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DeStefano Reviews

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DeStefano Reviews

Francis P. DeStefano

Francis P. DeStefano holds a Ph.D. in history from Fordham University, where his field of concentration was 18th century British politics. He left the academy to pursue a career as a financial adviser. He retired in 2008 and is pursuing his interest in history, especially Renaissance art history. He resides in Connecticut and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Humphrey Bogart: “High Sierra”

No actor, male or female, has ever appeared in more top-ranked films than Humphrey Bogart. Most of these films are as watchable today as they were when they first appeared in the 1940s and ’50s. Most of them were made during Hollywood’s Golden Age, when the Studio system brought together under one roof outstanding directors, writers, cinematographers, and a whole host of other craftsmen and women to produce true works of art. The actors and actresses were of prime importance, none more so than Humphrey Bogart.

He first hit the spotlight in 1935 when he recreated his stage role as gangster Duke Mantee in “The Petrified Forest.” The stars were Leslie Howard, also recreating his leading man performance in Robert Sherwood’s play, and a young Bette Davis. Bogart turned in an unforgettable performance which, unfortunately, hurt his career since he would become typecast as a villain in popular gangster films.

It took five years for Bogart to break out of the mold in the groundbreaking 1941 film, “High Sierra.” Directed by Raoul Walsh, and written by John Huston, Bogart’s close friend, “High Sierra” marked the end of the traditional gangster film in that it attempted to humanize the criminal. It was Bogart’s first leading man role, although he only got second billing to co-star Ida Lupino. Bogart plays Roy Earle, a notorious 1930s gangster who is pardoned after serving eight years in prison. The pardon had been arranged by his old gang boss, who needs him to pull off one last big heist.

In the opening scene we see Bogart leaving the prison and basking in his freedom. He directs the driver sent to pick him up to stop at a nearby park so he can see if trees and grass still exist. He sits on a bench and enjoys the antics of little children playing ball. Our hearts go out to him. Only in the next scene when he picks up his assignment to drive to California and lead a robbery of a wealthy resort hotel do we see his tough guy demeanor emerge. He slaps around the corrupt cop who gives him his orders.

On the drive west he stops at the old Earle family farm in Indiana, which has been taken over by bankers during the Depression. His nostalgic love of the farm of his childhood is evident. He even directs a young boy to a favorite fishing spot. The criminal’s yearning for the idyllic countryside of childhood would be repeated in many films to come, including John Huston’s “The Asphalt Jungle.”

Arriving in California, he accidentally makes the acquaintance of an elderly couple who have lost their Ohio farm and have travelled west to stay with their daughter. They are traveling with their lovely teenage granddaughter, played by the lovely Joan Leslie, who unfortunately has a clubfoot. In another sign of his humanity, Roy Earle shows real concern for the plight of the girl, and eventually falls for her. He arranges for an underworld doctor to perform an operation on the girl’s foot. In those days, it was apparently easy and inexpensive, but when the girl is healed, she reveals that she is in love with another man. Earle is too old.

This rejection is just another sign among many that Roy Earle, after eight years in prison, is out of touch in the world of 1940. The world that he knew has passed him by. Even modern hoodlums are not up to his standards. When he finally meets up with the two other members of the hold-up team, they are obviously young and inexperienced, and certainly lacking in toughness. They are even shacking up with an unfortunate ex-dime-a-dance girl played by Ida Lupino. Tough-guy Earle claims that women are poison in a heist, and orders them to get rid of her. But when she tells him her story, she appeals to his sympathies and he relents. He is a human being, flaws and all. He is a tough and capable criminal but with a soft spot in his heart. He even develops an affection for a mongrel dog at the camp, one of the great dogs in film history. Eventually, they pull off the heist, but as usual in these films, things go wrong.

“High Sierra” marked Bogart’s first role as a sympathetic leading man, and established his persona as a tough guy with a hard exterior cloaking a soft, caring inside, a persona immediately evident in two subsequent films, “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), and “Casablanca” (1942), that made him a huge star. Roy Earle, Sam Spade, and Rick Blaine were roles that it is now hard to imagine anyone but Humphrey Bogart playing.

The Demise of the DVD Mailing Service on Netflix

It was sad to read the news that Netflix, is planning to discontinue the DVD mailing service that originally launched the entertainment giant, and rely exclusively on its movie streaming service. I suppose that streaming is more profitable, but I will miss the DVDs that came in the mail in their distinctive red envelopes. It was a great service. You had listed the films you wanted to see on your online queue, and the one on the top came quickly in the mail. You could keep it as long as you wanted, and when you returned it in the convenient envelope, the next one was sent.

I did try streaming when first introduced by Netflix but did not like it for a number of reasons. Chief among them was the fact that streaming provided fewer film choices. In particular, very few foreign films were available. Also, many American film noir classics from the ’40s and ’50s were available on DVD, but could not be streamed. Perhaps Netflix has added to its streaming menu, but there is another DVD feature that streaming does not provide.

Many DVDs come with special features in addition to the movie itself. There are often video biographies of the people involved in the production of a particular film. Not just the stars, but directors, producers, musical composers, and even costume designers are often featured. These can be of varying quality, but some are intelligent and informative.

For example, the Criterion Collection’s two-disc set of “Now Voyager,” the 1944 Bette Davis classic, provides a treasure trove of commentary. There is an interview with film critic Farran Smith Nehme on the making of the film; a scene-by-scene commentary by scholar Jeff Smith on Max Steiner’s Academy Award winning musical score; and even a discussion of the important role played by famed costume designer Orry-Kelly in dressing Bette Davis to fit changes in the character she portrayed.

Also, many DVDs, especially of important films, come with an expert audio commentary that plays along with the film. You can actually watch a film one night, and the next night view it again with a commentary. Like the biographies, these commentaries can vary in quality, but some are excellent. A few years ago, all of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals were issued in two boxed DVD sets. The DVD for the 1936 “Swing Time,” the best of them all, includes a commentary by John Mueller that provides almost a step-by-step discussion of every dance number. In another example, film scholar Marian Keane’s commentary for the Preston Sturges 1941 film, “The Lady Eve,” is a masterpiece in itself. It certainly helps understand why many consider Barbara Stanwyck one of the greats of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

My favorite commentator, however, is Jeanine Basinger, the founder of the Wesleyan University Film Archive that houses the Gene Tierney collection. Basinger’s audio commentaries for two Tierney films, the iconic “Laura” of 1944 and “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” of 1947, are superb. It is true that the films are wonderful and certainly can be watched over and over again by themselves. But watching a great film with Basinger as your guide is an experience in itself.

Whatever Netflix decides to do, it is still possible to build your own DVD collection and enjoy these films without commercial interruption or pop-up ads. Many people have thrown away their DVD players, but they can still be purchased inexpensively, as can the DVDs. But I will still miss the red envelopes.     *

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