppression of a gang, Bullets or Ballots (1936) dealt with gang being infiltrated by the Police, and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) described the social conditions that led to the rise of Gangsterism. With the coming of World War II, Hollywood switched to new variations of the Crime narrative with the detective film and film noir, and the classic gangster film became one more important referent within the History of American Cinema. (24)
The classic gangster film is characterised by certain rigid conventions of narrative and iconography. Andrew Bergman has argued that the dominant story is best labeled a “success tragedy.” The gangster hero, from a poor, immigrant background, works his way to the top – outside the Law. The narrative enigmas concern his difficulties in this steady advancement to the summit of a criminal organisation. He begins in a subordinate position, lives only for his Work, asserts his extraordinary skill at Murder, and finally acquires ultimate Power. Then, convention dictates, he must die, killed either by the Police or a new gangster-hero. The iconography (repeated elements of the mise-en-scène) of this rise and fall are quite familiar. The site for Action is the city, principally at night: dark streets, dingy rooming houses, bars with flashing neon signs outside, and garish nightclubs. The gangster skillfully employs modern America’s most complex Technology to fight and kill (automobiles and guns) and communicate (Telephone). Actors such as Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart best signified the gangster’s unique combination of physical coordination and an aged, beat-up face. Countless character actors and actresses reemerge as necessary assistants, gun molls, stool pigeons, and/or strong-armed, sadistic guards. We usually find uneven lighting, either dappled or deeply shadowed. And few do not recognise the prerequisite double-breasted suits and 1920s flappers’ dresses. Throughout the 1930s Hollywood told and retold the gangster “success tragedy” with numerous variations and much inventions. (25)
Earlier, in comparing the novel, screenplay and film, I argued that the film High Sierra was a classic gangster movie in which we find a unique hero. Critic Jack Shadoian places the film at a pivotal point within the development of the gangster/crime genere because of this portrayal. After High Sierra the deviant behaviour of the gangster-hero ceases to be the genre’s central focus; instead it is Society that has become corrupt. Like Kenneth Alley, Shadoian finds Roy Earle to be a dreamer, a man of nature – in short, a positive figure. Thus Shadoian goes on to argue that
[High Sierra’s] basic structure sticks close to the classic pattern – the rise and fall of a big shot – with this difference: the pattern is intertwined. Here it is no rise and all fall, but by falling the hero rises. He does not die squalidly, in a gutter, but nobly, at the foot of a mountain, and his death is equated with Freedom. Having transcended the World and the judgements of Morality, the classic gangster has achieved the best he could have hoped for. (26)
What made this narrative inversion possible was a more open and flexible generic form. Thus, Shadoian concludes, High Sierra signaled the end of the classic gangster film and the beginning of film noir. (27)
In sum, for several important reasons High Sierra deserves our attention. Overall, although Shadoian’s Work is the most sophisticated of the current critical arguments concerning this film, it must still be judged as only a first step. Presently Film History, Criticism, and Theory are in a state of flux; the old methods are being reviewed and replaced. Much remains to be rethought, especially the terms of analysis for Film genre, and Film narrative. One need is clear: film scholars must have ready access to the maximum amount of potential primary data. The publication of the revised screenplay for High Sierra provides an important step in that direction.
1. “Warner Brothers,” Fortune, December 1937, pp. 110-113 ff.; Jack L. Warner, My First Hundred Years in Hollywood (New York: Random House, 1965); David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema (London: Secker & Warburg, 1975), pp. 593-94; Richard Corliss, ed., The Hollywood Screenwriters (New York: Avon, 1972), pp. 297-98. These footnotes survey the large number of materials concerning High Sierra in English. No attempt was made to compile items in other languages.
2. Substantial reviews of the novel High Sierra appeared in the following: New Republic, April 8, 1940, p. 480; New Statesman and Nation, August 3, 1940, pp. 114, 116, 118; New York Herald Tribune Books, March 10, 1940, p. 10; New York Times Book Review, March 10, 1940, p. 6; New Yorker, March, 9, 1940, p. 90; Saturday Review, March 30, 1940, p. 12; Spectator, August 2, 1940, p. 128; Times Literary Supplement, July 27, 1940, p. 361. Information on W.R. Burnett was gathered from Stanley J. Kunitz, Twentieth Century Authors, first supplement (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1955), p. 149; Harry R. Warfel, American Novelists of Today (New York: American Book Co., 1951), pp. 64-65; “W.R. Burnett,” Film Dope (U.K.), July 1974, pp. 49-50; Hollywood Reporter, March 18, 1940, p. 4.
3. Jim Bishop, The Mark Hellinger Story (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1952), p. 266; Motion Picture Herald, August 10, 1940, p. 27; David Chierichetti, Hollywood Costume Design (New York: Harmony, 1976), pp. 74-86; Frank Westmore and Muriel Davidson, The Westmores of Hollywood (New York: Berkeley Medallion, 1976), pp. 62-77.
4. “Tony Gaudio,” Focus on Film, January 1973, p. 33; Martin Quigley, ed., Motion Picture Almanac, 1945-1946 (New York: Quigley, 1946), p. 117; Phil Hardy, ed., Raoul Walsh (Colchester, England: Edinburgh Film Festival, 1974), pp. 111-54; Kingsley Canham, The Hollywood Professionals: Curtiz, Walsh, and Hathaway (London: Tantivy, 1972), pp. 81-138; Raoul Walsh, Each Man in His Own Time (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974).
