February 9, 2010
The top image is from High Sierra (1941), of Humphrey Bogart slugging Alan Curtis in the jaw with his pistol. The bottom image is from the same scene in its remake, Colorado Territory (1949), of Joel McCrea knocking out James Mitchell with a meaty right hand. Both films were directed by Raoul Walsh – the first a gangster movie, the second a Western. Historically speaking, High Sierra is more important for its crystallization of the Humphrey Bogart persona: mulish, bitter, doomed. His good-bad guy Roy Earle was originally slated to be played by both Paul Muni and George Raft, until their queasiness with the script paved Bogart’s way to stardom. And so, it receives a fine DVD transfer and continuous play on TV and at repertory theaters. Colorado Territory has no such claim to history, except as a superior piece of genre filmmaking, so it receives a beat-up, fuzzy transfer in the Warner Archive. So it goes.
It’s fascinating to compare the two films in how they approach narrative, set-design, and performance. Let’s get the basic story out of the way (spoilers!) before I chart some of the divergences: a feared heist-artist gets out of jail, and is hired for one more big job by his aging, sickly boss. On the way to his target, he falls in love with a fresh-faced gamine, who eventually rejects him for a younger guy back home. Taking up with the salty dance-hall girl who loved him all along, he tries to escape with his latest haul, but gets chased into the mountains and gunned down from afar.
The shift in time-period (from contemporary to turn-of-the-century) completely changes Walsh’s visual palette. Most of High Sierra takes place in bland indoor spaces: a cabin hideaway, a grubby motel room, a swank hotel lobby. These are spaces of transit, areas that Earle can abandon at a moment’s notice. The only semi-permanent space is the suburban home where his club-footed teenage crush resides (played with sickly sweet naivete by Joan Leslie), where a rather unendurable stretch of doe-eyed sentiment lands, running completely counter to Bogart’s cynical demeanor in the rest of the film. It is not one of screenwriter John Huston’s finer moments, and drags down the film for me as a whole. The author of the novel, W.R. Burnett (Little Caesar), was brought on for rewrites to satisfy Paul Muni, but I think most of the blame for the clunky structure can be placed on Huston. This section excepted, however, the sets emphasize impermanence, banality, and lassitude, which Bogart slides into with ashen brutality. It’s an incandescent performance, but the film doesn’t hold up around him.
Colorado Territory is the inverse. McCrea is a competent, but much less nuanced performer, so Walsh invests Bogart’s menace in the set design, compresses the storyline to emphasize his athleticism, and opens up the visual space for more propulsive action. He builds around him – and creates a much more complete work of art. McCrea’s Wes McQueen is truly defined by the landscape here, where in High Sierra Bogart is left adrift in a sea of John Huston’s exposition.
The main settings in Colorado Territory are a decrepit Spanish mission town, a moving train, and a more extended stay in the mountains (shot in and around Gallup, New Mexico). The mission town is abandoned, just a complex latticework of collapsed roofs, beams and crosses (the art direction was by Ted Smith, the set decoration by Fred M. MacLean). It’s a far denser space than Earle’s cabin hideaway, and potently expresses the sense of imminent destruction that High Sierra mainly locates in Bogart’s brilliant broken down mutterings. And where Bogart’s heist takes place in static medium shots for a hotel safe-cracking, McCrea’s occurs in a thrilling moving train takedown – a hurtling sequence that pushes the pace forward through the end of the film. It telescopes Earle/McQueen’s crush on the young girl into a few sparkling scenes (moved along by Dorothy Malone’s more mature, flirtatious performance), introduces a melancholic backstory with a few well-placed lines (the memory of a lover’s face), and emphasizes his physicality with a gruesome bullet-plucking scene. Virginia Mayo rips it out with suspicious skill, a clever way to fill in her previous life with nary a word spoken. Her dance hall gal is conflicted and fiery throughout, unlike High Sierra’s Ida Lupino, who switches from bad girl to agreeable wife material with one slice of the editor’s guillotine.
Wes McQueen is thoroughly subjugated to the nature around him, a speck on the locomotive at his successful heist and a dot in the valley before he’s gunned down. High Sierra pulls a similar comparison, but with less narrative compression. There are detours into a city park as he moonily stares at the sky, and to his old family farm where he talks catfish with a young boy – excess scenes that exist merely to fill in backstory. In Colorado Territory, Walsh finds a way to squeeze in these details in the midst of the action – making for a spring-loaded, densely told tale, crisply shot by Sid Hickox, who Walsh called “the best and fastest cameraman of them all.” (and who also shot White Heat the same year). Walsh valued speed above all, having directed near 140 films in his astonishingly varied career.
This post has been mainly about contrasts – but I’ll end with similarities. These films were shot 8 years apart, but Walsh uses some of the same setups to remarkable effect. First there is the introduction of the respective dance-hall girls – who are first shown obscured. Ida Lupino is hidden behind a tree, and then Walsh cuts to a shot of her feet before panning up to her suspicious face. Virginia Mayo is also introduced seated, her head down as she musses her hair, before another dramatic head-raiser, eyes blazing.
Then there is the final shoot-outs, which are both remarkable for their extreme long shots from the killer’s POV, emphasizing the distance and ease with which the deed is carried out. Their murder is impersonal, enacted by a stranger, almost as if the land was reclaiming them for itself. The top two are from High Sierra, the bottom two are from Colorado Territory: