Grade: ATreasure of the Sierra Madre, The (1948)

Director: John Huston

Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt

Release Company: Warner Brothers

MPAA Rating: NR

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John Huston: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre


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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
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On the DVD extras for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Martin Scorsese shares an anecdote about a screening of Huston's classic that he once saw with Elia Kazan in attendance. At one point Kazan turned to Scorsese and declared, "Isn't this great—that we work in the same industry that produced The Treasure of the Sierra Madre!" Movie buffs can rejoice as well because we can watch such a treasure, and now Warner Brothers has packaged an excellent special edition DVD with commentary and featurettes that offer historical background material and insights into John Huston's career.

Now regarded as a true classic, Huston's project was regarded as a risky venture with a director just coming off a documentary stint for WWII, some location shooting in Mexico, a storyline centering on an anti-hero that sinks into moral depravity, and an un-Hollywood-like unhappy ending—a combination film noir mixed with western adventure. Despite his reservations and attempts to reign in Huston's penchant for running over budget, producer Jack L. Warner was pleased with the final product, calling it "the greatest motion picture we have ever made." As with many innovative, ground-breaking films, the public didn't embrace the film initially, but surprisingly the Academy actually recognized quality this time around, awarding Huston the Oscar for Best Director and Best Screenplay while naming his father, Walter, as Best Supporting Actor. Selected for preservation in 1990 by the National Film Registry, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre clearly stands the test of time, playing better for modern audiences than it did for post war theater patrons.

Set in Tampico, Mexico immediately after the Civil War when American entrepreneurs sought to exploit resources south of the border, a trio of misfits bands together to prospect for gold in the hills. "Hey mister, could you stake a fellow American to a meal," begs bedraggled panhandler Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) to selected passers-by until hitting up the same wealthy American three times (white suited John Huston in a cameo). Unshaven and gruff, Dobbs rebuffs a street urchin (Robert Blake) that pesters him to buy a lottery ticket, even dousing the boy with a full glass of water, before giving in and purchasing a twentieth share of a "lucky" #13 ticket to get rid of the persistent kid.

Dobbs partners with fellow vagrant Curtin (Tim Holt) to work for unscrupulous contractor Pat McCormick (Barton MacLane), well known to locals for ripping off foreigners and "half-baked Americans"—one of several early clues about human nature when it comes to honesty and money. The most blatant example of foreshadowing occurs one night at a fleabag flop "full of rats, scorpions, and cockroaches" where Dobbs and Curtin meet lively old gold prospector Howard (Walter Huston). The toothless sage relates stories and warns about the devilish things that happen to men's souls when gold and greed mix. Dobbs swears that he'd never become corrupted like that, but Howard's knowing look clearly indicates he bases his observations on years of experience.

Soon the three are pooling their resources and heading for the hills with donkeys, tools, and weapons (since they'll be right in the heart of bandito territory). The initial train ride introduces bandito leader Gold Hat (Alfonso Bedoya) for the first time. Gold Hat is destined to meet up with Dobbs twice more in memorable fashion, delivering the most quotable lines of the film: "Badges? We ain't got no badges! We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinkin' badges!"

Discarding his leading man image and reverting to his previous gangster-like characters, Bogart clearly stars as the anti-hero here. Slowly descending from a reasonably honest man simply looking for justice and a measure of good fortune, Bogart becomes a despicable son of a bitch, bordering on insanity. Many consider this Bogie's finest performance though the Academy ignored it completely by failing to grant so much as a nomination, once again cementing their reputation for dunderheadedness when it comes to recognizing substance and nuance in acting. Such an omission blatantly indicates that the Academy only recognizes over the top crazy characters or wholesome good guys for the top acting award. Bogart inhabits his naïve and cynical character completely, subtly shading his moral descent without resorting to cliché. When outraged that Howard would suggest that he'd give in to the temptation of stealing his partner's shares, Bogart's eyes and body language communicate his basic distrust, fears, and weakness of conviction. Thus, it's no surprise when his character tragically sinks to the dark side of human nature.

In contrast with Bogart, Walter Huston's acting did win deserved recognition from the Academy. His supporting character is certainly more likeable, and the elder Huston really chews up the screen with his engaging laugh, dancing jig when disclosing the discovery, and down home wisdom befitting a spiritual guru. Initially the "outsider" of the trio, Howard becomes the film's non-judgmental moral center, winning Curtin over along with the sympathies of the audience. Even when the grizzled old prospector doesn't speak, Huston's eyes silently cue exactly what he's thinking. It's to Huston's credit that he fills this role with humor and a believable humanity that acknowledges the gray areas. The veteran actor plays the role like he's having the time of his life, and his enthusiasm for his character infectiously makes Howard the most memorable role of his career.

Even though the film's essentially nihilistic ending won't make Hollywood fantasy lovers happy, the irony suits all three leading characters perfectly and should satisfy cineastes. Although most cite the tremendous ensemble acting (not forgetting Alfonso Bedoya's perfectly executed cameos), much of the film's strength comes from director John Huston's pen and attention to detail, from the simple talcum powder flourish of the Mexican barber to the torn gold dust bag draped over a small prickly pear ending shot. Huston's attitude and robust and risky lifestyle mirror Ernest Hemingway greatly, and he certainly demonstrates literary flare in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The tightly constructed plot, well developed characters, consistent theme and tone make this film tough to top.

Even though we suspect that gold will corrupt the men's souls, Huston's narrative never rides out predictably and remains engaging through multiple viewings—the mark of a true masterwork. If you've not seen this classic, deprive yourself no longer. Warner Brothers has provided all the incentive necessary with a beautifully preserved DVD rendition with a plethora of background material and film history.

 


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