Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (dir by John Huston)


Last night, for the first time, I watched the 1948 Best Picture nominee, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Directed by the legendary John Huston and featuring a wonderful performance from the equally legendary Humphrey Bogart, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre has a reputation for being one of the greatest films ever made.  It’s a reputation that is more than deserved.  That makes the film a pleasure to watch but, unfortunately, it also makes it somewhat intimidating to write about.

(In the past, Leonard and I have discussed how it’s so much more difficult to write a review of a good film than it is to write a review of a bad film.  Sad to say, it’s often easier to be negative than it is to be positive.  Writing a review of a bad film only requires the ability to be snarky.  Writing a review of a good, much less a great film, is far more difficult.  It’s one thing to realize a film is good.  It’s another thing to try to explain why.)

The Treasure of Sierra Madre tells the story of three Americans in Mexico, drifters living on the edge of society.  Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) spend their days begging for spare change and taking whatever work they can find.  When they meet an eccentric but wise prospector named Howard (Walter Huston), the three of them end up going on a quest for gold.  It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the three men find their gold, though Dobbs is shocked to discover that gold dust can easily be mistaken for sand and doesn’t naturally shine in the sun.  Just as Howard warned would happen, the three men start to grow paranoid about their newfound wealth.  Meanwhile, others — including a pushy American named Cody (Bruce Bennett) and an outlaw known as Gold Hat (Alfonso Bedoya) — show up near the camp, leaving the men to wonder how far each of them will go to protect their shares of the treasure.

When the three of them first meet in a dirty flophouse, Howard warns Dobbs and Curtin that gold will drive a man to insanity.  Howard says that he knows because it’s happened to him more than once.  Still, as we watch the three prospectors descend further into paranoia with each new bag they fill with gold dust, we can’t help but wonder if the gold is driving them crazy or if it’s just causing them to reveal their true selves.  From the minute we first see Dobbs on a street in a Mexican city, begging for money and snarling at a child (played, incidentally, by a very young Robert Blake) who tries to sell him a lottery ticket, it’s obvious that Dobbs is desperate, angry, and resentful.  Finding the gold doesn’t do anything to alleviate the anger that Dobbs feels towards the world as much as it just gives him an excuse to indulge in it fully.  Whereas, in the past, Dobbs always had to hold back his anger in hope of getting another handout, the gold allows him to fully embrace his seething resentment.  Compared to Dobbs, Howard and Curtin don’t seem to change quite as much.  Of course, it should be remembered that Howard is an old man who knows that he doesn’t have much time left.  Meanwhile, Curtin is often too busy reacting to Dobbs’s anger to truly indulge in his own.  Watching the film, you have to wonder how things would have gone if Dobbs hadn’t been there.  Without the distracting of Dobbs’s growing instability, would Curtin have remained the sane member of the group?  The scene where Curtin first meets Cody suggests that, on his own, Curtin is just as capable of being as paranoid as Dobbs.

Indeed, though greed is certainly a motivating force in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, it’s not the film’s main subject.  Instead, this film is a study of men living on the fringes of society.  We learn surprisingly little about how Dobbs and Curtin came to be two beggars living in Mexico.  We learn a bit more about Howard’s background, largely because Howard likes to talk.  But again, we don’t really learn that much about who Howard was before he became a prospector.  Howard, Curtin and Dobbs are forgotten men, without any real friends or family.  They’ve got each other, though that bond doesn’t always appear to be a particularly strong one.  Howard and Curtin have managed to find some sort of peace with their existence.  Dobbs has not.  While the film may partially be a portrait of the corrosive effects of greed, it’s also a character study of three men who have been forgotten and abandoned and how they deal with living outside of the world that everyone else takes for granted.

