Sunday, 2 June 2013

John Huston & W.R. Burnett: High Sierra

W.R. Burnett, now shamefully forgotten, is one of the greatest American crime writers. (He also wrote some notable Westerns, which makes him the Elmore Leonard of his day.)

High Sierra may well be Burnett's masterpiece, it's certainly one of my favourite crime novels, and it deserves a blog post all of its own. However, to do it full justice I'm going to have to re-read it. So that's for another time.

Today we're talking about the screenplay of High Sierra, which was made available by the nice people at the University of Wisconsin Press in their Warner Bros. Screenplay series and which has been my reading-on-trains-and-buses book lately.

I recently posted about John Huston's film of The List of Adrian Messenger. Huston is one of our finest film directors. He was also a top screenwriter. And he wrote the script of High Sierra based on W.R. Burnett's novel. (Burnett also gets credit on the title page of the script, which suggests he did early drafts before Huston was brought in.)

The U. of W. book is a lovely item. It features an introduction, footnotes and photographs. And, crucially, it contains scenes which were cut from the final version of the film. It's also a real screenplay, containing the dialogue and scene directions as Huston (and Burnett) wrote them — not like some published "screenplays" which are nothing more than transcriptions from a DVD of the movie, taken down by some poor hack (Faber & Faber, I'm looking at you here).

High Sierra tells the story of Roy Earle (played in the film by Humphrey Bogart, a tough and experienced bank robber serving life who is sprung from the penitentiary (pardoned thanks to a bribe) to take place in a jewel heist at a resort in the eponymous mountain range.

When Roy arrives in the clean air of the wild peaks he soon finds himself acquiring a loyal and loving girlfriend (Marie, played by the admirable Ida Lupino) and an equally loyal and adoring dog (Pard). Both Marie and Pard are strays. And Roy has been a loner all his life. Now he becomes part of a family virtually overnight.

The reader's heart goes out to him...

Unfortunately, he still has that robbery to pull. 

And his cohorts are not as strong and reliable as his new mistress ("The girl's the best man of the lot," says Roy) — or even the dog. Sadly, Marie and Pard aren't part of the jewel-raid team, otherwise things might have turned out differently.

High Sierra is a heist-gone-wrong story, but it is also much more than that. Mostly, to me, it's a tragedy about Roy Earle, an admirable man trapped by circumstance.

One of its strongest sub plots concerns a family of hicks whom Roy rescues and befriends. The grand daughter, Velma, is a pretty young woman with a club foot. Roy pays for the surgery to have it repaired. He is smitten with the girl.

This is where the script and the novel diverge. In the book Roy visits Velma, recovering in bed after her successful surgery, and clumsily proposes to her. 

She turns him down, because she is loyal to her 'boyfriend' back home. There is a strong suggestion that this guy just shagged and her and ditched her, and Velma's feelings are misplaced. Anyway, she makes the classic suggestion to Roy that they can still "be friends" (some dialogue just never dates).

In the screenplay, something similar happens. But the crucial difference is that the post-op Velma, liberated from her club foot, is revealed to be an empty headed little jitterbugging slut, partying with a bunch of moronic lowlifes.

In both versions Roy is rejected, but in the John Huston script his kindness and generosity is shown to be utterly wasted by the revelation of Velma's true nature. This sort of twisted cynicism is highly characteristic of Huston — and I must say, I like it. I think it's probably even stronger than W.R. Burnett's original.

In any case, I recommend both Burnett's  novel and Huston's script in the highest possible terms. The actual movie I can't vouch for. I haven't seen it for years. But it was directed by Raoul Walsh — Huston 'only' wrote the screenplay — and I am not a huge fan of Walsh. He certainly isn't in Huston's league as a film maker. And I suspect the movie has dated somewhat, despite Bogart's iconic presence.

But I'll have to get the DVD and check it out.

Like Donald Westlake's Parker, Roy Earle is a totally professional armed robber. Like Parker he is only vulnerable when let down by treacherous, amateurish or incompetent associates. Unfortunately, unlike Parker, he didn't go on to enjoy some two dozen capers. 

More's the pity.

(Picture credits: The really striking 10 18 French paperback with its graphic Bogart profile cover is from Amazon. I like this so much I'm tempted to buy a copy even though I don't speak French — yet. The cover of the screenplay is from the Strand Bookstore and you can buy a copy there. The orange movie poster ("He must be killed!" — which expresses the Hays Code morality of movies of the day) is from Docs on Film. The narrow pink and yellow film poster is from a useful site called Noir of the Week. The attractive variant on this poster is from Cinema Gumbo which is replete with great images. The VHS cover (I think that's what it is) is from Detnovel. The image of the slightly dodgy DVD cover is from Daily Kos. The nice shot of Roy, Pard and Marie is from Aurora's Gin Joint, a classic film blog. The photo of Bogart with his rifle crouching in the mountains is from Classic Film 101. I couldn't find a decent image of this photo on the internet, but I loved it so much I included this pixelated one. The great still of Bogart in a chair with a shotgun is from the Night Editor. Bogart with the two .45s is from Flixster.)


  1. Once you've tried the film version of High Sierra you must try the 1955 remake "I Died a Thousand Times" where IIRC the screenplay is written by W.R. Burnett solo. It's inferior to the first film but some of the different choices, not just in scenes, but in how similar scenes are played, are fascinating. It certainly made me appreciate Raoul Walsh's direction of the 1941 film more

    "I Died" has Jack Palance, Lee Marvin, Shelly Winters and Lon Chaney. Which almost compensates for the loss of Bogart and Lupino. Plus the embarrassing comedy black character from the original is replaced by...a comedy mexican

  2. Many thanks for that. I'll try and catch the remake as well as the original and write a comparison of both. I should have mentioned the "hilarious" ethnic stereotyping. Regarding Burnett westerns, you should try and see 'Yellow Sky' which is superb.