High Sierra (1941) is often described as a “heist” film, but it is actually part of a broader incorporation of the American West into film noir. The West, especially in its arid parts, has long been the scene of American myth-making, some of it inspired by actual history. The general theme of popular narratives set there has been that the difficulty of that landscape, its loneliness, and indigenous enemies, caused men to band together, to appreciate communal enterprise, and to embrace Judaeo-Christian values.
It was almost inevitable that W. R. Burnett (known for Little Caesar and Scarface) and John Huston would rewrite Burnett’s novel to see what the setting could do for it. There is extensive location shooting, especially in the climactic final scenes, as the authorities pursue Bogart’s character, gangster “Mad Dog” Roy Earle, from Lone Pine up to the foot of the mountain. But the traditional theme is overthrown, anticipating a later trend that can be termed “desert noir.”
The film features Ida Lupino and Humphrey Bogart (below) and was directed by Raoul Walsh on location at Whitney Portal, halfway up Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada of California. An aged gangster, Big Mac (Donald MacBride), is planning a robbery at a fashionable California resort hotel in the fictional resort town of Tropico Springs and he wants Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart), just released from an eastern prison, to lead the heist.
Roy drives across the country to a camp in the mountains to meet up with the three men who will assist him in the heist: Louis Mendoza (Cornel Wilde), who works as a clerk in the hotel, plus Red (Arthur Kennedy) and Babe (Alan Curtis), who are already living at the camp. Babe has brought along a dance-hall girl, Marie (Ida Lupino). Roy wants to send Marie back to Los Angeles but, after some argument, she convinces Roy to let her stay.
On the drive up to the mountains, Roy met the family of Velma (Joan Leslie), a young woman with a clubbed foot who walks with a limp. Roy pays for corrective surgery to allow Velma to walk normally, despite her grandfather’s warning that Velma has a boyfriend back home. The heist goes wrong when they are interrupted by a security guard. Roy makes his getaway with Marie, but Mendoza, Red, and Babe are involved in a car crash, killing Red and Babe. Mendoza is captured and talks, putting the police on Roy’s trail. Roy goes to Big Mac with the jewels from the robbery, but finds him dead of a heart attack.
While Roy and Marie leave town, a dragnet is put out for him, identifying him to the public as “Mad Dog Roy Earle”. The two fugitives separate in order to allow Marie time to escape. Roy is pursued until he climbs one of the Sierra mountains, where he holes up overnight. Shortly after sunrise, Roy trades shots with the police. He hears barking, runs out calling Marie’s name and is shot dead from behind by a sharpshooter.
In the broadest terms what happens is that background motif came to the fore, a motif most recognized in film noir, though it also occurs in noir fiction. In such films as High Sierra and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the central characters are driven by a lust or greed that they bring to the rugged settings. The setting is no longer emphasized as a formidable landscape on which the individual works out the possibility of redemption, but rather one – difficult or pastoral — where the terms of his doom will be written. This shift was not about the setting per se but about the always over-determined-in-noir role of chance. It was a move from the older notion that chance sometimes favored the protagonist, or that he could change his chance by his skill, to a more modern and cynical attitude that the protagonist was always, already doomed – but still thought chance might save him.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was a 1927 adventure novel by the mysterious German-English bilingual author B. Traven, in which two destitute Americans join an old-timer miner, in Mexico, to prospect for gold. The novel strings dramatic tension between the humane old veteran Howard, who understands the work necessary to mine and market the gold, and Dobbs, the greedy miner played by Humphrey Bogart in the 1948 film. This is a familiar Western thematic. In the novel Dobbs is hardly more than a caricature, but as portrayed on film his characterization builds on Bogart’s other noir roles and the template of 40s noir heroes like Walter Huff (Fred MacMurray) in James M. Cain’s 1944 novel Double Indemnity. Like Hammett or Huff, Dobbs thinks that none of the rules of chance or law apply to him. As he says, “If they don’t have badges, they are not the police.” Few leading men before Bogart and McMurray had attempted to persuade mass audiences that the law did not apply to them; Cagney would be a notable exception. In fact, just a few years earlier, in High Sierra (1941) Bogart, playing Mad Dog Roy Earle, had met his ignominious fate attempting to escape up a box canyon below Mt. Whitney. Both films conflate exploitation of the landscape, its economic potential, with chance, in a broad popular fashion: it seems to say that you can’t be immoral where the environment is concerned
