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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The birthday project continues with a suggestion from Aaron Hawkins. I’m really happy the guy answered my call for requests, because Aaron is a far bigger movie buff than I could ever hope to be. He’s repeatedly schooled me with his encyclopedic knowledge of film history, and it’s always been a very humbling pleasure. I knew Aaron could suggest any number of retro classics that I really should have seen by now, and sure enough, there was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

For those who haven’t seen the movie… well, first off, there will be spoilers. The statute of limitations on spoilers is pretty vague, but I’m pretty sure that a widely revered Oscar-winning classic from the 1940s would lie well outside of it. As to the plot, we open on Valentine’s Day of 1928, shortly after the Mexican Revolution. Unfortunately, Mexico is still a highly volatile place, full of refugees, wandering bandits, and rich Americans looking to drill for oil. This is especially true of Tampico, where we first meet Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) as he begs for change.

Basically, try to imagine what Casablanca might have been like if Rick was one of the poor dumb bastards working for a flight to Lisbon, and you’d be getting close.

Anyway, Dobbs meets up with Bob Curtin (Tim Holt, an honest-to-God Purple Heart WWII veteran), another American living on the Tampico streets. Together, through begging (from a rich American played by director John Huston himself), hard work (construction on an oil derrick), brute force (beating their wages out of a boss who won’t pay), and sheer dumb luck (winning the lottery), Dobbs and Curtin scrape together enough money to try their hand at gold mining. After recruiting an old prospector named Howard (Walter Huston, the director’s father), they set out to search for gold in the pristine mountains of Sierra Madre.

Howard is quickly established as the group’s de facto leader, in large part because he has more experience and perspective than the other two could ever think possible. It also helps that the old man is alarmingly spry, able to hike across rocky terrain long after his two younger companions have collapsed. More than anything else, I got a huge kick out of seeing such a fantastic representation of the standard Old Coot. You know, the funny old smartass who talks really fast in a high-pitched voice? The type of character Walter Brennan made a career out of playing over and over again? Howard is like that, except that he’s played as an actual character instead of a walking punchline. He’s a strong and intelligent character, with remarkable charisma tempered by humility. When Howard talks about all the troubles he’s seen men heap on each other in the pursuit of gold, all those years and emotional scars are plainly visible.

I’m not much of a film historian, so I can’t say for certain whether Walter Huston did this character first or did it best. I only know that watching his performance felt analogous to standing in the Louvre and seeing the actual Mona Lisa. I thought I knew all about this archetype after a lifetime of seeing so many copies, and then I finally saw the real thing for myself only to find that it was so much greater than I expected. Incidentally, Walter Huston won a Best Supporting Oscar for his performance, alongside John Huston winning Best Director, which made them the very first father/son pairing to win trophies for the same film.

(Side note: The film was also nominated for Best Picture, but lost to Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet. Tough to argue that one.)

Then we have Dobbs, who’s really the thematic centerpiece of the story. The movie is ostensibly about the corrupting power of greed, and Dobbs does show a lot of development toward that end. At the start of the film, he swears that he would only take as much gold as he came for, not a cent more or less. This stands in sharp contrast with the Dobbs who’s sitting by a campfire, urging his campmates to dig for higher and higher amounts of gold. Dobbs also starts out as a man who would gladly settle for enough money that he wouldn’t have to starve again. Cut to an hour later or so, when he’s talking about Turkish baths, expensive clothes, fancy cafes, and so on.

Still, Dobbs’ corruption by greed only goes so far. Through most of the film, he seems far more concerned with keeping his share of the gold, making precious little mention of taking from his partners. He never harms Curtin or Howard to take their gold, only to make sure that they don’t harm him and take his first. It’s a subtle yet important distinction, less characteristic of greed than paranoia. It’s easy to confuse the two, since they’re both rooted in delusional pride and a constant mistrust of others. Of course, it’s entirely possible that Dobbs would gladly rob his partners of their gold if he thought he could get away with it, and he assumes that Curtin and Howard are just as greedy as he is, but that subtext is open to interpretation. Going by what’s on the screen, I only saw one sad little man turning into a homicidal maniac over his belief that the whole world was after his gold.

