The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

sierra-madre-main

Director: John Huston

Producers: Henry Blanke, Jack L. Warner (Warner Bros.)

Writers: B. Traven (novel), John Huston (screenplay)

Photography: Ted D. McCord

Music: Buddy Kaye, Max Steiner

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt, Bruce Bennett, Barton MacLane, Alfonso Bedoya, Arturo Soto Rangel, Manuel Donde, Jose Torvay, Margarito Luna, Robert Blake, John Huston

How is a piece of pop culture born?

Man writes novel in 1927.

Director adapts novel to film in 1948.

A young Mel Brooks sees that film, considers it his favorite of all time, and homages it in Blazing Saddles (1974).

All of a sudden, characters in everything from The Simpsons to Friends, UHF to the WWF, are all repeating the same defiant line: “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”

One of the most fun-to-quote lines in pop culture history, “badges” fittingly comes from one of the most fun-to-watch films in cinema history. With The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, director John Huston was able to take the monumental themes of Von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) and Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925) and create something that was both thrilling and profound. Few films have so successfully combined such adventure, humor and fable all into one. Even fewer have had such an impact on future filmmakers, like Paul Thomas Anderson, who watched it every night while writing There Will Be Blood (2007). The reclusive and mysterious novelist B. Travers, who wrote the source material, would have been proud to see the legacy of Huston’s faithful adaptation.

Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) is an American panhandler who’s wound up in Tampico, Mexico, where he scrounges daily for loose change and odd jobs for rip-off pay. There, on a street bench, he chums it up with a fellow American, named Curtin (B-western star Tim Holt), and the two agree to shake the dust off Tampico and head west to the Sierra Madre mountains in search of gold. As their guide, they hire a jolly veteran prospector, Howard (Walter Huston, the director’s father), who despite being twice their age, climbs circles around them. The two young men joke that he’s “half goat … half camel.”

The glory of striking gold is countered by the dangers of mine cave-ins, wild animals, bandits posing as Federales, and the arrival of a forth prospector, Cody (Bruce Bennett, in a role originally intended for Ronald Reagan). While these external threats are real, the group’s biggest challenge are those threats that lie within, like greed and paranoia. These threats are amplified the deeper they get into the wilderness and the further away from civilization, especially Dobbs, who slowly arrives at this horrific moral conclusion: “Conscience, what a thing. If you believe you got a conscience, it’ll pester you to death. And if you don’t believe you got one, what can it do to you?”

Bogart reportedly pleaded his casting to Huston, a favorite collaborator since The Maltese Falcon (1941), Key Largo (1948) and later The African Queen (1951). If Bogie sensed something personally compelling in the role, he was right. Of all the fabulous characters he’s played, the Rick Blaines, the Philp Marlowes, the Sam Spades, it was Fred C. Dobbs who ranked #2 on Premiere magazine’s 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time. That’s right, #2! Ahead of Scarlett O’Hara, Norman Bates and James Bond. Now that’s saying something.

Of course, great characters belong to great performances, and here Bogart is the epitome of the latter. From start to finish, viewers watch a gradual, unsettling transformation within the man, from a likable drifter buying lottery tickets from a young Robert Blake (Porky in The Little Rascals), to an amateur golddigger giddy with excitement, to an increasingly paranoid man tempted to look under a rock, to one ultimately lost in madness. The moments he begins to crack are the finest, as Bogart talks to himself, refuses to sleep and eventually throws his head back to laugh hard into the night. By the end, he is a lost cause, a man who has let his suspicions get the best of him, a flaw for which he will pay the ultimate price.

“That role was easier for Bogart,” John Huston said. “He had been a gangster in lots of pictures. It was that demoniacal thing that he had in The Petrified Forest. All it needed was an element of stupidity which just had to be characterized. … Take, for example, what for me is a very beautifully done scene in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre when the two men are on the bench in the park speculating about gold. Bogart doesn’t see why gold should change a man’s soul.” (B)

Even with Bogart’s masterful performance, Warner Bros. ironically sent notes to Huston, asking him to tone down his father’s performance out of fears he was overshadowing Bogie. The younger Huston persuaded his father to perform without his false teeth and required him to learn several lines in Spanish. The result was an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. When the younger Huston also took Best Director and Best Screenplay, the two became the only father-son team to ever win in the same year, and later became the only three-generation family to win Oscars when Huston directed his daughter, Anjelica, to Oscar gold in Prizzi’s Honor (1985). (A) The joy of the family affair shines through in Sierra Madre, and John Huston always said his greatest memories in life were both directing his father to the Oscar and watching him do that little knee-slappin’ jig we’ve all seen on countless highlight reels.

