Tuesday, August 4, 2009

High Sierra -- Crashing Out

Director: Raoul Walsh, 1941.

A year before the classic Casablanca came out, Humphrey Bogart appeared in this existentialist gangster flick. Indeed, this is the last film in which Bogey did not get top-billing; here it went to Ida Lupino, the moll.
High Sierra is a strange film. It is not classic gangster, a la Cagney in White Heat. It is more a character study of the gangster, Roy "Mad Dog" Earle (Humphrey Bogart) who is a man whose time has passed and for whom time has passed him by. It includes some elements of the emerging film noir, but it is not a classic example of the genre.

As the film begins, Earle "crashes out": he receives a pardon from the governor and is released from prison. This has been arranged by associates so he can lead a hotel robbery in the high sierras of California. Having spent most of his last decade inside, the prohibition and depression era has ended and the new jitterbugging spirit of the 40s is upon America. This is a new America, one Earle does not know.

Driving across the country, Earle encounters a poor family heading west. Pa (Henry Travers, the wing-less angel Clarence from It's A Wonderful Life) was a farmer and connects with Earle, also from a rural farming family. This encounter is important to the plot, since Pa's 20-something club-footed grand-daughter, Velma (Joan Leslie), becomes Earle's fantasy woman.

Reality, though, hits Earle smack in the face when he gets to the sierras and meets the two punks who form his team. There is more: "Of all the 14 karat saps, starting out on a caper with a woman and a dog." The woman is Marie (Ida Lupino), a conniving former dance-hall girl, and the dog is Pod, a mutt needing a friend (Bogart's real-life dog). These two are essential to the story, and will prove to be Earle's downfall.

Earle is a man living in two worlds -- the real world and his fantasy world. In the real world he is a hardened criminal, killing people as easily as he puts out his cigarettes. In this world he is in control, making decisions, leading his small gang. But he sees himself in a romanticized way. He is the knight in shining armor that can help Velma escape her prison of disability. He is a farmer wanting to return to the small town life, with Velma as his bride. Not really seeing that Marie has him in her sights, he only has eyes for Velma. Two girls, two lifestyles, one divided man.

How often do we live in a fantasy world of our own imagination? Like Earle, we can create a world of deception, thinking differently, making more of who we are than reality reflects. Madison Avenue bombards us with all kinds of fantasies, telling us we are more than we are, we deserve better than we have. This is dangerous. As dangerous as Earle was in his real persona, believing the concoctions of our own making leads us into a quicksand that will swallow us alive. The solution is to look to the truth. Jesus offers such truth; he is the truth (Jn. 14:6). Friends can keep us safe and free with a dose of honest reality (Prov. 27:6). That is the value of community. Velma wanted to offer this to Earle, but he was not prepared to accept it from her. She was competing for his love. She had an agenda; true friends don't.

When the hotel heist goes wrong and someone is killed, Earle and Marie find themselves on the run from the law, with the manhunt drawing closer. In an early scene, one crook tells Earle, "You remember what Johnny Dillinger said about guys like you and him? He said you were just rushing toward death. Yeah, that's it; just rushing toward death." And as the climax draws near, Earle finds himself in a car chase up Mount Whitmore to a standoff with the police.

Throughout High Sierra the concept of "crashing out" recurs. This phrase denotes finding freedom and realizing dreams. Roy had spent most of his life behind bars, and he dreamed of seeing the trees and feeling the grass. He crashed out at the start. But he was trapped by his lifestyle and only in one way could he truly crash out. Marie, a world-weary survivor, wanted to crash out from her claustrophobic lifestyle of dingy dance-halls and violent men. She sought a savior, and saw Earle as her noble knight. Even Velma was trapped by her club-foot and dreamed of dancing with her love (not Earle). But thanks to Earle, she got to crash out of her imprisonment.

How are we trapped? What is imprisoning us? Frmo what are we dreaming of escape? It might be a dead-end job. It could be a stagnant relationship. It might even be a rules-based religion that has strangled the life out of us. Like Earle, Velma and Marie, our dreams of crashing out can become reality, but only in the person of our savior Jesus. He offers liberation, freedom from the oppression of sin (Gal. 2:4). We can walk in newness of life, experiencing life afresh (Jn. 10:10), as Earle did initially, but only momentarily, when he walked free from prison. Unlike Earle, we can live in this new lifestyle as we walk with Jesus day by day. Are you ready to "crash out"?

Copyright 2009, Martin Baggs

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