Raoul Walsh Remakes Himself


The top image is from High Sierra (1941), of Humphrey Bogart slugging Alan Curtis in the jaw with his pistol. The bottom image is from the same scene in its remake, Colorado Territory (1949), of Joel McCrea knocking out James Mitchell with a meaty right hand. Both films were directed by Raoul Walsh – the first a gangster movie, the second a Western. Historically speaking, High Sierra is more important for its crystallization of the Humphrey Bogart persona: mulish, bitter, doomed. His good-bad guy Roy Earle was originally slated to be played by both Paul Muni and George Raft, until their queasiness with the script paved Bogart’s way to stardom. And so, it receives a fine DVD transfer and continuous play on TV and at repertory theaters.  Colorado Territory has no such claim to history, except as a superior piece of genre filmmaking, so it receives a beat-up, fuzzy transfer in the Warner Archive. So it goes.

It’s fascinating to compare the two films in how they approach narrative, set-design, and performance. Let’s get the basic story out of the way (spoilers!) before I chart some of the divergences: a feared heist-artist gets out of jail, and is hired for one more big job by his aging, sickly boss. On the way to his target, he falls in love with a fresh-faced gamine, who eventually rejects him for a younger guy back home. Taking up with the salty dance-hall girl who loved him all along, he tries to escape with his latest haul, but gets chased into the mountains and gunned down from afar.

The shift in time-period (from contemporary to turn-of-the-century) completely changes Walsh’s visual palette. Most of High Sierra takes place in bland indoor spaces: a cabin hideaway, a grubby motel room, a swank hotel lobby. These are spaces of transit, areas that Earle can abandon at a moment’s notice. The only semi-permanent space is the suburban home where his club-footed teenage crush resides (played with sickly sweet naivete by Joan Leslie), where a rather unendurable stretch of doe-eyed sentiment lands, running completely counter to Bogart’s cynical demeanor in the rest of the film. It is not one of screenwriter John Huston’s finer moments, and drags down the film for me as a whole. The author of the novel, W.R. Burnett (Little Caesar), was brought on for rewrites to satisfy Paul Muni, but I think most of the blame for the clunky structure can be placed on Huston. This section excepted, however, the sets emphasize impermanence, banality, and lassitude, which Bogart slides into with ashen brutality. It’s an incandescent performance, but the film doesn’t hold up around him.

Colorado Territory is the inverse. McCrea is a competent, but much less nuanced performer, so Walsh invests Bogart’s menace in the set design, compresses the storyline to emphasize his athleticism, and opens up the visual space for more propulsive action. He builds around him – and creates a much more complete work of art. McCrea’s Wes McQueen is truly defined by the landscape here, where in High Sierra Bogart is left adrift in a sea of John Huston’s exposition.

The main settings in Colorado Territory are a  decrepit Spanish mission town, a moving train, and a more extended stay in the mountains (shot in and around Gallup, New Mexico). The mission town is abandoned, just a complex latticework of collapsed roofs, beams and crosses (the art direction was by Ted Smith, the set decoration by Fred M. MacLean). It’s a far denser space than Earle’s cabin hideaway, and potently expresses the sense of imminent destruction that High Sierra mainly locates in Bogart’s brilliant broken down mutterings. And where Bogart’s heist takes place in static medium shots for a hotel safe-cracking, McCrea’s occurs in a thrilling moving train takedown – a hurtling sequence that pushes the pace forward through the end of the film. It telescopes Earle/McQueen’s crush on the young girl into a few sparkling scenes (moved along by Dorothy Malone’s more mature, flirtatious performance), introduces a melancholic backstory with a few well-placed lines (the memory of a lover’s face), and emphasizes his physicality with a gruesome bullet-plucking scene. Virginia Mayo rips it out with suspicious skill, a clever way to fill in her previous life with nary a word spoken. Her dance hall gal  is conflicted and fiery throughout, unlike High Sierra’s Ida Lupino, who switches from bad girl to agreeable wife material with one slice of the editor’s guillotine.

Wes McQueen is thoroughly subjugated to the nature around him, a speck on the locomotive at his successful heist and a dot in the valley before he’s gunned down. High Sierra pulls a similar comparison, but with less narrative compression. There are detours into a city park as he moonily stares at the sky, and to his old family farm where he talks catfish with a young boy – excess scenes that exist merely to fill in backstory. In Colorado Territory, Walsh finds a way to squeeze in these details in the midst of the action – making for a spring-loaded, densely told tale, crisply shot by Sid Hickox, who Walsh called “the best and fastest cameraman of them all.” (and who also shot White Heat the same year). Walsh valued speed above all, having directed near 140 films in his astonishingly varied career.

