The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Written and Directed by John Huston

When I embarked on this trail, this wagon train west, there weren’t very many on my list of 300+ films which I had seen before, but The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was one of those films. The journey began, in part, because of my love for this film. I don’t want to overstate it, the film is one I had seen once and enjoyed a great deal. No, what I mean is that the Western genre was a blindspot for me, despite having seen a sampling of its greatest films and finding myself endlessly impressed, entertained, and intrigued by the genre’s possibilities. So I decided to revisit the few films I had seen before as a way of putting them into context with the new films I was discovering. And while I entered this viewing of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with a four-star, masterpiece rating, the fact I exit with a lower appreciation for the film than before, does not mean it is not also one of the best in the marathon through nearly 50 films.

Fred Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) is a down on his luck American who finds himself begging for meals in a town in Mexico when he comes across fellow American Bob Curtin (Tim Holt), who faces similar difficulties. Soon the pair find themselves swindled out of pay they worked hard for, but manage to strike up a conversation with an older, more eccentric American gentleman (Walter Huston) in the bar who claims he knows what it takes to strike it rich in gold by prospecting. Luckily having enough money to outfit themselves, the trio of strangers trek to the Sierra Madre mountains to make their fortune, only to find the difficulties that come between men when money is involved. They will be lucky to get out of the mountains with their hard earned money, let alone with their friendship or even their lives.

Despite holding it in high regard, I had very little recollection of the specific details of this film, other than knowing it was about prospecting for gold. I have often been curious about the US gold rush of 1849, and yet, there doesn’t seem to be any films about it. There is Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, which focuses on the rush to Yukon Territory, and there is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which deals with men seeking gold in Mexico. I suppose that will have to suffice (but seriously, someone make a great Gold Rush movie. I would watch the hell out of it!). That subject matter is so fascinating for many reasons, reasons which are highlighted in John Huston’s film here. Principle among them are greed. The character of Dobbs and the performance of Bogart in the role are wonderfully demented. Following his cursed journey is a wonderful psychological trainwreck.

The trio carries the film, with few other characters. Bogart is perhaps best among them, and his character takes much of the focus, but this is an ensemble. Walter Huston, who won the Oscar for Supporting Actor for this performance is a wonderful balance between comic relief and moral voice. I was a little more than annoyed by his fast paced mumble, which was often hard to translate, but he gives an otherwise great performance. Tim Holt is the nothing of the three, seeming more like a passenger and a mediator between Dobbs and Howard. But as I said, focus on the demented performance and character arc of Bogart/Dobbs. His performance here is like a warm up for In a Lonely Place, where Bogey reaches peek rage.

But money does strange things to people. Dobbs goes from a man begging for money on the street to a man not knowing when enough is enough, a man who can’t trust anyone because his paranoia won’t allow it. His vices do him in, meanwhile the film ends with Bob and Howard laughing hysterically after discovering their gold dust has blown away with the wind. Perspective goes a long way in defining a man and his actions. We don’t get much on Dobbs before we find him begging on the street, but one can only assume what led him to that point in his life. Meanwhile Howard for example talks of being rich and poor in alternating epochs in his life with no regrets.

Bogart’s performance is central to this film’s success, but Huston’s turn matches him ying to yang, black to white, dark to light. Huston’s camera is also on strong display here, but the dichotomy between Dobbs and Howard is everything. Man is this film entertaining. It just flows so nicely from start to finish, featuring a strong story and strong performances from the whole cast.

★★★ 1/2 – Great

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