The Treasure of the Sierra Madre [50 Films Older Than Me #28]

A while ago, it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #28.

Spoilers ahead.  

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Directed by John Huston.

Release Year:  1948 (22 years before I was born).

What it is about:  Labourers Fred Dobbs and Bob Curtin meet Howard, a gold prospector, while down on their luck in Mexico in the 1920’s. The three men decide to look for gold in the mountains together, but find that the lure of wealth drastically changes their relationships.

Starring Humphrey Bogart as Fred C. Dobbs, Tim Holt as Bob Curtin, and Walter Huston as Howard. Also starring Bruce Bennett as Cody (another prospector who tries to get in on their action), Barton MacLane as Pat McCormick (a businessman who fires hires the two young men and then rips them off) and Alfonso Bedoya as Gold Hat (the leader of the group of banditos that the men encounter). Director John Huston cameos as a vacationing businessman near the start of the film, and a young Robert Blake has a small role as a boy who sells Fred Dobbs a winning lottery ticket.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I’ve wanted to watch this movie for a long time. I knew it was a Humphrey Bogart-starring adventure film of some sort–I don’t know if I was expecting something like The African Queen or Key Largo. And I’d heard some variation of the famous line about “not needing any stinking badges” which the movie boasts.

Reality: Actually, the line is, “Badges? We ain’t got no badges! We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!” which thanks to the colorful delivery of Alfonso Bedoya is the movie’s most memorable line of dialogue. But it’s only one of many great parts of this movie, which is as much as powerful human drama as it is an adventure.

The film does a good job taking the time to establish the relationship between the lead character, Dobbs and Curtin, by having them bond over their shared misfortune, and showing how far they are willing to go in their confrontation with the swindling McCormick. Their bar fight strikes the right balance in making them both sympathetic and a bit scary–they don’t throw the first bunch, but they definitely throw the last one (or the last six, to be precise). Then when the opportunity of prospecting for gold arrives, it’s treated as a new hope for them men…a new chance at life.

But we know it’s not going to end well, because the movie’s themes are spelled out right at the beginning, when the old prospector Howard describes how gold changes and destroys people.

The movie then plays fair and shows this exact process with our main characters, as the peace between the group frays and ultimately falls apart, threatening to ruin (and even end) their lives.

Humphrey Bogart has always been perfect for playing flawed heroes, but it’s possible that Fred C. Dobbs is his darkest lead character (the only contender I can think of is Dixon Steele from In a Lonely Place). He appears at first to be a decent enough guy who is even capable of generosity, but quickly becomes obsessed and paranoid. It’s not that he’s corrupted, exactly, but more that the discovery of gold just reveals a layer of darkness and instability that has always been there. In the end that darkness leads to his death (or actually, as apparently originally conceived, his decapitation).

Actually, I fully thought the movie was going to be lot more bleak than it is–that all three men were doomed. Instead the story gives us a conclusion that is more upbeat, with the gold being lost but Howard and Curtin being able to laugh at the absurdity of it all and still have hope for the future. It’s less intense but more palatable, and helps the film to feel more like a proper story, and not just a cautionary fable or something like that.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre doesn’t have a huge cast but the big standout is Walter Huston (father of writer/director John Huston) as Howard. He makes for such a dynamic and lively presence on screen that he threatens to steal all the scenes he is in…but he doesn’t just because Bogart is so strong a well.

And the rest of the performers all hold their own–Curtin, Cody, Gold Hat and McCormick have all got lots of presence and personality and bring lots of life to the world of the film.

John Huston is the only director to appear twice on my current series of “Fifty Films Older Than Me,” and that’s because I really wanted to watch both this and The Misfits. Both movies include as part of their storyline a small group of people on a journey into a frontier where they have to survive elements in order to come back with wealth, but in which certain characters discover that what they are really pursuing is something more intangible. Of course, its a bigger part of this movie than The Misfits, but the similarity is striking.

I also thought it was interesting that the movie doesn’t provide subtitles for all the Spanish language that is heard throughout (unless I just had some setting set wrong for my iTunes rental), which meant that for certain portions of the movie we just had to rely the film to tell the story cinematically, something that John Huston and the cast and crew proved fully able to do.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? I loved it. It’s impressively directed with a great script and strong dialogue, and a whole bunch of really good acting. The cinematography is top-notch as well–apparently the movie went over-budget filming on location in Mexico, but it works brilliantly. The end result is an incredibly immersive drama that transports you into its world as well as any other movie I’ve seen.

See here for the Master List.

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