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High Sierra

Jul 22, 2017 | 0 comments

Jul 22, 2017 | Essays | 0 comments

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The perceived public enemy shifts throughout the years. Crime movies can focus on who the perceived enemies are at the time. It shifts from the depression and lack of confidence in the system, to corruption of cities and big business. The majority of people live relatively honest lives, but we still root for the criminal who takes advantage of the system or who takes his share from the rich. The movies show a stark reality between the corrupt city life of the industrial age, from the idealized pastoral life of the past. To rural Americans the city of the gangster represented the “enemy’s country”[1], because it was populated with foreigners. The movie gangsters are generally second-generation immigrants. Italian, Jewish and Irish gangsters are the primary gangsters in films, and that still holds true today.

Public Enemy – an example of the early gangster films of the 1930’s. Many Americans could relate, the stock market had crashed, people were struggling to make ends meet, and unemployment skyrocketed.  It was hard not to root for a protagonist that did what he had to do to survive. 

High Sierra – (1941)

-Film was made in the early 1940’s and stars Humphrey Bogart as a mature gangster that was just released from prison. The film marks the waning of the 30’s gangster protagonist in the forties, as film noir began to take off.[2]


~ A twilight-of-the-gangster movie that came at the end of the cycle. Darkness at hand and optimism of the new deal in sharp perspective.

It served as a farewell to common America. One of the bank robbers was an independent farmer, the other was a Midwestern bank robber.

~ Marked the beginning of the heist gone bad movies that continued after the war.

The main character Earl, played by Bogart, represents the dying breed of the “honorable” that acted out of a sense of social justice. He is a relic that is partnered up with a generation of “twerps, soda jerkers, and jitterbugs”. The younger characters are portrayed as incompetent and cowardly. Or they are silly and opportunistic. They young farm-girl that Earl helps, rejects him for a wealthy, divorced city slicker, despite her grandfather’s warnings about the guy.

~ High Sierra bridged the 30’s and 40’s. The 40’s was a time of angst and disillusionment.

Earl knows his situation is helpless, just as there was little hope for the population as the nations were gathering for war.

The lonely and hopeless gangster speaks about “crashing out”, and remarks on “how the earth is like a little ball turning in the night, with us hanging on to it”.

Reflect the changing of the world and the prevalence of corruption. Only in the open spaces of nature can he find refuge. But it can’t help him, it only allows to have a clean death, away from city filth of the city.

~ Film mentions guys like him were rushing towards death. At metaphor about how people used to have a free existence, but could never be satisfied with promises of social improvement.

~ despite the censors need for the gangsters death, the hero’s death was predetermined. When he came out of the prison he took some time to feel the grass growing beneath his feet. Meaning he was an ageing grassroots gangster that was out of his element and doomed for extinction in modern America’s hardened concrete and asphalt.

~ National decline – the last frontier of California has become polluted. A gaudy resort built only for the rich, while the share cropper in Indiana is afraid of losing his farm

~ Theme, social change in America is abrupt and ruthless. Lawlessness was tolerated, even encouraged, as long as it pushed the frontier farther into the wilderness.

And self-reliant, violent, natural societies had to be periodically destroyed [3]


Force of Evil – 1948

Cold war was intensifying – Fall of Czechoslovakia and Berlin crisis.

Communism is the real enemy. Counterfeiters, pushers, and smugglers were aiding the real “public enemies” the communists

House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) was beginning shift its attention on Hollywood.

Film was a statement about one’s need to preserve or regain one’s own integrity.


Finding a balance between free speech and being labeled and communist.

The film was an expose on the numbers racket, but censorship prevented the film from showing how the racket worked. Twenty minutes of footage was cut before the films release.

The numbers racket fed on the nickel and dimes of the little people. Illegal clandestine “banks” operated the racket and were scattered throughout big cities.

Two brothers Joe and Leo, both are criminals, but Leo’s lack of ambitions frustrate Joe. Leo doesn’t want to join the bigger outfits; he has a certain respect for the little people and eventually gets killed. Joe seeks revenge. It highlights the struggle between the little guy and the soulless big business that is taking over.

The films creators were questioned about their beliefs. The producer, John Garfield appeared before the committee in 1951, it was an experience that took its toll on his health. He died the following year. The director, Abraham Polonsky was blacklisted and didn’t direct another movie for twenty years.[4]


According to Polonsky, the film was an examination the sick soul of modern man living within a capitalist system.

Capitalism cause rifts in human society. The system forces people to into corruption to stay alive.

The Force of Evil is American business, symbolized by Wall Street.

Leo’s conversion with his wife stresses the point.


Leo: I’ve been a businessman all my life, and honest, I don’t know what a business is.


Sylvia: Well, you had a garage, you had a real estate business.


Leo: …Real estate business. Living from mortgage to mortgage, stealing credit like a thief. And the garage – that was a business. Three cents overcharge on every gallon of gas, two cents for the chauffeur and a penny for me. A penny for one thief, two cents for the other.


It doesn’t matter if the business is big or small, they are all corrupt and evil.

Doris is an example of that. At first she is innocent and resists Joe’s advances. He becomes impatient and tries his best to demean her. Deep down she does have the same desires and it only takes a little pushing for those desires to surface and she breaks out of her shell. She is not allowed to remain sheltered and innocent.


The telephone plays a role in the film. It symbolized the connection between the different worlds. These worlds could communicate with each other.


The film has very little action and departs from the typical shoot em up gangster films.

It shows the connections between politics, business, and crime. The image of the gangland boss and corrupt lawyer has a greater truth. The corrupt lawyer is taking over



Clarens, Carlos. Crime Movies: From Griffith to The Godfather and beyond. New York: Norton, 1980.

Mintz, Steven, and Randy Roberts. Hollywood’s America: Twentieth-century America through Film. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Rafter, Nicole Hahn. Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Rosow, Eugene. Born to Lose: The Gangster Film in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Shadoian, Jack. Dreams & Dead Ends: The American Gangster Film. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

[1] Eugene Rosow, Born to Lose: The Gangster Film in America (New York: Oxford University Press,) 1978

[2] Ibid., 233.

[3] Carlos Clarens, Crime Movies: From Griffith to The Godfather and beyond (New York: Norton, 1980), 168-170.

[4] Ibid., 221-223.

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