This post has been mainly about contrasts – but I’ll end with similarities. These films were shot 8 years apart, but Walsh uses some of the same setups to remarkable effect. First there is the introduction of the respective dance-hall girls – who are first shown obscured. Ida Lupino is hidden behind a tree, and then Walsh cuts to a shot of her feet before panning up to her suspicious face. Virginia Mayo is also introduced seated, her head down as she musses her hair, before another dramatic head-raiser, eyes blazing.

Then there is the final shoot-outs, which are both remarkable for their extreme long shots from the killer’s POV, emphasizing the distance and ease with which the deed is carried out. Their murder is impersonal, enacted by a stranger, almost as if the land was reclaiming them for itself. The top two are from High Sierra, the bottom two are from Colorado Territory:

18 Responses Raoul Walsh Remakes Himself
Posted By Dan-O : February 9, 2010 3:20 pm

I have an aversion to the warner archive but if and when i break down Colorado will be one of my first purchases. Shame its release has been handled like a dereliction of duty; I’ve seen High Sierra a dozen or so times and agree somewhat about the awkwardness of the ‘high school crush’ that seems to splay forward from the scenes between Bogart and Joan Leslie. However I’m not in agreement that it renders the movie out of its classic status.
In fact, it illuminates me to the fact that Earle is truly a man out of his elements — where he belongs has passed him by, with younger and quicker guns; where he wants to be is almost a different kind of criminality — yearning for youth and a virgin teen who isn’t all she appears.
If it was Huston who scribbled out this sequence, I say he did it as finely as he could. It does not genuinely meshes with the holdup scenes, but I think that is towards the point. The world is leaving Earle, and the two portions he is clinging to are tearing him apart.
Can’t comment on Colorado due to having not seen it, but am a big fan of McCrae and Mayo. Thanks for the great review!

Posted By Dan-O : February 9, 2010 3:20 pm

I have an aversion to the warner archive but if and when i break down Colorado will be one of my first purchases. Shame its release has been handled like a dereliction of duty; I’ve seen High Sierra a dozen or so times and agree somewhat about the awkwardness of the ‘high school crush’ that seems to splay forward from the scenes between Bogart and Joan Leslie. However I’m not in agreement that it renders the movie out of its classic status.
In fact, it illuminates me to the fact that Earle is truly a man out of his elements — where he belongs has passed him by, with younger and quicker guns; where he wants to be is almost a different kind of criminality — yearning for youth and a virgin teen who isn’t all she appears.
If it was Huston who scribbled out this sequence, I say he did it as finely as he could. It does not genuinely meshes with the holdup scenes, but I think that is towards the point. The world is leaving Earle, and the two portions he is clinging to are tearing him apart.
Can’t comment on Colorado due to having not seen it, but am a big fan of McCrae and Mayo. Thanks for the great review!

Posted By Steve-O : February 9, 2010 3:55 pm

you should throw I Died a Thousand Times into the mix too.

Posted By Steve-O : February 9, 2010 3:55 pm

you should throw I Died a Thousand Times into the mix too.

Posted By Jenni : February 9, 2010 10:03 pm

Makes me wonder how many other directors re-did an earlier movie plot with a different cast and setting. Interesting post. Hope TCM will show Colorado Territory, as I’ve seen High Sierra already.

Posted By Jenni : February 9, 2010 10:03 pm

Makes me wonder how many other directors re-did an earlier movie plot with a different cast and setting. Interesting post. Hope TCM will show Colorado Territory, as I’ve seen High Sierra already.

Posted By passing thru : February 10, 2010 6:09 am

The title of this post is particularly perfect if you’ve read Walsh’s astonishingly entertaining pack-of-lies autobiography Each Man in His Time.

Posted By passing thru : February 10, 2010 6:09 am

The title of this post is particularly perfect if you’ve read Walsh’s astonishingly entertaining pack-of-lies autobiography Each Man in His Time.

Posted By kingrat : February 10, 2010 7:29 pm

Thanks for a great post. We have the same objections to High Sierra, and you make me eager to see Colorado Territory. High Sierra also has a cute doggie, Pard, and a very stereotyped comic African-American. The racial humor is painfully dated. All that and club-footed Velma too! The Bogart and Lupino parts of High Sierra are really good; in fact, I’d forgotten about all the other stuff until I recently saw the film again.

Posted By kingrat : February 10, 2010 7:29 pm

Thanks for a great post. We have the same objections to High Sierra, and you make me eager to see Colorado Territory. High Sierra also has a cute doggie, Pard, and a very stereotyped comic African-American. The racial humor is painfully dated. All that and club-footed Velma too! The Bogart and Lupino parts of High Sierra are really good; in fact, I’d forgotten about all the other stuff until I recently saw the film again.

