Bank-robber Roy Earle (Bogart) may be outside the law, but he's a lot more sympathetic than those functionaries carrying out the law. Of course, they get him in the end, just as the production code of the day said they must. In the meantime, however, we're treated to a zeitgeist glimpse of the Depression Era, as captured by screenwriters John Huston and W.R. Burnett. Together they underscore Earle's connection to ordinary folks, whether passing time with a dirt farmer, befriending a penniless crippled girl, or shooting the breeze with her folksy father. Clearly he's an extention of them, and when he 'breaks free' at movie's end, we know audiences of the day break free of their own oppressive conditions, if only for a moment.
This is a milestone Bogart movie, the one that catapulted him onto the Hollywood A-list as the soft-hearted tough guy that would become his signature. Good as he is -- and looking like John Dillinger in a prison haircut -- I like Ida Lupino's soulful gun moll even better. Together, she and Sylvia Sydney defined the downtrodden, yet gutsy, lower class woman of the time. Here she clings to outlaw Earle and their ugly mutt like it's her last shot at life, which it probably is, the script discreetly implying she's been passed from man to man for years. So at film's end, when, ennobled by true love, her eyes uplift and a beatific glow calls forth, we know that a dignity is restored and a past transcended -- and the "High" in High Sierra comes to stand for a lot more than hard-scrabble mountaintop.