The Asphalt Jungle (1950) is even more pointedly suggestive, providing a foreground crime — the elaborate bank heist — against a late-developing background of nature, in this case the lush Kentucky bluegrass region to which Dix Handley dreams that he will return to the thoroughbred farm that his father owned. He just needs to rob a bank to do so. W.R. Burnett, the author of the novel and the film script, was from Columbus, Ohio, and he possessed a dichotomous view of setting: to his south was the romantic Kentucky and historic Ohio Valley, while the North offered Cleveland’s Eliot Ness and Chicago’s Al Capone. In the film these settings are unconvincingly woven together, but John Huston films the Kentucky scenes so sentimentally that nature’s purity as a counterpoint to crime is over-determined if anything. More interesting to most viewers are Doc Riedenschneider, the German mastermind of the crime, who evinces a fetish for young girls, and Alonzo Emmerich, a corrupt lawyer he partners with. The anti-German bias is noticeable. Huston depicts these…let’s call them vaguely European characters… as manipulating such earnest natives as Dix and his girlfriend Doll. Its 11-minute long, meticulously planned heist scene is surely the glory of The Asphalt Jungle and then became a model for Ocean’s 11. Burnett had used an unsophisticated third person point-of-view in the novel, so that narrative (and most of the film) lacks the existential questioning that will be made possible by the confessional mode of Cain.
These themes owe a bit to James M. Cain. He first saw the Southwest after being downsized out of his jobs at the New York Herald American and The New Yorker. He came to Hollywood to try his hand at screen-writing, only to discover that despite his gift for print dialogue, his lines did not play to the ear. In his spare time he drove around Southern California, even out to the deserts. Over one vista of the sands he stopped in 1933 and wrote,
the sunlight gives everything the unmoving quality of things seen in a desert. And of course this is greatly aggravated by the similarity of the seasons, in itself. Nothing changes. Summer follows Winter without a Spring, Winter follows Summer without a Fall. The citrus trees flower and bear all at the same time: you never get a riot of blossoms as you do in Western Maryland when the apple-trees are in bloom, or a catharsis of stinking, primitive accomplishment, as you do in Delaware when the tomatoes go to the cannery. Here the oil wells flow right along, so do the orange trees, so does everything. It is terrifying. ( “Paradise,” a 1933 cover story about Los Angeles published in H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury )
Cain did not begin to write crime fiction until he was in the West, so he never practiced the Burnett-Hecht-Runyon urban crime narrative or the detective fiction typical of the Black Mask boys. His first person narrators were not criminals, detectives, or heroes – they were not defined in those older economic types of miners or bank-robbers, characters who dealt with objects of material value. They were rather ‘desiring machines’ in the Deleuze and Guattari sense, who felt they could beat the odds.
Frank Chambers and Walter Huff not only confide to us that lust snared them, but the details by which it did so. Cora’s lips stick out in a way that makes Frank want to flatten them with a hammer, while the kitchen and customers and her husband the Greek swirl around behind them. Phyllis Nirdlinger’s anklet mesmerizes Huff as she descends the stairs of her fake-Spanish house in Glendale. There is always that detail – “the unmoving quality of things” that Cain had sensed in the desert—that he foregrounded against the “catharsis of stinking primitive accomplishment,” and to this contrast his narrators brought an economic world that “flows right along.” As we read in the same American Mercury piece, Cain was disturbed by the lack of visible industry in Southern California: there was no visible evidence of people making anything. Sunshine and oranges and tourism were not “stinking primitive accomplishment” like the coal mines and union conflict that he had covered back East. For Cain this implied an economy based on lust, the circulation of which was the more evident because of its hard, sunny setting. In fact, if we return to the beginning of this article we will notice that he started his article with this bare setting in a manner and voice suggestive for Thompson:
Palm trees are here, but they are all phonies, planted by people bemused with the notion of a sub-tropical climate, and they are so out of harmony with their surroundings that they hardly arrest your notice…. When you have got this far, you can begin quite starkly with a desert. As to what this desert looked like before it was touched by man you can get an idea by following it across the Mexican border into Lower California, where man is feeble and touches no more than he has to. On one side you can put an ocean, a placid oily-looking ocean that laps the sand with no sign of life on it except an occasional seal squirming through the swells, and almost no color. On the other side, some hundreds of miles inland, put some mountains. Between ocean and mountains, put some high hills that look as if they were spilled out carelessly with a gigantic sugar scoop, and between the hills, wide, flat valleys. Have both hills and valleys a gray, sunbaked tan; put a few tufts of dry grass on the hills and occasional clumps of stunted trees in the valleys, but see that the naked earth shows through everything that grows on it. (“Paradise”)
Now add man, Cain implies, to a setting that often enough reads “For Sale Cheap.”
