Marking the moment when the gritty gangster sagas of the 1930s began giving way to the romantic fatalism of 1940s film noir, High Sierra also contains the star-making performance of Humphrey Bogart, who, alongside top-billed Ida Lupino, proved his leading-man mettle with his tough yet tender turn as Roy Earle. A career criminal plagued by his checkered past, Earle longs for a simpler life, but after getting sprung on parole, he falls in with a band of thieves for one last heist in the Sierra Nevada. Directed with characteristic punch by Raoul Walsh—who makes the most of the vertiginous mountain location—Roy and Lupino’s Marie, a fellow outcast also desperate to escape her past, hurtle inexorably toward an unforgettable cliffside climax and a rendezvous with destiny.
The Criterion Collection presents Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The film is presented on the first dual-layer disc of this two-disc set and features a brand-new 1080p/24hz high-definition encode sourced from a 4K restoration performed by The Criterion Collection.
The film was released in multiple versions, which includes the original 100-minute version (which is what is presented here) and a shorter 95-minute version released in 1948. Criterion’s notes state that the original negatives no longer exist, so, for this restoration, Criterion used the best elements available between the two versions: a 35mm nitrate fine-grain master positive for the longer version, and a 35mm nitrate fine-grain for the shorter version. If there’s a varying quality between the two elements I can’t say it was all that obvious here since the presentation remains consistently sharp throughout and nothing stood out looking dupey. The level of detail is impressive, the finer details of the mountainous region looking especially impressive, and the same can be said for the textures on clothes or the stubble on Bogart’s crew cut. Film grain is fine but noticeable, and it’s rendered nicely, not coming off digital or noisy.
The film can look a bit blown out at times, daytime exteriors looking excessively bright, and the darker shots show some heavier blacks, but this could be the intended look. Outside of that I thought grayscale looked excellent, and the shadows in darker scenes show clear delineation. Blacks are nice and deep as well without crushing out details.
Restoration wise this is incredibly clean; though a few minor marks and scratches appear, they're few and far between. All around this is a sharp and clean presentation.
(The first 20 screen grabs are from High Sierra. The last 10 come from the included bonus film, Colorado Territory.)
The film comes with a lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack. I thought it showed some admirable range and fidelity, if still a little limited. Music can sound a bit flat, but damage isn’t an issue at all and dialogue is still easy to hear.
Though I would have liked some info around the two versions of the film (which I wasn’t even aware of until I read the notes around the restoration) Criterion has put together a hell of a two-disc set for the title. On the first disc Criterion first pulls out an archival featurette created originally created by Warner for thei 2003 DVD edition. Curtains for Roy Earle is a 15-minute look at the film’s production and its importance in catapulting Humphrey Bogart’s career. At this point Bogart had made a name for himself in gangster roles alongside James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and George Raft, but High Sierra allowed him to show he hide more range, which led to his future roles. The piece does a decent job covering the film’s production, though it ultimately sounds all straight-forward, the only thing proving to be difficult being the actual casting of Bogart.
On that topic more detail is provided in an excerpt from an archival audio recording featuring writer WR Burnett, author of the book the film is based on, who sat down with Dennis L. White for the AFI in March of 1976. Here Burnett explains how Paul Muni, a fan of the book, was cast in the role with John Huston brought on to adapt. Muni apparently hated the script (or just didn’t like Huston) and Jack Warner brought in Burnett to do a touch-up. When Muni still showed disgust in the script, Warner fired him and then approached George Raft. Raft turned it down, leading to Bogart, who had been campaigning for the role, being cast. While these details are covered in the making-of, you get more of a sense from Burnett that the real issue was that Huston and Muni just really didn’t like each other, and it’s all well and good this played out because this film is apparently where Bogart and Huston became friends.
As for the rest of Burnett’s interview, it’s an insightful discussion around the original novel, which was based on research he had conducted around a Dillinger project for Warner Bros. that was eventually abandoned. He shoots down the idea the film and original story can be considered a type of western (even though Walsh would adapt the story again with the western Colorado Territory, but more on that later), and he shares some stories around Huston and Walsh. Criterion has also put some effort into the presentation, not settling for audio over a static image: they liven things up with insertions of artwork capturing the interview mixed in with photos and clips from the film. It’s a wonderfully put together segment and the interview is especially good.
Criterion also includes a 51-minute episode from The South Bank Show around Humphrey Bogart called “Bogart: Here’s Looking at You, Kid,” which first aired in 1997. The segment delivers a chronological timeline around Bogart’s life and career, complete with personal photos and clips from his many films, along with interviews with those who knew him (including Lauren Bacall) and scholars. For those wanting a crash course on Bogart’s work this is probably a great place to start, as it covers a good chunk of his filmography, though the short runtime doesn’t allow for much examination on each film; even High Sierra gets glossed over. As it is, it’s a quickly paced and effective bio of the man.
