Around the beginning of the year, I quietly told myself that it was a good time to start boning up on The Classics. After all, without those milestones of film, we wouldn’t have the modern deluge of cinematic treats that you and I love today. I’ve always been curious about the films of Humphrey Bogart, not just because of their reputed quality, but because I’ve ALWAYS found him to be a most curious example of a Leading Man, especially by contemporary standards. He was not good-looking and he seemed to speak as though his jaw was broken, yet he still managed to garner choice roles that still resonate today. Prior to this, the only real ‘Bogie’ films I’ve seen were 1941’s ‘Casablanca’ and 1951’s ‘The African Queen’ (which I should really check out again…been awhile). ‘The Treasure of The Sierra Madre’ and 1941’s ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (next on my list) have always been waiting in the periphery and I finally broke down and fired this one up. Is it the classic that everyone claims it to be? Yep. It sure is.
The story, based on a book by reclusive writer B. Traven, follows a down-on-his-luck American named ‘Fred C. Dobbs’ (Bogart) as he bums around 1925 Topico, Mexico, trying to score work or cash in virtually every (legalish) way possible. As his spirit is worn further and further down, he encounters a fellow Yank named ‘Curtin’ (Tim Holt), a man in a similar situation who can certainly sympathize with ‘Dobbs’ rather pathetic plight. Together they find themselves on a work crew run by a shady American, whose reputation for ‘grifting’ gullible saps turns out to be all too real. After ‘Dobbs’ and ‘Curtin’ deal out some fist-related justice on this piece of shit, they begin looking at their options as the sad realization that their current plan-of-attack is only going to yield similar, disappointing results. Having been taken in earlier by the enticing tales of gold prospecting by a weathered old man named ‘Howard’ (Walter Huston…father of famed director John Huston), they decide to search him out to organize a gold-hunting expedition of their own. They hit the trail and after much effort and suffering, land a bountiful lode. All goes well…for a while.
When it’s all summed up, this story is a cautionary tale of the terrible lengths that greed can drive a man to. In this case, much to my surprise, it’s ‘Dobbs’ who falls under the sway of ‘gold sickness’, causing him to morph into a dangerously paranoid aggressor who suspects EVERYONE of plotting against him and his share of the plunder. One of the aspects that I found interesting was that the machinations that ‘Dobbs’ was convinced were aligned against him were completely products of his own diseased and greedy imagination. ‘Curtin’ and ‘Howard’ have every intention of honoring each others pledges to fairly distribute and protect that which they find, only to be thrown a major curve ball when ‘Dobbs’ begins muttering angrily to himself and pulling his .38 at the slightest provocation; real or imagined. On top of this temperamental development, the group also encounters the obstacles of upholding their careful subterfuge when interlopers, in the forms of a tragically curious fellow American prospector and a group of murder-minded ‘banditos’ arrive on the scene.
I can see why many cinephiles hold this film in such high regard. For the time, it’s VERY well constructed, on both a technical and acting level. Bogart is great as the unhinged ‘Dobbs’, despite the fact that I found his turn to The Dark Side to be a little abrupt. We’re given no real hint that he’s a loose cannon prior to the gold-hunting trip, so when he starts going a little mad, it’s a surprise. That being said, Bogart did a great job as a man who succumbs to the ‘gold sickness’ that alienates him from the closest things he has to actual friends…and eventually proves to be his total undoing. As the more balanced of the crew, Tim Holt was great as the more subdued and level-headed ‘Curtin’. Prior to this film, I’d admittedly never heard of Tim Holt: The Actor, but I did find him to be something of a revelation. There was a strange ‘modern’ quality to his look and manner of acting that helped pull me further into the narrative. If this film was to be made today, I could easily see his role being played by either Aaron Paul (‘Breaking Bad’) or Chris Pratt (‘Guardians of the Galaxy’), due to the fact that as the film played out, I couldn’t decide which of those two he reminded me of the most. As acting goes though, I have to give additional props to Walter Huston, as the old-time prospector/adventurer ‘Howard’. Clearly he and his famed director son John, knew the character and how to bring him to ‘life’. From the first time we meet ‘Howard’ in a crowded Mexican hostel, I was taken in by his naturalistic manner of speech and expressive articulations. He was essentially The Voice of Reason and Common Sense for the small group. Pretty much everyone else in the film is good too, right down to the little Mexican kid who sells ‘Dobbs’ a lucky lottery ticket that acts as the convenient catalyst to their journey. In my brief research of the film prior to this writing, I was a little taken aback to learn that the little shit was played by a really young Robert Blake (Lost Highway), a creepy bastard who, in all likelihood, organized the real-life assassination of his own ex-wife.
On a technical level, ‘The Treasure of The Sierra Madre’ is rather exceptional for the time it was made. It has the distinction of being a film that embraced ‘location’ filming, as opposed to keeping the ‘shoot’ studio-bound, which was a common practice of the day. They actually went to Topico, Mexico (where the story takes place) and shot in the city and the surrounding area, to great, authentic effect. Everything and everyone seem dirty, sweaty and uncomfortable, and it really lends credibility to the arduous task that the characters take on. When it came to the action scenes (of which there are a few), this was another area that impressed me. There’s a three-way fist fight near the beginning of the film that had an unexpected viciousness to it and was bolstered by some very competent and dedicated stunt work (loved that final punch/crash to the floor!). The gunfights were also well staged, with one in the middle, where the men engage in a large-scale shoot-out with a pesky group of bandits, that I swear could’ve been filmed today. Modernize the sound effects and add some blood to the bullet wounds and it would blend in nicely with today’s version of the same.
It’s clear to see the influence that this film has had on many of those that came after it. As it played out, two ‘contemporary’ titles that I repeatedly saw influence in were ‘The Raiders of The Lost Ark’ (1981), in the sweaty exotic locations, the quest for riches, the sweaty bearded ‘man’s man’ characters and the action set pieces, and ‘A Simple Plan’ (1998), a terrific ‘little’ thriller by Sam Raimi (that I really should watch again) that also deals with the detrimental and lethal effects of greed and secrecy on a group of friends who find a ‘treasure’ worth protecting (and killing for).
All in all, there are good reasons that ‘The Treasure of The Sierra Madre’ is considered a cinematic ‘classic’ and those are engaging characters, exotic locations, exciting action (for the time) and a compelling moral conflict at the heart of it. The acting is great, the technical aspects shine through and final result of it all is appropriately bitter-sweet and tragic. I can see an argument being made for a remake (hell, I was even blasphemously picturing how to do it as I watched), but I think this one should be left alone to stand out as a testament to what solidly competent film-making from the 1940s looks like. If you’re a fan of Humphrey Bogart, director John Huston or simply The Classics, then you owe it to yourself to seek this one out. It’s that simple.
“Badges? We ain’t got no badges! We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!”
– ‘Gold Hat’