Jim Thompson would surely be a key figure in a genre called “Desert Noir.” And let us begin with the reasonable objection that he doesn’t really valorize landscape that much. True, Thompson does not engage the landscape as, say, James Fenimore Cooper does. But that is because it imbues his settings as a first cause. As Roberto Polito tells us in his prize-winning biography, Thompson “fed on the desolation of West Texas.”
He throve on the barrenness, the forsaken isolation and monkish solitude, the outstretched void that if you lived with it long enough surrendered its lean sympathies and spare consolations in a subtle economy of scarcity. “In the beginning, I thought it was one of the most desolate areas of the world,” he reflected in Bad Boy. “As time went on, however, I came to love the vast stretches of prairie, rolling emptily toward the horizon. There was peace in the loneliness, calm and reassurance. In the virgin vastness, virtually unchanged by the assaults of a hundred million years, troubles seemed to shrink and hope loomed large.” Most of all, he thrived on the towering West Texas sky – “the bleak unpromising sky,” home to “a Deity whose head seemed forever turned.” (Polito 78)
If the desert is always an implied force in Thompson’s work, where is the “economic” aspect ? There are no Kentucky horse farms or Sierra Madre riches– what the desert setting emphasizes is the improbability that anything material can be gained there. This hopeless setting can only be populated by deceived people. A good example of that occurs in Now and On Earth, his first and most autobiographic novel (1942), the first paragraph of which reads:
I got off at three-thirty, but it took me almost an hour to walk home. The factory is a mile off Pacific Boulevard, and we live a mile up the hill from Pacific. Or up the mountain, I should say. How they ever managed to pour concrete on those hill streets is beyond me. You can tie your shoelaces going up them without stopping. (3)
The setting is San Diego, but it is also the desert – the desert “sketched” in the same manner that Cain used. Put in a mountain, put in a street called Pacific Boulevard, but no Pacific Ocean. This desert is paved and factory-ed. It is the desert as people actually live in it, with the things that they actually notice called to our attention by the narrator. This is the epistemological desert, not the ontological one, and it is taken for granted, so that it does not need to be explained. As the ground of existence, it infiltrates living to become also the nature of existence. Set down here, human beings can only talk endlessly, and their repetitive, clichéd, debilitating conversation seems doubly frustrated because it cannot engage with anything outside. No comment on the trees, the birds, or the moon is possible. No horse farms in Kentucky, not even Spanish stucco houses in Glendale.
But there is sex, as Thompson makes almost immediately clear in Now and on Earth, sex of the taboo kind. The protagonist Jimmie, stuck supporting his dysfunctional extended family, steals moments of ambiguous relief with his sister Roberta in dark bedrooms. The incest motif, as in Cain’s use of it in Serenade, pulls the characters centripetally away from setting and back into their emotional grievances. They become, as the character Frankie puts it in Now and on Earth, “rattlesnakes that don’t have a pit to hiss in” (23).
After his first novel met some success, Thompson worked for the Los Angeles Mirror, and it was there (not in Texas or Oklahoma) that he wrote The Killer Inside Me (1952) and his other hits. In fact, he stayed in California the rest of his life, working in Hollywood and its vicinity just as Cain had, giving the Southwest a noir complexion that was unavoidably colored by Southern California predispositions. There was an absolute explosion in pulp fiction going on in the early 1950s, with dozens of new series appealing to the restless energy of the former GIs who had fought or who had imagined themselves fighting. Thompson himself was exempt from the draft because he worked in a defense plant. He jumped at the opportunity thrown to him by Lion Books editor Arnold Hanno, writes Charles Waring, and “churned out 12 new titles in an eighteen month period between September 1952 and March 1954.” It took his publisher several years to catch up with this output.