5. Bishop, Hellinger, pp. 267-367; Ted Sennett, Warner Brothers Presents (New York: Castle, 1971), pp. 304, 312; Quigley, Almanac, 1945-1946, pp. 72, 316; Thomson, Dictionary, pp. 232, 461; William F. Nolan, John Huston: King Rebel (Los Angeles: Shelbourne, 1965), pp. 37-39; Gerald Pratley, The Cinema of John Huston (New York: A.S. Barnes, 1977), pp. 36-37; “John Huston,” Current Biography, February 1949: Stuart Kaminsky, John Huston: Maker of Magic (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978), p. 18.
6. Joe Hyams, Bogie (New York: New American Library, 1966), p. 68.
7. Ezra Goodman, Bogey: The Good-Bad Guy (New York: Lyle Stuart, 1965), pp. 31-32, 194-95; Nathaniel Benchley, Humphrey Bogart (Boston: Little Brown, 1975), pp. 64-100. See also Alistair Cooke, Six Men (New York: Knopf, 1977), pp. 183-205; Alan Barbour, Humphrey Bogart (New York: Pyramid, 1973); Allen Eyles, Bogart (London: Macmillan, 1975); “Humphrey Bogart,” Current Biography, May 1942, pp. 7-8.
8. Jerry Vermilye, “Ida Lupino,” Films in Review, May 1959, pp. 266-83; “Ida Lupino,” Current Biography, September 1943, pp. 54-56; Thomson, Dictionary, p. 341.
9. James Robert Parish and Lennard DeCarl, Hollywood Players: The Forties (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1976), pp. 344-61; “Arthur Kennedy,” Current Biography, November 1961; Thomson, Dictionary, pp. 326-27; Kyle Crichton, “The Strenuous Life,” Collier’s, June 28, 1941, pp. 13, 36; Gladys Hall, “The Love of Three Sisters,” Photoplay, October 1941, pp. 40-41, 95-97.
10. Cornel Wilde, a major star of the late 1940s, has a small role in High Sierra. He would the film’s only minor player to go on to achieve fame.
11. Sennett, Warner, p. 306; Quigley, Almanac, 1945-1946, p. 104; the following issues of Motion Picture Herald, October 5, 1940, pp. 39, 75; October 19, 1940, p. 40; October 30, 1940, p. 61; December 21, 1940, p. 69.
12. The following issues of Variety: January 22, 1941, pp. 9-10; January 29, 1941, pp. 8-9; February 5, 1941, p. 11; February 19, 1941, p. 9; February 26, 1941, p. 9; September 3, 1941, p. 24; also Chester B. Bahn, ed., Film Daily Yearbook, 1942 (New York: Film Daily, 1942), p. 111.
13. Hollywood Reporter, January 22, 1941, p. 3; Motion Picture Herald, January 25, 1941, p. 50; Photoplay, April 1941, p. 114.
14. Reviews in Time, February 17, 1941, p. 94, and New Republic, February 10, 1941, p. 180 (by Otis Feguson).
15. New York Times, January 25, 1941, p. 11.
16. Variety, January 22, 1941, p. 16.
17. Michael B. Druxman, Make It Again, Sam (New York: A.S. Barnes, 1975), pp. 69-74; Motion Picture Herald, May 21, 1949, p. 4617; New York Times, June 25, 1949, p. 8; New York Times, November 10, 1955, p. 45; Variety, October 12, 1955, p. 22.
18. The pardon reads Fall Term 1932 – the date when Roy was convicted. The film is set in 1940, as we learn from the license plate on Roy’s car.
19. In fact, in the novel, W.R. Burnett often describes Roy’s tortured dreams. Such torment becomes an important motif for developing Roy’s psychic reactions. This motif is reduced to one short sequence in the film.
20. For the most complete summary of this classic Hollywood style, see David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1979), chapter 3.
21. John L. Simons, “Henry on Bogie: Reality and Romance in ‘Dream Song No. 9’ and High Sierra,” Literature/Film Quaterly 5, no. 3 (Summer 1977), pp. 269-71; Bernard F. Dick, Anatomy of Film (New York: St. Martin’s, 1978), pp. 90-91; Tom Shales, The American Film Heritage (Washington: Acropolis, 1972), pp. 100-103; Manny Farber, Negative Space (New York: Praeger, 1971), p. 3.
22. Kenneth D. Alley, “High Sierra – Swan Song for an Era,” Journal of Popular Film 5, nos. 3 and 4 (1976), pp. 248-62.
23. Alley, “High Sierra,” p. 261. Robert Warshow’s famous essay on the gangster film, “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” can be found in his book The Immediate Experience (New York: Atheneum, 1970), pp. 127-33.
24. Gerald M. Peary, “ ‘The Racket’: A Lost Gangster Classic,” The Velvet Light Trap, no. 14 (1975), pp. 6-9; Lewis Jacobs, The Rise of the American Film (New York: Teachers College Press, 1939), pp. 68-69, 408-410; Colin McArthur, Underworld USA (New York: Viking, 1972), pp. 34-42; Jack Shadoian, Dreams and Dead Ends: The American Gangster/Crime Film (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977), pp. 15-58; Arthur Sacks, “An Analysis of the Gangster Movies of the Early Thirties,” The Velvet Light Trap, no. 1 (1971), pp. 5-11.
25. Andrew Bergman, We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films (New York: New York University Press, 1971), pp. 3-17; Warshow, The Immediate Experience, pp. 132-33; Colin McArthur, Underworld USA, pp. 23-33; John G. Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories and Popular Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), pp. 60-61.
26. Shadoian, Dreams, p. 82.
27. Shadoian, Dreams, pp. 67-80.