THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE
John Huston (Novel: B. Traven)
Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt, Bruce Bennett, Barton Mac Lane, Alfonso Bedoya, A. Soto Rangel, Manuel Donde, Jose Torvay, Margarito Luna
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Two Americans in Mexico, down on their luck and looking for handouts, stumble upon the chance to strike it rich by prospecting for gold in John Huston’s fourth fiction film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Picking up Humphrey Bogart for the third time, Huston’s tale of friendship and betrayal south of the border puts Bogart into the role of a man who finds his altruistic view of wealth transformed when he and two companions strike it rich in the mountains of the Sierra Madre. Tim Holt stars opposite Bogart as Curtin, a kind-hearted young man who wants little more than to survive the miserable streets of Mexico. The two go through a nasty adventure together, hired for a job and walking away without payment. When they take lodging in a 50-centavo common room-style hotel, jovial old Howard (Walter Huston, John’s father) talks about treasure in the mountains as a way to make a sizable profit.
When they come across their louse of an employer, they take their money by force and join Howard with plans to head into the mountains together and hope to strike it rich. Their grueling trek leads them to a fateful destiny with a mountain full of small flecks of gold that they sift and pan into separate stashes until they can come to an agreement that the mountain has given them all they can get. During their efforts, paranoia sets in for Dobbs who is constantly on edge suspecting that the others will make off with his hard-earned money even though he initially told Howard that he would take only what he needed and be off. They are also beset by a clever drifter (Bruce Bennett) who tries to convince them that he should assist them for a share of the remainder of gold. They decision to kill him, but as they are approaching to do the deed, a group of bandits converge on their position and they are forced to work together to defeat them.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a suitable portrait of how greed can change a man’s outlook and how paranoia can destroy a man from within and without. Bogart, not known for creating truly likable characters creates another simulacrum of his prior performances. Only when he starts getting jumpy and suspicious does it transform into something I haven’t seen from him before. Gone is the calm and collected tough man, replaced by a slavering beast, a mere husk of himself. I don’t think Bogart’s performance is that spectacular as much of his ranting feels overplayed and for a good part of the film, it feels as if he’s overstayed his welcome. Holt is a fine companion and a more watchable actor even though he’s not on par with Bogart’s star power, which may allow him to add more humanity to his performance. Yet, it’s Walter Huston that really makes the film what it is.
Huston’s Howard is a sympathetic old man, a bit crazy and outlandish, but filled with heart and emotion. At points, you almost feel as if he could have been Curtin at a more advanced age. And it’s that age that has helped him survive as long as he has. His outlook and wisdom, when followed, are what lead the group to their strike and guide them in and out of the wilderness. He may have a bit of a wacky side, but that facade belies a capable and wise core. Hudston infuses his character with the energy and charisma of two actors and forces everyone into the background whenever he’s on screen.
When looking at his son John’s work as director, much of the film would be nothing without his competent screenplay. The morale of the story takes precedent over the more populist leanings of the film. It’s no doubt that many scenes are designed to boost its impact on crowds, but by avoiding a maudlin or sappy ending, Huston makes the film feel a bit more realistic. His film fits into the western genre without much effort. Many of the situations on display hold to genre archetypes quite firmly even if the characters aren’t wearing cowboy hats and dealing with the tumults of living in Old West America. There’s an undercurrent of the Great Depression in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, giving it the ability to adapt into other periods of history with minimal effort. Aside from its style of costume design and the black-and-white cinematography, it is a movie that could have been made at any point in history.
John’s style is hard to pin down. But, as this is only my fourth Huston feature, I may just not have seen enough to compare effectively. Still, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre ends up being more compelling than either of those films. Both Key Largo and The Maltese Falcon feel more emotionally distant, focused in the Film Noir style which isn’t particularly well known for featuring complex moral imperatives. This is certainly the better of the three films, though not by a significant amount.
April 17, 2011