The Killer Inside Me (1952), probably Thompson’s best known work, illuminates an inner truth of desert noir. His girlfriend Amy is about to blackmail him into marriage by pretending she is pregnant. But Lou suddenly implies that his father forced a vasectomy on him as a boy, after he molested a young girl. Amy doesn’t believe him, based on his performance in bed. “Sterile isn’t the same as impotent,” he informs her (33). This line redounds upon the entire story and illuminates the inner workings of desert noir. “Sterile” is the setting, and the point of view character’s apparent attitude toward others in that setting. He himself can even wear “sterility” as a guise, as he does in his many clichés or mindless jokes.
Cleansed of Dix Handley’s sentiment, Deputy Sherriff Lou Ford can impersonate a sterile, limited character who wears normality like a cynical disguise. He does so without guilt, which makes him different from Cain’s Huff. Potency is exactly what Ford must hide, whether the gold lust of Dobbs or the child lust of Doc Riedenschneider or the adulterous lust of Walter Huff. This potency is the “catharsis of stinking, primitive accomplishment” that Cain sensed lacking in the desert. This potency is the misogynistic rage that Cain had only hinted at. Ford makes it clear to Joyce:
She still didn’t get it. She laughed, frowning a little at the same time. “But Lou — that doesn’t make sense. How could I be dead when…?’ “Easy,” I said. And I gave her a slap. And still she didn’t get it. She put a hand to her hand to her face and rubbed it slowly. “Y-you’d better not do that, now, Lou. I’ve got to travel, and —“” “You’re not going anywhere, baby,” I said, and I hit her again. And then she got it. (49-50)
With absolutely no possibility of working out his destiny against his setting, the noir psychopath wants to preserve his ability to make thrilling, perilous, repeatable bets in personal relationships. The innocence of others is potentially an infinitely destructible commodity. He’s killed Joyce, but there is still Amy.
What better setting than the desert to develop this? This shift could be played very evocatively against the arid landscape, as we will see in three groups of texts and films. Desert noir comes into sharp focus in 1952 with The Killer Inside Me 1955 by Jim Thomson, a work that normalizes insanity – because the “chance” is that one won’t be caught — in this setting, while seeming to have little to do with the economic.
It was inevitable that Las Vegas should become a site of one kind of desert noir. It is, after all, where you goes to do noir things: gamble, drink, have sex, get a divorce, etc. You have a chance to redeem yourself by affinity with chance – chance favors you, you have gambler’s luck. But you go inside in Las Vegas, to do things that contrast with the bright wide outside space. This is a metaphysical re-spatialization of noir. When conflicts erupt from the enclosed spaces, you can be certain they are headed for brutal truth-telling or resolution on the alkali flats. Only two years later Norman Mailer (below) was attracted to this thematic complex in The Deer Park (1955), which is set in the fictional “Desert d’Or,” a composite of Palm Springs and Las Vegas that looks reverentially towards the “capital” of Hollywood. Mailer did not write the first Las Vegas novel; that honor seems to belong to James Hadley Chase, who wrote I’ll Get You For This in 1946. In that novel Chester Cain, a small time hit man and gambler, tired of his old life, moves to Las Vegas, only to meet even more ruthless people who try to use him and implicate him in a crime which he does not commit. Soon the cops are after Cain, who goes on the run, along with Ms. Wonderly, a homeless wayward girl, who is also being framed like him. As the borrowings indicate, Chase’s novel is pastiche. The Deer Park may be numbingly conversational, but it is at least original in disguising its inability to attain the status of art in its endless banal conversations, as Alfred Kazin, in a later review of The Armies of the Night, recognized. For the preposterously named hero, Sergius O’Shaugnessy, “everything is in the present tense” in Las Vegas because of the atomic bomb (7). The atomic tests nearby, and their product, were an extraordinary source of local news and interest (illustration). Tourists went out to “News Nob Hill” to see them, bars offered the “Atomic Cocktail,” and the hairdresser at the Flamingo offered an “Atomic Hairdo” (Chase, 36)
Like Lou Ford, Sergius blames his problems on his father, who “left me a bum’s inheritance”(23). And like Ford, he “had been faking all [my] life” ( 27). Mailer folds in other motifs, such as communism and other emblems of the McCarthy Era, the novel’s logorrhea reduces them to banality also . The main synecdoche is the Bomb, with which O’Shaughnessy is also associated by virtue of having been a pilot during WWII. The Bomb represents the desert “out there,” as in Sergius’ thought that “outside, there would only be the desert sun”(56).
