There lies a certain irony in the fact that Humphrey Bogart, the most highly paid star of his era, would use his hard-earned creative freedom to play against type as a down-on-his-luck loser blinded by greed in a movie about gold digging that would, in turn, prove a box office dud. But where there is irony, there is truth, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre remains one of the most insightful films ever made about greed and the thorny effects of temptation on human nature.
Adapted from Berwick Traven’s explicitly anti-capitalist novel (published in 1920s Europe, in non-capitalist societies only), John Huston’s film cuts back on those overt sentiments, but the indictment of the profit motive remains the same. One could even argue that the film’s thesis is all the more potent for avoiding such explicit pronouncements, thereby elevating the material to that of the universal versus more specific allegory. Whether it’s nomadic bandits killing for goods or supposedly civilized men choosing to murder another (or each other) rather than share a gold claim, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre bears witness to mankind’s contemptible willingness—nay, eagerness—to subjugate his brother in the name of short-term material advancement. As events past (slavery through the ages) and present (Enron, Wall Street, etc.) will testify, this is a theme as timeless as any.
The simple tale of three American prospectors in the Mexican desert seems lifted straight out of archetypal mythos, with the tragic Fred Dobbs (Bogart)—a panhandler who professes to only want his “fair share” of gold (that is, until the gold actually shows up)—functioning as the moral lynchpin. Ultimately unlikable but achingly human in his weaknesses, Bogart saw incredible acting possibilities in the character (in the months before production began, he told New York Post critic Archer Winston, “Wait till you see me in my next picture, I play the worst shit you ever saw!”), and the result is a brilliantly charted fall from something like inverted grace.
Dobbs begins as a wasteful, short-tempered glutton for pleasure (the film’s silent nods to prostitution are particularly savory) and ends up insatiably greedy to boot and paranoid that everyone else is even worse than he. But what remains astonishing is the flickering light of humanity buried deep within the fellow, who we imagine might be decent enough if he weren’t so often getting the short end of the stick and not under a truly considerable temptation: over $100,000, without inflation. An early experience at the hands of a dishonest employer helps to justify his cynical expectations, but the varying, seemingly endless contradictions offered by his character more so suggest someone who perpetually wants to have his cake and eat it too. He reminds us of our inner potential for evil and, by extension, of great drama’s ability to inform and even improve on life itself. Fred’s partners—the young, noble Curtin (Tim Holt) and aggressively offbeat, elderly Howard (Walter Huston)—complete the Freudian triangle that ultimately endures 10 months of hardship at the hands of mother nature and, to varying extents, each other.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is as enduring a classic as has ever come out of Hollywood, and arguably among the greatest, but the film is admittedly not without its share of rough spots. Pauline Kael aptly praised the cumulative emotional effect, noting that “when it’s over you know you’ve seen something.” And so it is, despite Max Steiner’s overzealous score and some needlessly cloying sequences that jut out from the proceedings like a sore thumb, one of the great emotional payoffs in American films, and if you’re lucky enough to not yet know the plot’s eventual outcome, I’m sure as hell not going to spoil it here. If the story is predictable in parts, then it’s all the more tragic in its portrayal of the inevitable crumbling of one’s conscience in the face of fortune. Shot largely on location (a rarity at the time, and cause for much of the film’s budgetary and scheduling problems), the film posits its characters against the unforgiving immensity of their surroundings, rendering their efforts almost pathetically sublime. Partly realistic, partly poetic (the controlled lighting rarely goes for natural effect, instead waxing poetic on the respective characters’ internal struggles), fully moral, this deservingly canonized behemoth is one of the relatively few films that transcends the medium to become a mandatory viewing experience for anyone that identifies themselves as a human being, period.
Excellent Blu-ray clarity across the board: Sound is rich (unfortunately in the case of Max Steiner’s misguided score, awesomely in the case of Walter Huston’s inimitable laugh), while image is as crisp as a fresh dollar bill, though the format does bring out the technical inconsistencies of the material as much as it restores them to their former glory (film stock changes, though infrequent, are particularly noticeable).
A ton. The centerpiece here is the “Warner Night at the Movies” play option, which presents the film with pre-show material appropriate to its original theatrical run: the preview for Key Largo, a typically throwaway newsreel, a lesser Bugs Bunny cartoon (Hot Cross Bunny), and a limp film-noir parody precede the feature, with optional—and predictably lame—introduction by Leonard Maltin. Additional mini-supplements include another Looney Tunes short, 8 Ball Rabbit (notable for an adorable penguin and an animated Bogey’s cameo as Fred Dobbs) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’s own theatrical trailer. The rest are enough to satiate the most ardent cinephile several times over. Eric Lax’s commentary track is exhaustively informative and compulsively listenable without ever spilling over too much into frothing-at-the-mouth adoration. The documentary “John Huston: The Man, The Movies, The Maverick” runs as long as the film itself, while the behind-the-scenes retrospective “Discovering Treasure: The Story of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and the audio-only Lux Radio Theater broadcast from April 18th, 1949 run about an hour apiece. All are a worthy experience for fans.
Fact: You haven’t truly lived until you’ve seen Walter Huston do the jackrabbit dance.
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