The “gangster film” is a true American creation. There were of course many early foreign films with elements of “crime” in them (Feuillade’s Les Vampires, or Lang’s Dr. Mabuse to name just a few), but the European crime films seemed more preoccupied with secret societies and grand Bond-villain-like master plans. Early American gangster films were all about one man’s rise to power (and subsequent fall) through crime, something which they merely saw as a “left handed form of human endeavor”.
The seeds of the American gangster film can be found in the seminal crime films from the teens: The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) and Regeneration (1915) (even perhaps the hold up in The Great Train Robbery (1903) which gave audiences their first thrill at the excitement of crime). But I would say it wasn’t until Sternberg’s 1927 film Underworld that the first real “gangster” film was made. This was of course because it wasn’t until prohibition and the “Roaring Twenties” that organized crime (the backbone of the American gangster film) really rose to power.
By 1931, the huge successes of Public Enemy and Little Caeser (in addition to the even more impressive Scarface the following year) ensured that the 1930’s would be a decade full of many fine examples of the genre. The main character was usually portrayed as a product of the social conditions he lived in, and his quick and ruthless rise to power was nothing less than a subverted version of the American dream. Eventually he would rise too high and his empire would come crashing down in an obligatory last stand shootout with the police. The public ate it up since “the highwayman” has always been more exciting than the “do-gooder”. The censors hemmed and hawed about the glorification of violence and crime, but so long as the title character met (often bloody) justice at the end there wasn’t a lot more they could do about it in the face of the public’s ravenous appetite for these films.
But by 1941, with the film High Sierra, Raoul Walsh (perhaps the most important gangster film director with such fine films as Regeneration, The Roaring Twenties and White Heat to his name) signaled a new direction for the American gangster film. It was not merely the introduction of noir elements, it was his modification of what it meant to be a “doomed gangster” that made his film so important.
To be sure, the gangster was always doomed. But, before High Sierra this doom was in more of a Faustian sense. He wanted too much, flew too high, and caused everything to come crumbling down. There was always the sense that he could have kept it all had he been able to control his unchecked ambition. Of course history itself worked against the gangster–everyone knows that the “salad days” of bootlegging and machine guns were only to last until prohibition was repealed, a fact that is always present in the back of the viewer’s mind while watching these films.
With High Sierra it is apparent from the beginning that we are dealing with something different. Roy Earl is sprung (unable to escape himself, even his prison release is part of events set into motion beyond his control) from prison in the opening scene by implied bribes and right away returns to the world of crime. There is no question of doing anything else, crime is an inseparable part of who Roy is. He is neither just a citizen who has turned to a life of crime due to his social circumstances, nor is he just someone who has had a taste of the spoils of crime and doesn’t want to go back. Instead, Roy is a professional and he chooses crime because it is the one thing he is completely competent and comfortable at.
Unlike the gangster protagonists of the 30’s, Roy Earl is not a power hungry man on the rise. He is actually an example of what would have happened had one of the gangster protagonists of the 30’s escaped their bloody demise, taking with them the wisdom of experience to temper their unchecked ambition. The world has no room for his kind any more, yet he is still there, out of place and hopelessly trying to continue doing the only thing he knows how to do.
This is the source of Roy’s doom, he is living in a world that has no place for him. This is evident at every turn in High Sierra. Roy’s only friend who set up the heist (a last remnant of the old days) is dying and working with a dirty “copper”, Roy’s professionalism seems out of place next to the hot headed young thugs he’s saddled with on the job, and to drive the point home there is the family with the pretty daughter that Roy foolishly thinks he has a chance with. But she is not from his world, and his one attempt to pursue her, knowing full well that he could never change, ends in disaster, despite, importantly, the fact that she never even finds out who he really is.
With High Sierra, the blueprint was created for the more nihilistic and existentially bleak gangster films of the future. The roots of John Huston’s monumental Asphalt Jungle and the French gangster films of Melville, Becker and Dassin can be seen in High Sierra. No longer were the possibilities of the gangster film limited to showing a more titillating version of the American “little guy makes big” dream with a tacked on bloody comeuppance ending. The implications of what it meant to live a life outside of society were examined in depth, changing the gangster film into a study of alienation and an unflinching dedication to professionalism despite it all. For Roy Earl in High Sierra, the only thing that stands in his way is the world he lives in, but that won’t stop him from slapping a few “coppers” around until the world finally manages to catch him.