Review of High Sierra (1941) and I Died A Thousand Times (1955)

High Sierra:

I Died A Thousand Times

Sharp-eyed readers will notice they're getting two reviews for the price of this one. That's because the rather bizarrely-titled I Died a Thousand Times is a remake of High Sierra. Though High Sierra is more famous and features noir icon Humphrey Bogart, I Died a Thousand Times, with Jack Palance and Shelley Winters and directed by the less well-known Stuart Heisler, is the better film.

The story in both films is very much the same, with a few but significant changes in the remake. Bank robber Roy Earle is sprung from prison by ailing gangster Big Mac to commit one last job--robbing a hotel safe at a wealthy resort town. Roy's attention is divided between keeping in line his squabbling co-conspirators, Red, Babe and Marie, and wooing the young clubfooted Velma, granddaughter of an elderly couple Roy met while travelling to the gang's secluded cabin in the Sierra Nevadas. Marie in turn is attracted to Roy. Only Pard the stray dog offers Roy uncomplicated friendship.

Despite tough guy Bogart's presence, High Sierra is neither a good noir nor a good film. Director Raoul Walsh's skillful when it comes to handling sequences with cars, including one suspenseful near-accident and a spectacular car chase scene near the end. But the overall atmosphere of joviality he creates in High Sierra fits badly with the dark qualities of the script. Yes, the script has elements of comic relief involving Pard the dog and the cabin caretaker (African-American in High Sierra, Mexican-American in I Died a Thousand Times; a demeaning stereotype in both), but its main characters are criminals. And a more cheerful and dignified pack of hard-bitten criminals you'll never meet, especially High Sierra's leads Roy and Marie, as well as supporting characters Big Mac and mob doctor Banton.

Bogart lends some desperately-needed intensity to High Sierra as a superstar gangster who's the object of young Red's antihero worship. He's a complex and sympathetic figure--and this is one of the film's strengths. Roy doesn't shrink from commiting crimes, yet he's capable of honorable and kind behaviour, defending women and dogs and the elderly. Bogart's brought down not by a femme fatale, but by Walsh's clunky direction. Especially awful is one scene where Bogart threatens a co-conspirator over and over. And over. Scenes where he assaults other characters are laughably unconvincing.

Though it's less well-known than High Sierra, I Died a Thousand Times is tighter, darker and more tragic. It omits High Sierra's leisurely opening sequence tracing Bogart's release from prison and his cross-country drive to the Sierra Nevadas. Instead, director Stuart Heisler establishes a circularity in the film by opening with Jack Palance's Roy staring at the mountains and briefly repeating that scene near the end of the film.

The mountains are a holy grail for Palance, symbolising cleanliness and purity on one hand and deadliness on the other (Roy tells Marie the mountains are "so cold they could kill a man.") The strange combination of purity and deadliness rematerializes in, of all things, Pard the dog, the first and possibly only chien fatale in film history. It's not really Pard who's the fatale force in I Died a Thousand Times--that might be too perverse, even for a film noir. It's Roy's desire for a clean and pure domestic life with a wife and a dog. It's the American Dream that can really take it out of you, director Heisler subversively says.

That subversiveness comes across in I Died a Thousand Times because of Palance's subtle acting. When Bogart hugs Pard the dog in High Sierra, he's simply happy. When Palance hugs Pard the dog, his happiness is laced with a desperate desire to reinvent himself as a family man--even in a family of strays. Pivotal also to the remake's subversiveness is the character of Velma. She and Bogart share a romantic moment in High Sierra, but when Palance tries to get romantic, his Velma rejects him. Palance is perfectly matched with Shelley Winters' pathetic taxi dancer Marie, who's deluded into thinking she's able to use her sexuality to control men when in reality, men are taking advantage of her sexually. Likewise, Palance is deluded into thinking he has a chance with Velma. Heisler is far less sentimental a director than Walsh, and so Palance's overwhelming, overreaching desire to realise the American Dream becomes "so cold [it] could kill a man."

(revised December 28, 2000)

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