(Side note: Paul Thomas Anderson once played this film every night for a week before he went to sleep while prepping for There Will Be Blood. Given the thematic similarities between the two movies, it’s little wonder. And looking back, there’s more than a little of Bogart’s performance in Daniel Plainview.)

Of course, Bogart does a fantastic job of selling the character’s downward slide into madness and sin. I’m sure it helped that he was directed by Huston only years after they made cinematic history with The Maltese Falcon.

Third and last, we have Curtin. He’s pretty much the everyman of the film, not as stable as Howard or deranged as Dobbs. Holt plays Curtin with a neat kind of ambiguity, such that it’s not entirely clear whether he’s as greedy and corrupt as Dobbs seems to think he is. And even if he isn’t, there’s always the possibility that Dobbs’ outrageous means of defending himself will require similarly immoral countermeasures from Curtin. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that Curtin may be sensible and persuasive enough to talk Dobbs down when necessary. Heaven knows he’s capable of that when Howard is there to back him up. But when it’s Dobbs and Curtin on their own, all bets are off.

There isn’t much to the film outside of these three core characters, though I suppose Cody merits some discussion. James Cody (Bruce Bennett) is a fourth person who ventures to Sierra Madre looking for gold. He of course stumbles onto the operation already in progress and tries to talk his way in. Quite sensibly, however, he promises not to take any of the earnings so far and only wants an even quarter of whatever they make from that point onward. Even so, all three of the main characters (especially Dobbs, of course) feel pressured to kill the stranger. And then, at the last minute, some banditos come in and make that decision for them.

On the one hand, Cody’s death is what finally hammers the point home that these characters really could die out the middle of nowhere. It speaks volumes that Dobbs wanted to stay around to mine as much as possible until Cody died, then he wants to pack everything and get the fuck out the very minute that the gold yield starts drying up. On the other hand, it seems like the film kinda chickened out and took the easy road with regards to Cody’s death. It’s one thing for the characters to vote on killing him, and it’s another thing for them to actually pull the trigger. I know this was film was made in a simpler time, and I’d assume that censorship is a reason why no one actually dies onscreen, but it’s a glaring flaw all the same.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about the wandering banditos. Going into this film, I had no idea that this was the first movie in which Mexicans proclaimed that they didn’t need no stinking badges. And in context, I’m left wondering why that phrase caught on. Applying the context of the original instance, anyone who says that is saying that they are a dishonest miscreant pretending to be a figure of authority with a disguise so flimsy that they can’t even be bothered to forge a badge. You know that scene in Captain Phillips when the Somali pirates are hailing the ship and saying that they’re just the Somali coast guard on a routine inspection? It’s the exact same thing.

Otherwise, I’d argue that the bandits’ most crucial scene comes at the end, when they finally get their hands on the gold from the Sierra Madre. The bandits take Dobbs’ guns, his pelts, his burros, and even the shoes off his feet. But they don’t bother with his gold. They don’t even see that it’s gold at all; until it’s been polished and smelted, the product looks like plain old sand. This calls back to something Dobbs said (ironically enough) near the start of the film, when he said that gold in itself isn’t cursed or evil. The only power that gold (and money in general, by extension) has is in what we give it. Without that, it’s just metal dust pulled from Mother Earth that’s destined to return from whence it came, just like we are.

On a technical level, the visuals are absolutely astounding. The score, however, left a lot to be desired. I don’t know what I was expecting from a grandmaster like Max Steiner, but it wasn’t two or three weaksauce themes getting played over and over again in different variations. Also, there’s a fight scene in the first act presented entirely without score, and the scene is much weaker for it.

Even so, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre absolutely holds up. The basic plot of characters succumbing to greed and paranoia is superbly delivered, the cast is extraordinary across the board, and the visuals are wonderfully polished. As a drama, an action film, a suspense thriller, and an intellectual character piece, this movie works on every level. For historical significance and overall quality, this one should be considered necessary viewing.

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