Like all genres, film noir includes, along with its core archetypal works, movies which exist on its fringes, which may include some elements in common with more exemplary noirs but nevertheless don't really feel like they belong. Take High Sierra (1941), for example: You have noir icon Humphrey Bogart playing a reputed criminal setting up a massive heist, and with a script by Bogart's The Maltese Falcon director John Huston… It sounds like definitive noir; but right from the start, High Sierra's heart is elsewhere, or maybe nowhere. Like its main character, it wants to shed its noir trappings, and both attempts lead to awkward unsatisfying results.
Master thief Roy Earle (Bogart) gets an early release after 8 years in prison, when an ailing crime boss uses his political influence to free the man he sees as key to pulling off major jewelry robbery. But incarceration seems to have changed Earle, who resents being pulled back into crime instead of enjoying his newfound freedom. Despite his reservations about the small-time crew, Earle keeps up his end of the deal, bound by an old-fashioned thieve's code of honor, but tangles himself up in various melodramas in the process.
Thematically there are some interesting elements in High Sierra. You have a gangster who yearns for a normal, decent life, but can't escape his past. He has a habit of picking up strays — a mangy dog, a gimpy girl, a wannabe gun moll — but he can't keep the one who represents change, and he can't shake the ones who remind him who he is. The Sierra Nevada mountain range looms ominously, like an obstacle between his past and freedom that he just can't cross. But themes are sometimes only as interesting as their delivery, and, quite surprisingly, High Sierra wavers between its half-hearted crime drama and facile symbolism, and its full-throated embrace of corny melodrama, and succeeds at neither.
Starting with the overly sentimental notion of Earle strolling a few blocks from prison to watch kids play ball in a park — you know, the park right next to the prison holding Illinois' most feared gangsters — High Sierra announces immediately that isn't a typical crime drama about tough-as-nails gangsters; it's about a reborn softie with a bad reputation. Earle then goes on to strike up an immediate friendship with a family of yokels moving west, headed by doddering Henry Travers, who plays the role like a more a simple version of his angel Clarence from It's a Wonderful Life. Despite having known Earle only fleetingly, Travers declares Earle, "The best man I've ever known!" and encourages the 40+year-old ex-con to court his granddaughter Velma (played by the barely 16-year-old Joan Leslie), with whom Earle is love-struck. If all of this premature outpouring of sentiment wasn't already too much, Velma has a clubfoot, and Earle goes to great expense to have a badly wigged mob doctor fix her up (vicariously fixing Earle, himself, in the process). When that uncomfortable romance doesn't pan out, Earle effortlessly falls back on his safety, the also instantly smitten floozy Marie (Ida Lupino), who sees in Earle a better version of the useless hoods she usually dates, and maybe they can develop their better sides together, along with their precocious dog Pard, if only they weren't the focus of a police manhunt.
High Sierra gushes with canned sentimentality and unearned emotional declarations, exactly the kind of mushy corn that makes today's audiences look sideways at old movies. In the hands of an expert like Douglas Sirk, this kind of melodrama can be worked into a kind of operatic splendor; but Raoul Walsh seems to be just going through the motions. While the cast is filled with naturally appealing actors, there's an awkward staginess to the dialog and performances (and a very squirmy cartoon performance by Willie Best), that is matched by the movie's perfunctory metaphors. Walsh fails to mine anything of transcendent value out of either the underwhelming crime scenarios or Earle's overwrought chronically clogged journey of self improvement. Like Earle, High Sierra gets stuck in the mountains with no plan and nowhere to go, and no heart to keep going.