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The Petrified Forest gave Humphrey Bogart the jumpstart his career needed, but it was High Sierra that proved he was ready to be a star.
After bringing Duke Mante to the screen with great success, Bogie was largely stuck in “B” movies playing the villain. That is, until Sierra came along.
Gangster films were considered by some to be old hat by some of Hollywood’s stars, and the male lead was turned down by James Cagney, George Raft, Paul Muni, and Edward G. Robinson. (Interestingly, High Sierra was based on the novel by W.R. Burnett, known for Little Caesar, which launched Robinson’s career.)
Bogart, however, wanted the part and telegrammed producer Hal B. Wallis about it.
Wallis was a big name in Hollywood, and he was already familiar with Bogie’s work having produced The Petrified Forest (read about that here), The Roaring Twenties (read about that here), and Dark Victory (read about that here).
As a result, Bogart got the part somewhat by default. Nevertheless, it proved to be career defining, as he breathed life into this “noble” Mad Dog Earle.
Co-screenwriter John Huston said, “Bogart was a medium-sized man, not particularly impressive offscreen. Those lights and shadows composed themselves into another, nobler personality: heroic.”
Bogart and Huston would work together less than a year later in The Maltese Falcon which would become one of cinema’s greatest film noirs.