Life and Death in L.A.: The Humanity of a 'Mad Dog' in 'High Sierra'

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Humanity of a 'Mad Dog' in 'High Sierra'

In "High Sierra" (1941), Humphrey Bogart is Roy "Mad Dog" Earle, an ex-con who is full of contradictions. Earle, apparently a hardened criminal, gets sprung from prison, and the first place he wants to go is to a park, where the grass is growing underfoot and he can breathe the fresh air. He may be the only movie gangster of that era who could also be a card-carrying Sierra Club member.

Earle has a soft spot for a crippled girl and a dog, and although we like him better for it, neither of the two will do much to stop his inevitable demise in this film. In fact, his soft spots end up being the Achilles heel that helps bring him down.

The role was a breakout part for Bogart, one that allowed him to display a greater range of subtleties in his character -- albeit portraying another gangster, as he had in a string of movies preceding this one.

Earle is involved in a holdup plot that goes wrong, and then he's on the run. The film's climax comes in the mountains, and includes a high-speed car chase that showcases Raoul Walsh's lean, powerful direction.

Walsh shoots the sheer cliffs and overpowering, vast landscape of the Sierra Nevadas as a desolate spot, where tragedy is just around every hair-pin turn up the steep mountain road.

The press tags Earle with the "Mad Dog" moniker, and this gnaws at him no end. He's not really bad, it's the circumstances of his life and some bum choices that have brought him to this juncture in his life.

The irony is that Earle is ultimately trapped in nature, as he evades the law as best he can among the mountain peaks. He's caught in wide open space that holds him in its grip just as certainly as did prison bars and concrete. And from that, few escape.

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