High Sierra was Humphrey Bogart’s first starring role. He plays Roy Earle, a veteran gangster sent to prison in Chicago for life. But after ten years one of his old bosses, Big Mac, manages to get him a pardon and arranges for a car and some money to allow Roy to come to California to head up a jewelry heist in a wealthy desert resort where the ultra-wealthy winter. Mac has recruited a couple of young small-time thieves Babe and Red to assist Earle. The other part of the ring is the hotel night manager Louis Mendoza who will provide the inside information.
But Roy gets a surprise when he arrives at the meeting place, a mountain cabin park. Babe has picked up a girl named Marie from a dance hall and brought her along. Roy angrily tells his crew and the girl that she has to go. Marie, played by Ida Lupino, goes to talk to Roy and convinces him that she is the most trustworthy member of the crew. She admits that she knows the plan of the heist because Mendoza talks too much. After a few more incidents between Marie and Babe and Red, Roy decides to have her stay in his cabin and lays down the law with the two young men.
After this a romantic relationship begins between Roy and Marie, although he warns her that love is not a possibility for her with him. Roy’s heart has been caught by a young farm girl that he has met while travelling to California. Velma is travelling with her grandfather and grandmother from Ohio to live with her recently remarried mother in Los Angeles. Roy has had the chance to help the family out as they struggle to pay for the trip cross country. Their country roots remind him of his own family from rural Indiana and Velma’s unspoiled beauty and unaffected manner charms him. The girl has a clubbed foot and Roy enlists a mob doctor he knows to arrange for a surgeon to operate on the girl’s foot to repair the problem. But after the surgery Velma declines his offer to marry him. She has a boyfriend back in Ohio that she is still interested in. Roy takes the refusal hard but promises to come back when she has healed from her surgery to see her walk and say goodbye to the family.
Finally, conditions at the hotel are right for the heist. Marie and Roy take one car and Babe and Red in another. While Babe and Red are breaking open the safety deposit boxes Roy guards the lobby and Marie is in one of the cars watching for trouble. She warns them of the approach of a late-night couple arriving at the hotel and Roy holds them on one of the lobby couches along with the bell boy. But finally, an armed security guard enters. Roy gets the drop on him but when the scream of the woman on the couch distracts Roy the guard pulls his gun and they exchange shots. The guard is fatally wounded and Roy is struck on the side.
Rattled by the shooting Mendoza refuses to remain behind to claim his innocence as the plan required and instead goes in the car with Babe and Red. The two cars take off but the car with the three men takes the wrong road and crashes along a hairpin turn. Babe and Red are killed and Mendoza injured. Mendoza is picked up by the police and Roy and Marie return to the cabin without incident. Roy goes to visit his friend the mob doctor who tends to his wounds. Then he goes to Mac but finds he’s died of a heart attack. Following instructions Mac had given him earlier he passes the gems onto a mob contact who gives Roy a little money in advance and the promise that the deal with the big boss would be transacted soon and Roy would get his cut. While waiting for this Roy goes to see Velma and meets her fiancé whom he immediately takes a strong dislike to. Velma berates Roy for his jealousy and he leaves. Now Roy sees Marie’s loyalty and love for him in a new light and promises that as soon as they get their money, they’ll start a new life together.
But all his plans fall apart as the newspapers are full of the story of the heist. Mendoza has confessed and named Roy as the mastermind of the plot and the murderer of the guard. Roy puts Marie on a bus to escape the dragnet and promises to catch up with her later when he gets clear. But Roy is soon identified and the police pursuit corners him in a blocked pass in the Sierra Nevada. Roy climbs up into the hills and holds the police off with a machine gun. Marie hears report of the stand-off and heads back to be near him. A reporter recognizes her from her description and the police try to persuade her to call to Roy to give himself up. But she refuses.
The police manage to get a sharp shooter with a high-powered rifle on the cliff that overlooks Roy’s position. And when Roy’s dog Pard escapes from Marie and runs toward Roy’s voice as he banters with the police the dog’s barking reveals to Roy that Marie must be nearby. He runs out onto the exposed rocks calling her name and is killed by the sniper.
This movie is a sort of combination gangster movie and melodrama. Even though Ida Lupino got the top billing because of her established reputation at the time really the movie belongs to Bogart. He plays the part as naturally as any of his later roles. The plot moves along pretty well and even the Velma plot line isn’t too distracting. At times I think Lupino is given a little too much melodrama to successfully portray but I think the movie holds up pretty well. And there are a few character actors in supporting roles; Henry Hull as Doc Banton, Henry Travers as Velma’s grandfather and Donald MacBride as Big Mac that add human interest to the story. One sort of interesting bit of trivia, the dog Pard was played by Zero, Bogart’s own pet dog.
I think Bogart has half a dozen movies in his resume that are better than High Sierra. That being said this is a good movie. I can recommend it.