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.