As for the young lion, John Huston is equally as brilliant, both in the written word and behind the camera. On the page, Huston gives Bogart some biting dialogue to rival his best detective roles: “I caught this guy stealin’ our water. Next time you try that, I’ll let it outta you through little round holes!” Behind the camera, Huston was extremely disciplined, as witnessed by Michael Caine, who worked with him on The Man Who Would Be King (1975): “Most directors don’t know what they want so they shoot everything they can think of — they use the camera like a machine gun. John uses it like a sniper.” (B)

Never was that assessment more true than in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, arguably Huston’s best directorial effort, ranked #8 on Rolling Stone‘s 100 Maverick Movies. Note the floor-level shot showing the aftermath of the bar fight; the lighting on Bogart’s face when he his first accused of being a hog; the waterhole reflection of a man rippling just enough to signal danger; the direct-camera address of Walter Huston smirking to the audience; and the long-takes following Bogart in his final panic, dollying through the underbrush as branches cast shadows onto the actor’s face. Most powerful may be the scene of Dobbs by the fire, his paranoia building with the music as the fire instantly consumes the frame, jumping up between Bogart and the camera, leaving only glimpses of his wild eyes peering through the dancing flames. Complete madness.

More commendable than any particular technique or set-up is Huston’s overall development of atmosphere. The film’s authenticity may have something to do with Huston’s own experience in the Mexican calvary, though it mostly belongs to the film’s on-location shoot across the border (one of the first Hollywood films to shoot outside the country). While the night scenes were shot back at Warner Bros. studios, the rest was shot in the State of Durango and on the streets of Tampico. In fact, the production was temporarily shut down by the local government after a newspaper’s false story that the filmmakers were being unflattering to Mexico. Huston had to send a couple of his associates to work out a deal with the nation’s president, and eventually, Huston had the turf he desired.

Throughout the film, there’s not a moment that dust isn’t flying off something, as Huston effectively creates the illusion of duration. The actors’ beards get scruffier, their faces get dirtier and their skin gets increasingly sunburnt. The only thing Huston could not get the way he wanted was the film’s climatic decapitation, which censors forced to be edited severely. No matter, the film’s themes remained intact. Its tagline, “They sold their souls for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” describes the danger inherent in the “Go west, young man” mentality. When the lust for gold dust vanishes like a fart in the wind, we’re left only with our ability to laugh at the cruel ironies of the world — that and the relationships we’ve made along the way. As the film says, “I’ve never thought any material treasure, no matter how great, is worth the pain of these long separations.”

The film’s ultimate celebration of irony is embedded in the filmmakers themselves. The irony exists in tragic form, like John Huston telling Rolling Stone years later of his money squandering ways: “I’ve spent it before I made it. Instead of acquiring money, I acquired debts. It was always on the come.” (B) It also exits in comic form, as Sierra Madre‘s source novelist Travens reportedly sent his “close associate” Hal Croves to be a $150-a-week technical advisor on the film, while everyone believed Croves was an alias for Travens himself, who had been offered $1,000-a-week for the same job.

Ultimately, the comedy triumphs over the tragedy, a credit to Huston’s on-set temperature. While his characters delve toward darkness every bit as much as Aguirre: The Wrath of God or Apocalypse Now, Huston did not allow this chaos to manifest outside the film like Herzog and Coppola. Instead, he led a number of on-set practical jokes, like calling for multiple retakes of Bennett gobbling down stew, just to see how much he could eat. Don’t worry, when it came time for the director’s cameo as an American tourist, Bogart took over the director’s chair and asked to perform the scene over and over again.

This light-heartedness appears to have seeped onto the celluloid. It’s impossible not to beam when Walter Huston gives his legendary closing monlogue: “Aww, laugh, Curtin old boy! It’s a great joke played on us by the Lord, or fate, or nature, whatever you prefer, but whoever or whatever played it certainly had a sense of humor!” I could rewind that scene and watch his hearty laugh over and over again. It’s the perfect conclusion for a film that, after all its twists and turns, all its studies of integrity and greed, can’t help but leave you with a smile.

CITE A: Treasure of Sierra Madre screening at Frederick’s Weinberg Center website
CITE B: Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age

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