Movie Review – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Written & Directed by John Huston
John Huston served in the U.S. Army during World War II, making films for the Signal Corps. He directed several films, both narrative & documentary, about soldiers and the war during this time. Despite the acclaim these pictures received, they were ultimately banned because some of them focused on failures of the U.S. military. The brass labeled them as “demoralizing to the morale of the troops.” He seemed to develop a fascination with war documentaries for the rest of his life as his daughter, Anjelica, said that when the family moved to Ireland, that was most of what they watched at home. I think something about men put in desperate situations surrounded by violence must have appealed to Huston, and it was the basis of his next film.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre starts by following down-on-his-luck American Fred Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart), who is wandering the streets of Tampico, Mexico. He takes up a construction job where he meets Bob Curtin (Tim Holt). The two friends find they are swindled by the foreman and drown their sorrows, using the last of their money to bed down in a dingy flophouse. There they meet Howard (Walter Huston), a grizzled prospector who talks of the great fortunes to be made and lost in gold mining. Dobbs has a brief bit of luck and wins the lottery, pocketing enough cash to help the three men buy supplies and head into the Mexican interior searching for gold. They start off as comrades, but as they eventually find what they are looking for, the men begin to change, especially Dobbs. Outside threats come in the form of another nosey American wanderer and the Mexican bandits who roam the hills. But the greatest danger comes from within their trio.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a fantastic film about what greed does to the souls of people. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I sat down to watch this, and my familiarity with Bogart led me to believe he was the hero of the story. While he is the protagonist, he is no hero and ultimately becomes the film’s biggest villain. While Huston had been overseas in the War, Bogart had become one of Warner Brothers’ top stars. He so enthusiastically leaped at the chance to play such a rotten character which is a testament to his love of acting. Bogart knew he didn’t have traditional movie star “good looks”; his face was one with character that had lived a life. He was best at playing cynical detectives or men who were conflicted.
We never see Dobbs as particularly likable initially, but the depths he goes to in the second act are truly reprehensible. There’s a great moment when the men have found gold and truly realize they will be rich. They sit around the campfire and share what they plan to do with the money when they cash out. It’s one of those fantastic scenes that inform the viewer of everything they need to know about these men. Curtin wants to buy land and own a ranch, while Howard just wants to retire comfortably, not care in the world for the rest of his days. Dobbs seems unable to articulate what he would do with the money, just that he wants it, and comes up with reasons why Curtin owes him part of his share. By the end of the film, Dobbs just wants to screw over other people like he has been his entire life, apparently. This is juxtaposed by Howard, who is willing to trust the other two men and follow a local back to their village to help in the treatment of an injured child.
Huston does a fantastic job of building tension and giving a noir atmosphere to a story set in the Mexican wilderness. The arrival of Cody in the camp starts to ratchet things up. He obviously knows these men lie about being on a hunting trip and backs them into a corner. If they let him go, he might inform the Mexican authorities; if they kill him, someone might come looking, or they can cut him in for a share. It’s Dobbs who immediately jumps to the idea of murdering the man. Then the tension shifts as the Mexican bandits show up, and Cody is forced into an ally position, helping them fend off the thieves. But that only sets a slow-burning fuse that pays off in the third act when the bandits resurface.
In just these first two films, it becomes evident how influential Huston was in shaping American cinema’s direction. He didn’t create these archetypes and plots, but he found a way to articulate them in such a pure manner that they would create ripples through the culture. Much like Alfred Hitchcock or David Lean, Huston was taking part in the creation of cinematic language. There was a transformation happening from only filming stageplays with some aspects of film to a fully fledge movie production. The darkness of Huston’s themes elevates his pictures above the majority of the fare at the time. It’s clear from the comments from military brass and watching something like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Huston wasn’t all that interested in making movies that pandered to his audiences. He wanted to tell exciting stories that touched on brutal truths. And this would lead to constant tension with the Hollywood studio system, always wanting audiences to leave the theaters smiling.