There’s much to love in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, from John Huston’s powerful direction to the dark humor that runs through some of the film’s best moments.  Houston fills the film with little details that make it feel authentic.  (My favorite little moment came towards the end when a man facing a firing squad makes sure that he’s wearing his hat before he’s shot.)  Walter Huston, Tim Holt, Bruce Bennett and Alfonso Bedoya all give strong performances, though the film is dominated by Humphrey Bogart.  Walter Huston won a (deserved) Academy Award for his performance but one of Bogart’s best performances somehow went unnominated.  Bogart gives a ferocious and never less than compelling performance as Dobbs.  At his worst, Dobbs is almost like a trapped animal, roaming the cage of his existence and snapping at anyone who gets too close.  At the same time, Dobbs’s naked desperation makes it impossible not to feel some sympathy for him.  Bogart was never more vulnerable than when Dobbs was begging for money and never more frightening than after he got it.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a classic, one that has been endlessly imitated but which will probably never be equaled.  Nominated for four Oscars, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre won three (for John Huston’s direction and screenplay and for Walter Huston’s performance as Howard) but it lost best picture to Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet.  As much as I like Hamlet, this is a case where the Academy made a mistake.

A Pirate’s Life For Me!: THE SPANISH MAIN (RKO 1945)


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Today we celebrate the birthday of classic actor Paul Henreid (1908-1992)  


THE SPANISH MAIN is one of those films where the acting is cranked up to 11 and tongues are held firmly in cheek. That’s not a bad thing; this is a fun, fast-paced romp that doesn’t require much thinking, a colorful piece of mind candy that doesn’t take itself too seriously and features a great cast. It’s not what you’d normally expect from director Frank Borzage, usually associated with weightier matters like 7TH HEAVEN, A FAREWELL TO ARMS, THREE COMRADES, STRANGE CARGO , and THE MORTAL STORM. Maybe after all that heavy drama, the veteran needed to lighten up a bit!

Paul Henreid  stars as our hero Laurent Van Horn, a Dutch captain whose ship is wrecked in the Caribbean waters near Cartagena. The Spanish Viceroy there, Don Juan Alvarado (Walter Slezak ), is a tyrant who holds the…

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Halloween Havoc!: THE MUMMY’S GHOST (Universal 1944)


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THE MUMMY’S GHOST, Kharis the killer mummy’s third time around, finds the plot wearing a bit thin in this rehash, as once again the High Priests of Arkham… wait, what? Arkham? What happened to Karnak? Did the High Priests suddenly change religions? Just another example of continuity shot to hell in this series, though we do get an upgrade in the High Priest department with John Carradine boiling the tanna leaves instead of Turhan Bey .

At least George Zucco as Andoheb is still around to brief Yousef Bey (Carradine) on the plot up til now, dispatching him to Mapleton to fetch back Princess Ananka and Kharis to the temple, though the usual tanna leave spiel is upped from three to nine. There are no more Bannings in Mapleton, but still plenty of victims for Kharis to kill. Frank Reicher is back too, as Professor Norman, giving a lecture on…

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Structural Failure: THE BIG STREET (RKO 1942)


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When I hear the word “Runyonesque”, I think about racetrack touts, colorful Broadway denizens, dames with hearts of gold, and the like. If you want to make a Runyonesque movie, what better way than to have author Damon Runyon himself produce it, as RKO did for 1942’s THE BIG STREET. All the elements are there, the jargon, the characters, but the film suffers from abrupt shifts in tone from comedy to drama, and a totally unpleasant role for Lucille Ball . The result is an uneven movie with a real downer of an ending.

Based on Runyon’s short story “Little Pinks”, it follows the unrequited love of bus boy Augustus “Little Pinks” Pinkerton for torch singing gold digger Gloria Lyons, dubbed “Her Highness” by Pinks. Henry Fonda plays Pinks as  lovestruck, spineless sad sack, dubbing Lucy Her Highness, even though she’s thoroughly rotten to him. When she’s smacked by her gangster boyfriend Case Ables ( Barton MacLane )…

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A Movie A Day #180: Bullets or Ballots (1936, directed by William Keighley)


Johnny Blake (Edward G. Robinson) was one of the toughest cops in New York City, until he punched out his new captain (Joe King) and was kicked off the force.  That punch was witnessed by racketeer Al Kruger (Barton McLane).  Kruger has long wanted to get Blake to join his organization and, with Blake now out of work, Kruger makes an offer.  Blake goes to work for Kruger, much to the consternation of Kruger’s second-in-command, Bugs Fenner (Humphrey Bogart).  Bugs says that anyone who was once a cop will always be a cop.  Bugs is right.  Blake is working undercover, trying to expose and take down the mob from the inside.

