Based on W. R. Burnett’s second novel, director Roaul Walsh’s High Sierra (1941) is a captivating crime drama notable for being Humphrey Bogart’s breakout role as a leading man. According to legend, the part was going to be George Raft’s until Bogart talked him out of it. Eight years later, Walsh remade it with a western setting titled Colorado Territory starring Joel McCrea. The Criterion Collection makes both films available with this release, and while the former gets a new 4K digital restoration, the latter presents a superior version of the story, revising issues I had with Sierra‘s story.
Gangster Roy “Mad Dog” Earle (Bogart) gets a pardon from the Indiana governor after eight years in prison thanks to an ailing Big Mac (Donald MacBride), who spent a fortune to get him out. Mac has an inside man for a resort hotel robbery out in California that’s going to be a big score of cash and jewels. He sends Roy to lead it, which will be Roy’s last job as he wants to quit the life of crime. He is a smart fellow for the most, but his trust in others leads to his downfall.
Roy meets up with his accomplices, Babe and Red, but doesn’t think much of these young hoods. Babe has brought along Marie (Ida Lupino), a dancer. Roy wants her gone, but she talks her way into staying, and developes an attraction to him. However, Roy yearns for Velma (Joan Leslie), the granddaughter of Pa Goodhue (Henry Tarvers), a fellow traveller from the Midwest. Velma has a club foot and is approximately 30 years younger than Roy, who decides to pay for her foot surgery, thinking this will put him in good with her, even though she has a fiance. Although she represented an innocent new life, it’s hard to accept Roy thought Velma would be with him.
When the hotel robbery goes awry, Roy’s plans slowly unravel. He has no money and has to figure out what to do with the jewelry when Mac is unable to help. With the cops after him, he heads to the mountains. There’s a chase scene that looks ridiculous because it’s undercranked to create speed. Roy had set Marie on her way, but upon hearing his troubles on the radio, she goes after him. Granted she cares for the guy, but because she has been so savvy up to this point, it’s hard to believe she would risk the law and that she thinks she can him.
The character and the film’s biggest disappoint is Algernon (Willie Best), an African American caretaker at the camp Roy and the hoods stay before the robbery. Unfortunately and needlessly, Algernon is a coon caricature like Stepin Fetchit; he’s quick with the “yes, boss,” but frequently shown as lazy. He can’t even focus on fishing, setting up a device to help him catch while he relaxes. Although this was common in the era, it’s still distracting to the point knocking one out of the moment.
The video is presented with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. According to the liner notes, “This new 4K digital restoration was undertaken by the Criterion Collection. The picture was originally released at 100 minutes in 1940 and cut down to 95 minutes for a reissue in 1948; no original camera negative survives for either version. The complete 100-minute version is presented here, created from a 35 mm nitrate fine-grain master positive stored at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Because of damage, some scenes were replaced using a 35 mm nitrate fine-grain of the shorter version. Scanning of both film elements was done in 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner at EFILM in Hollywood.”
The blacks are rich and the image delivers an array of grays. Texture detail is apparent as is film grain. The latter increasing is some daytime exterior shots. Focus is sharp and depth is noticeable. The image looks free of dirt and defect.
For the audio, “the original monaural soundtrack was remastered form the 35 mm original soundtrack negative of the shorter version, stored at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., as well as from a positive track sourced from the Museum of Modern Art’s fine-grain.” The dialogue is clear, and the track presents very little hiss. Composer Adolph Deutsch’s score is dramatic but plays too loud in the mix.
The extras on Disc 1:
- Curtains for Roy Earle (15 min) – A 2003 featurette on the making of High Sierra with Eric Lax, Leonard Maltin, Robert Osborne, and Joan Leslie.
- Bogart: Here’s Looking at You, Kid (51 min) – A 1997 documentary that aired on The South Bank Show featuring archival footage and interviews with Lauren Bacall, son Stephen Bogart, and a few writers, including Julius Epstein.
- W. R. Burnett (14 min) – An oral history with author Burnett recorded at his home in March 1976 accompanied by film clips and photos.
- Willie Best (14 min) – Film scholar Miriam J. Petty talks about actor Willie Best
- The Screen Guild Theater (audio only, 28 min) – The second radio adaptation of High Sierra. Bogart and Lupino reprised their roles from April 17, 1944.
The extras on Disc 2:
- Colorado Territory (95 min) – Walsh’s 1949 western remake of High Sierra. This is an unrestored scan made available from the 35 mm original camera negative.There are noticeable image defects and no chapter breaks. However, the story has been improved. McCrea’s Wes McQueen is smarter; McQueen’s interactions with the two female character make more sense, as do their actions; and there’s no Algernon.
- The True Adventures of Raoul Walsh (95 min) – A 2019 documentary by Marilyn Ann Moss based on her book.
- Dave Kehr and Farran Smith Nehme (20 min) – The film programmer and the film critic chat about Walsh
Although not credited as such, likely because they weren’t given the same restoration and extras treatment, Criterion’s High Sierra / Colorado Territory double feature is a great release for fans of classic Hollywood. It presents two good movies, which allow the viewer to see how Raoul Walsh handles the material in different genres and different ways. The extras also allow viewers the opportunity to learn more about Walsh and High Sierra.