High Sierra (Raoul Walsh / U.S., 1941):

A genre crossroads where the gangster’s nostalgia from The Roaring Twenties gazes ahead to the antihero alienation of film noir. (Raoul Walsh himself would later complicate the mix by retelling the story as a Western in Colorado Territory.) It’s an underworld tale, the Old Guard (Donald MacBride) expires in bed with a glass of bourbon while callow nitwits (Arthur Kennedy, Alan Curtis) hop around with pistols, "not much of the ol' bunch left." Humphrey Bogart’s "Mad Dog" Earle steps out of prison and heads out to the nearest park to feel the verdure under his feet. A hardened criminal and a closet transcendentalist, he alarms a jumpy accomplice (Cornel Wilde) by tapping his fingers on his violin case while recalling a machine-gun execution and then bashfully improvises a dash of cosmic lyricism for the club-footed ingénue (Joan Leslie). "Why, that sounds like poetry!" A fellow outlaw quotes Dillinger to describe Earle "rushing toward death," and the taut beauty of Bogart’s performance lies in way his closely cropped hair gives him a skull’s head from an angle or two, in the scent of doom that instinctively allies him to a clip-joint drifter (Ida Lupino, unforgettable) and a scraggly bad-luck pooch. The John Huston-W.R. Burnett screenplay blueprints an Oakie’s journey West, only Steinbeck’s California has become "the land of milk and honey for the health racket," resort towns and manicured palm trees surrounded by deserts and frigid mountains; Walsh choreographs it with an implacable forward push and, in one casually dizzying bit of inventiveness, plunks down the camera by the rocky foothills and pans 360° twice to take in the police chase skidding by. It all leads to stark Bierstadt compositions, Bogart’s defiant snarl echoing throughout the peaks and crevasses of Mt. Whitney, and Lupino’s desperate eyes lost amid the audience in "the coldest place in the world." Becker all but remakes it in Touchez Pas au Grisbi, Tarantino in Jackie Brown remembers the aging hood’s solitary smile in the car. With Henry Travers, Henry Hull, Jerome Cowan, Minna Gombell, Barton MacLane, Elisabeth Risdon, and Paul Harvey. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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