Bullets or Ballots is an entertaining if predictable gangster film from the 1930s.  After making his career playing bad guys, Robinson makes the transition to the side of law and order without losing any of his trademark attitude.  Bogart plays one of the many remorseless killers that he played before Casablanca reinvented him as a hero.  Bullets or Ballots may be predictable but it’s impossible not to enjoy watching Robinson and Bogart snarl hard-boiled insults at each other.

Second-billed Joan Blondell does not have much screen time but her role is still an interesting one, as a tough businesswoman who runs a numbers racket with her former maid (played by Louise Beavers).  I would have enjoyed seeing a full movie just about Blondell’s character but she mostly takes a back seat to Robinson and Bogart.

Unfortunately, unlike Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface, Bullets or Ballots was made after Hollywood started to enforce the infamous Production Code and, as a result, Bullets or Ballots never reaches the gritty, violent heights of those earlier films.  Still, fans of Robinson, Bogart, and Blondell will find much to enjoy here.

The Fabulous Forties #13: Scared Stiff (dir by Frank McDonald)


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Last night, as a gentle rain fell outside, I watched the 13th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set, 1945’s Scared Stiff.  (The version in the box set appeared under the title Treasure of Fear, which was what the title was changed to when the film was later re-released.  However, the film was originally entitled Scared Stiff and that’s the title that I’m going to use.  Scared Stiff is just a better title and I happen to like the Scared Stiff film poster, featured above.  So, just remember that if you ever find yourself watching an old movie called Treasure of Fear, you’re actually watching Scared Stiff.)

As I attempted to watch Scared Stiff, I was reminded of some of the problems that occasionally come with watching a film that has slipped into the public domain.

On the one hand, the public domain is great because it makes it a lot easier to watch old movies.  And while it’s true that many public domain films aren’t exactly classics, there are a few gems to be found.  For instance, since I started watching the movies in the Fabulous Forties box set, I’ve discovered The Black Book, Trapped, and Jungle Book.

On the other hand, being in the public domain means that virtually anyone can duplicate and sell a copy of the film.  As a result, many of these films are available (and frequently viewed) in versions that are of an extremely poor quality and which have often been haphazardly edited.

That’s one reason why it’s going to be difficult for me to review Scared Stiff.  The version that I saw was, even for a public domain B-movie, rough.  The picture was slightly fuzzy and the sound quality was not the greatest.  I don’t think you can ever truly understand that importance of a clean soundtrack until you listen to a scratchy one.

As for Scared Stiff itself, it’s a comedic murder mystery and thankfully, it’s only 65 minutes long.  Jack Haley plays a reporter who covers chess tournaments for his uncle’s newspaper.  Unfortunately, Haley’s not a very good reporter so his frustrated uncle orders him to go to Grape City so that he can cover a beauty contest, apparently believing that there’s no way that Haley could possibly screw that up.

However, Haley manages to do just that.  He gets off the bus at Grape Center, instead of Grape City.  He finds himself stranded at an inn that’s run by two twins (both played by Lucien Littlefield).  The twins hate each other for reasons that aren’t clear.  However, they do possess a chess set that was once owned by Marco Polo!  One twin owns the white pieces while the other owns the black pieces!  Haley wants to buy all the pieces but things get complicated when it turns out that a gang of thieves are also in town and they want to steal the set for themselves.

But that’s not at all!  One of the passengers on the bus is found murdered and he has a chess piece in his hand.  Of course, everyone suspects Haley.  So, Haley has to get the chess pieces, clear his name, and hopefully get to Grape City before his uncle fires him.

Scared Stiff is way too frantic for its own good and I have a feeling that I would feel the same even if I had seen a version that didn’t sound scratchy or often look fuzzy.  That said, it is interesting to see Jack Haley, who is best known for being The Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, play a human being.  Also of interest, to film noir fans, was that Haley’s girlfriend was played by Detour‘s Ann Savage.  Both Haley and Savage gave good performances but it was not enough to save this misbegotten little film.

