High Sierra (1941) is the film that Humphrey Bogart fan's can thank for jump starting his career, because it is that film that pushed him closer to stardom and with The Maltese Falcon, made later that same year, he cemented it. Trudging along as a black hearted gangster or second lead at Warner Brothers for years had taken its toll, and Bogie lobbied hard for the part of Roy "Mad Dog" Earle. First offered to Paul Muni, then, after Muni turned it down, to George Raft, the role finally went to the persistent Bogart. Although he received second billing after Ida Lupino, it would be the last time in his career that he would see that slot.
High Sierra is a Warners gangster picture for sure. Many of the usual suspects who show up for the studio's often visited genre are here as well, gun-toting, tough-talking Barton MacLane for instance. The film is filled with the hard boiled dialogue of the day (more "saps", "rackets" and "sisters" than you can shake a stick at), but what makes Sierra different is the character of "Mad Dog" Earle and Bogart's portrayal of him. The actor brings a depth and sensitivity to Earle that is not usually seen in standard gangster fare. Unlike other "bad guys" of filmdom, like Gable's "Blackie" Gallagher in Manhattan Melodrama (1934) or Cagney's Rocky Sullivan in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), who show signs of decency to help out their upstanding friends, but still enjoy their chosen path in life, Bogart's Earle is three dimensional. Although a thief and a killer, at his core are traces of the Indiana farm boy he left behind many years ago, traces that want to resurface in the form of a relationship with good girl Joan Leslie. Traces that do resurface in the affection for a stray dog, who eventually leads to his downfall.
"Mad Dog" Earle is a convict whose pardon from prison has been bought by gang boss Big Mac (Donald MacBride), so that Earle, an experienced thief, can lead a major jewel heist Mac has planned. Along the way he meets two women. The innocent and soft-spoken cripple, Velma (Joan Leslie, in her first significant role), and hard-on-the-outside but soft-on-the-inside moll, Marie (Ida Lupino). Often an underrated actress, Lupino brings tender pathos as the dime a dance girl turned gangster gal. Her turn in High Sierra raised her stock at Warner Brothers, though she never achieved the fame of several of her counterparts at the studio (she described herself as "a poor man's Bette Davis"). The sympathy felt for both her Marie and Bogart's "Mad Dog" are a testament to both the actors as well as the screenplay. Others in the cast were Arthur Kennedy, Alan Curtis and young Cornel Wilde, in one of his earliest roles.
On the strength of his work as the screenplays co-writer, John Huston was given directorial duty on the upcoming The Maltese Falcon, where he forged a long lasting personal and professional relationship with Bogart. They continued their collaboration with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen among other films. Warner's resident action director Raoul Walsh, who directed the film, would remake it with a Western theme in 1948 as Colorado Territory and in 1955 yet another remake was produced as I Died a Thousand Times.