The sun, the bomb, the desert. On this great existential blankness, the atomic bomb tests seem initially to promise a sudden revelation. The visiting film producer Marion Faye serves as a typical tourist: he recalls “when a great white light, no more than a shadow of the original blast somewhere further in the desert, had dazzled the gaming rooms … there were factories out there, out somewhere in the desert, and the tons of ore in all the freight cars were being shuttled into the great mouth”( 139).
So let it come, Faye thought, let this explosion come, and then another, and all the others, until the Sun God burned the earth. Let it come, he thought, looking into the east at Mecca where the bombs ticked….let it come and clear the rot and the stench and the stink, let it come for all of
In Mailer’s desert, the bomb and these lost emotions that people are endlessly trying to recapture always seen to stand in tension. There is Armageddon and Talk. The emptiness of the desert setting causes the reconstitution of life as a movie, an endless monologue provoked by drinking, a “self swindle” addicted to chance operations such as Tarot, gambling, dope, and drink. The Mob is in the picture only to facilitate and profit from personalized self-swindling. The desert where Faye goes out to watch for atomic tests produces no talk, no narrative, no sex. In an effort to understand it, Sergius “took up [my] camera and went scouting through the desert, taking infra-red pictures at odd angles of cactus against the sky. Yet that did not work either” (221). These assays fail, he loses Lulu, and he comes to understand that the point of Desert D’Or is the talk of and around the Atom Bomb, because this generates the narratives that propel the movie industry. Las Vegas is, like the hedged and en-moated deer parks of medieval England, a place that beautiful creatures can enter but never leave alive.
All of these narratives often cast a backward glance at the inhospitable landscape. But in the 1950s the American public, perhaps prodded by television and film narrative, showed an attraction to innovations on the formula. A blending with some aspects of the American roman noir occurred in the 1950s in “desert noir.”
Cain, James M. “Paradise,” American Mercury, March 1933, 266-280.
Chase, James Hadley. I’ll Get You For This. London: Jerrolds, 1946.
Cooper, Ken. “Zero Pays the House: The Las Vegas Novel and Atomic Roulette,
Contemporary Literature, Vol. 33, No. 3, Autumn, 1992, retrieved from
http://www.jstor.org/stable/1208481 on 10-14-14.
Mailer, Norman. The Deer Park. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons: 1955), Signet, 1957.
Malewitz, R. ‘Anything Can Be an Instrument’: Misuse Value and Rugged Consumerism in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.” Contemporary Literature (Winter 2009) Retrieved on August 6, 2010.
Polito, Robert. Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson. New York: Random House, 1996.
Shepperson, Wilbur Stanley. East of Eden, West of Zion: Essays on Nevada. Reno: U of Nevada P. 1989
Thompson, Hunter. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. New York: Random, 1971.
Thompson, Jim. Now and On Earth. (Modern Age, 1942) New York: Vintage, 1994.
____________. The Killer Inside Me. (Lion: 1952) New York: Vintage, 1991.
Traven, B. Treasure of the Sierra Madre. (Macmillan, 1935) New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2010.
Waring, Charles. http://www.crimetime.co.uk/features/jimthompson.php
The Asphalt Jungle, Dir: John Huston, 1950, film.
High Sierra. Dir. Raoul Walsh. Warner Brothers, 1941, film.
Ocean’s 11. Dir. Lewis Milestone, Warner Brothers, 1960, film.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Dir: John Huston, 1948, film.