Posted By Rick : February 11, 2010 12:26 am

I don’t know how “Colorado Territory” could be missed. It is one of Joel McCrea’s best performances. “High Sierra” does have some problems with its story line, but Mr. Walsh corrected much of them in “Colorado”. Both films have doom written all over them from the beginning. In my humble opinion, “Colorado Territory” is the better film. I hope that Warners releases a good DVD somethime soon.

Posted By Rick : February 11, 2010 12:26 am

I don’t know how “Colorado Territory” could be missed. It is one of Joel McCrea’s best performances. “High Sierra” does have some problems with its story line, but Mr. Walsh corrected much of them in “Colorado”. Both films have doom written all over them from the beginning. In my humble opinion, “Colorado Territory” is the better film. I hope that Warners releases a good DVD somethime soon.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : February 11, 2010 9:26 am

Rick – the Warner Archive release of COLORADO TERRITORY is the best it’s going to get, I suspect. If you love the film definitely pick it up, but the print is pretty beat up. It’s definitely watchable though.

And I have read EACH MAN IN HIS TIME, passinthru, and you’re right, it’s delightfully ridiculous. He turned his autobiography into his own Raoul Walsh adventure movie. It’s worthless as history but essential in understanding his artistic personality.

I haven’t seen the Stuart Heisler remake of HIGH SIERRA, Steve-O, but it sounds…intriguing.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : February 11, 2010 9:26 am

Rick – the Warner Archive release of COLORADO TERRITORY is the best it’s going to get, I suspect. If you love the film definitely pick it up, but the print is pretty beat up. It’s definitely watchable though.

And I have read EACH MAN IN HIS TIME, passinthru, and you’re right, it’s delightfully ridiculous. He turned his autobiography into his own Raoul Walsh adventure movie. It’s worthless as history but essential in understanding his artistic personality.

I haven’t seen the Stuart Heisler remake of HIGH SIERRA, Steve-O, but it sounds…intriguing.

Posted By StacyB : February 12, 2010 5:30 pm

Nice post — but I want to mention that High Sierra has another distinction – it’s referenced in John Berryman’s Dream Song #9:

… therefore she get on the Sheriff’s mike & howl
“Come down, come down.”
Therefore he un-budge, furious. (…)

A mild crack: a far rifle. Bogart’s duds
truck back to Wardrobe. Fancy the brain from hell
held out so long. Let go.

Godspeed to Henry and Mr.Bones. Poetry and the movies — they just go together.

Posted By StacyB : February 12, 2010 5:30 pm

Nice post — but I want to mention that High Sierra has another distinction – it’s referenced in John Berryman’s Dream Song #9:

… therefore she get on the Sheriff’s mike & howl
“Come down, come down.”
Therefore he un-budge, furious. (…)

A mild crack: a far rifle. Bogart’s duds
truck back to Wardrobe. Fancy the brain from hell
held out so long. Let go.

Godspeed to Henry and Mr.Bones. Poetry and the movies — they just go together.

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : August 17, 2010 2:02 pm

[...] Kehr’s erudite readers also took up the challenge, especially Blake Lucas, who wrote an essay-long breakdown of Walsh’s career. Kehr promises an essay in his eagerly awaited collection “When Movies Mattered”, slated for a spring release, and pointed to a forthcoming biography, “The True Adventures of  Raoul Walsh”, by Marilyn Ann Moss. I’m adding my rather undigested thoughts here, and will contribute more in the coming weeks the more I see. I watched The Big Trail  (1930), The Strawberry Blonde (1941), Battle Cry (1955), and The Tall Men (1955) in quick succession with comment below, and my bits on Me and My Gal (1932) and Colorado Territory (1949) are here and here. [...]

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : August 17, 2010 2:02 pm

[...] Kehr’s erudite readers also took up the challenge, especially Blake Lucas, who wrote an essay-long breakdown of Walsh’s career. Kehr promises an essay in his eagerly awaited collection “When Movies Mattered”, slated for a spring release, and pointed to a forthcoming biography, “The True Adventures of  Raoul Walsh”, by Marilyn Ann Moss. I’m adding my rather undigested thoughts here, and will contribute more in the coming weeks the more I see. I watched The Big Trail  (1930), The Strawberry Blonde (1941), Battle Cry (1955), and The Tall Men (1955) in quick succession with comment below, and my bits on Me and My Gal (1932) and Colorado Territory (1949) are here and here. [...]

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