Scholar Miriam J. Petty then shows up for 14-minutes to address the element of the film that has aged like milk, and that’s the character of Algernon, played by actor Willie Best. Though the piece is a focus on Best and his career, Petty addresses the clear racism behind the character, which plays off stereotypes that were common of the time, and explains how these roles were sadly about the only ones available for black performers. She also talks about why actors like Best end up being largely forgotten now, despite some popularity at the time, a lot of it coming down to the fact Hollywood would rather forget that part of its history, which she clearly finds unacceptable. It’s a good discussion around the effects of the stereotypes depicted in the film and why it all needs to be kept in the forefront, not forgotten.
The first disc then closes with the film’s trailer and a 1944 radio adaptation for the Screen Guild Theater, recorded in 1944 and featuring Bogart and Lupino in the same roles. Running 28-minutes (with advertisements for some sort of make-up or something) the significantly condensed version rushes through the first couple of acts of the film, the central heist occurring at around the 12-minute mark. For what it is, it’s not all that bad of a radio adaptation, and both Bogart and Lupino are great.
That doesn’t end things, though. On the second dual-layer disc, in a really wonderful touch, Criterion includes Raoul Walsh’s 1949 western remake, Colorado Territory, starring Joel McCrea in the Bogart role. I will confess I had never heard of the film before this release was announced, and what a shame that ended up being because I thought it was an incredibly fun take on the same story. Interestingly, the film is basically the same, checking off similar scenes, it's just more that the little details have been changed around a bit. Instead of being let out on parole, McCrea’s character, Wes McQueen, is broken out of jail, meaning he already has "the law" after him, and instead of a resort robbery it’s a train robbery. There are other little changes as well, mostly made to change things up a bit or fit the time period, like McQueen’s good deed revolving around the digging of a well in place of paying for an operation. But this also allows for a few different twists along the way (that I won't spoil), so even if you’ve seen High Sierra there are still a couple of surprises.
What I'm most happy to report on, though, is the presentation. Sadly, the film has not received any sort of restoration, so damage is still prevalent, yet it’s not as bad as one may expect, most of the severe instances appearing to be limited around reel changes, where damage gets very heavy. Outside of that, damage is usually just some marks and scratches raining through along with some dupier looking inserts. All things considered, it’s in remarkable shape. But the even better news here is that the base digital scan is excellent! This isn’t a simple high-def or standard-def presentation, this comes from a new 4K scan of the 35mm original negative and it looks incredible. The level of detail is really extraordinary, probably better than what High Sierra offers, with both grain and grayscale looking exceptional. If this ever got a full restoration, or even a simple clean up, this would really look amazing. Yes, no restoration work has been done, but I still thought this looked fantastic and I think viewers will still be incredibly happy with it.
The disc also features a couple of additional extras, including the 95-minute documentary The True Adventures of Raoul Walsh, directed by Walsh biographer Marilyn Ann Moss. It’s an okay documentary, simply editing in interviews, photos and film clips as it works through Walsh’s early life and filmography, all of this narrated by someone standing in as Walsh’s voice (Johnny Crear apparently). There is a slight fun edge to it in that it’s hard to say what more extraordinary details around Walsh’s life are true or exaggerated, the film opening with the subtitle “Much of what follows is true…” to hint at this, but this aspect isn’t played off of enough, and the documentary ends up being a generic biography that is probably less interesting than the South Bank piece around Bogart on the previous disc. Still, despite any of its shortcomings, it’s a good acquisition for this edition and another solid crash course, this time on the work of Raoul Walsh.
Closing off the disc is a wonderful conversation about both High Sierra and Colorado Territory between critics Dave Kehr and Farran Smith Nehme. The two talk about Walsh as a director, lamenting that he isn’t as highly regarded or as well known as the likes of John Ford and Howard Hawks, attributing that to the fact that Walsh is the “least intellectual” of that group, preferring action and watching people react to situations. This then leads to conversations about his visual language and editing, Kehr noting that Walsh was able to condense 30-pages of the novel down to two-or-three shots, and then there is some discussion around the women in his films, the focus on the women in the two films here. They then compare the two films and the two leads before getting into Walsh’s use of landscapes. A commentary with the two on either film might have been an interesting one, but this condensed analysis of both films is still worth the time.
Surprisingly Imogen Sara Smith, who has become Criterion’s go-to more or less for a lot of their recent noir and noir-ish releases, doesn’t appear on screen here, but she does provide a short yet direct essay on the film, which actually reads like one of her interviews, closing off the set nicely.
Though the Walsh documentary probably isn’t what it could have been I found the supplements to be a solid set overall, covering the film wonderfully while providing a great introduction to the director. Plus Colorado Territory is a great bonus addition. A very well thought out edition.
Criterion’s stacked special edition for High Sierra delivers on all fronts, including several wonderful features—that includes Walsh’s own remake, Colorado Territory—and a sharp looking presentation. An edition any film lover should have no problem picking up.