Cleaning Out The DVR #25: The Maltese Falcon (dir by John Huston)


(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by this Friday.  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)

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I would love to see a remake of The Maltese Falcon with Bill Murray in the role of Sam Spade.  Well, maybe not the Bill Murray of today because he’s getting a little bit too old to play a hard-boiled private detective who is as good with his fists as his brain.  Instead, I’m thinking more of Lost In Translation era Bill Murray, when he was no longer young but could still probably beat up any sniveling punk who came at him with a gun.

Now, that may sound crazy to some but think about it.  Bill Murray is one of the great deadpan snarkers and so is Sam Spade.  Last night, when I watched the famous 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon (the story was filmed twice before, once with Bette Davis as the femme fatale), I was struck by how much of the film really was a comedy.  It may have been a murder mystery that featured death and betrayal and a lot of people getting beaten up but, ultimately, The Maltese Falcon is really about Sam Spade reacting to all of the crazy and strange people around him.  No matter how weird things get, Spade always responds with a smirk and a quip.  It’s a role that, at times, seems to be tailor-made for an actor like Bill Murray.

Bill Murray wasn’t around in 1941 but fortunately, Humphrey Bogart was.  Humphrey Bogart may have grown up wealthy and attended private schools but, on screen, nobody was tougher than Humphrey Bogart and nobody was better at delivering sarcastic, snark-filled dialogue.  After spending years as a villainous supporting actor, Humphrey Bogart got his first starring role when he played Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon.  His performance, of course, would set the standard by which all future cinematic private eyes would be judged.

And, of course, Spade was tough and he was cynical and he has that wonderful moment at the end of the film where he explains that nobody’s going to make a “sap” out of him.  But for me, Bogart’s best moments come when Spade is alone and thinking.  It’s at those times that Spade suddenly becomes a human being.  A slight smirk comes to his lips, almost as if he’s sharing a private joke with the audience.  You can tell that he’s thinking to himself, “Can you believe how weird my life is?”

And it is indeed a weird life.  The film opens with Spade’s partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), being murdered.  The police believe that Archer was murdered by a man named Thursby and that Thursby was subsequently murdered by Spade.  Spade, however, suspects that both Archer and Thursby were killed by his latest client, a woman who introduced herself as Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor).  Except, of course, that’s not her real name.  Her real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy and, as she admits to Spade, Thursby was her partner.  She claims that Thursby must have murdered Archer but that she doesn’t know who could have possibly killed Thursby.

What’s particularly interesting about all this is that no one really seems to be that upset about Archer’s death.  Spade’s main motivation for investigating the murder is to clear his name and there are several lines of dialogue that reveal how little regard he had for Miles.  In fact, when Archer’s widow (Gladys George) suggests that Spade might be Archer’s killer, you can understand why she might think that.  But then again, that’s the world of The Maltese Falcon.  Only the tough survive.  Getting sentimental or allowing yourself to care is the biggest mistake you can make.

The murders are connected to the hunt for a valuable statue of a bird.  (This is the famous Maltese Falcon of the title.)  As Spade tries to clear his name in the two murders, he also finds himself getting caught up with a strange group of treasure hunters.  There’s the obsequious Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre).  There’s the ruthless “fat man,” Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet).  And then there’s Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.), Gutman’s young henchman who spends the entire film trying to convince everyone that he’s tougher than he appears.  Wilmer is a born patsy.  Whenever Spade gets annoyed, he beats up Wilmer.  And he usually smiles afterward.

Along with being the directorial debut of John Huston, The Maltese Falcon was also one of the first great film noirs.  It’s one of the most influential films ever made and, even seen today, it’s a lot of fun.  You really can’t go wrong with Bogart, Astor, Greenstreet, Lorre, and Cook all in the same movie.  Bill Murray may never get a chance to play Sam Spade but that’s okay.  Humphrey Bogart’s the only Sam Spade we really need.

The Maltese Falcon was nominated for best picture.  However, it lost to How Green Was My Valley, a film that literally seems to take place in an entirely different universe from The Maltese Falcon.