The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Movie Review by W. L. Mesusan
In 1947, director John Huston brings his stars, Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, and father, Walter Huston, down to Mexico to shoot a film about three American misfits who mine and lose a fortune in gold. He already has an inkling he’s creating a timeless cinematic masterpiece. His recipe for making a classic movie includes these ingredients: author B. Traven’s novel of adventure and greed (greatly improved by Huston’s brilliant screenplay), superb directing, authentic locations, steller cinematography, an appropriate music score, and outstanding performances by his actors. Huston starts with a good story.
Stranded in Tampico (circa 1925), Americans Dobbs and Curtin (Bogart and Holt) are swindled by a crooked contractor. After they get back what they’re owed in a bar-room brawl and Dobbs wins a small lottery prize, the misfits seek out experienced prospector Howard (Walter Huston). The pursuit of gold leads the unlikely trio into the mountains of Mexico. As soon as they strike it rich, the dark side of human nature begins to tear the men apart.
Huston crafts a screenplay that’s superior to the novel in many ways. He deletes chapters from the book, interludes full of romance and idealism about the Mexican Revolution, paring the story down to focus on the three partners. He adds a new, more positive ending. Still, stories warning about the danger of attempting to gain the world at the expense of losing one’s soul are as old as the Bible.
So, what’s the magic alchemy at the heart of Treasure?
First, Huston directs with the vision of an artist. He draws upon his early years in Paris where he studied and worked as a fine arts painter. He painstakingly sketches scenes on paper beforehand, then carefully frames his characters during the filming. The director doesn’t rely on post-production editing to shape his final work, literally creating his film while it’s being shot. Variations of tempo and an invisible style brings the story to the forefront. The director blends in a tantalizing variety of authentic locations.
Treasure includes fourteen outdoor locations: early scenes are filmed in the city of Tampico, mountain scenes in the state of Durango, and desert scenes on location in California and Arizona. They spotlight Huston’s selective eye and his understanding of how to use location for visual and emotional effect.
Huston’s use of the Mexican setting throughout the movie feels authentic. It’s free of stereotypes. Hardworking locals fill the screen. Mexicans speak non-subtitled Spanish throughout the film with vital information repeated by the leads in English.
John Huston insists on adding steller cinematography. Ted McCord’s camera work results in a subtly photographed film that’s sensitive, unaffected, and visually alive. The shots are “picture perfect,” neither too prepared-looking nor overly-dramatic. No shots-for-shots sake in this black-and-white film.
Another feature is a tasteful music score. Although some critics think Max Steiner’s music is too melodramatic, it plays up the adventure and the Mexican background splendidly: light-hearted, when the prospectors head into the mountains; romantic and hopeful in a scene describing a letter about a Texas fruit orchard beckoning to Curtin; and, wild, when Bogie’s laughing face is consumed by superimposed fire.
The final ingredient is the acting. Bogie sheds the suave leading man image he created years earlier in Casablanca (1943) as his character Fred C. Dobbs is transformed from an average, congenial guy to a heartless murderer in a mesmerizing portrayal of paranoia and mental deterioration.
After heavy coaxing from his son, the elder Huston (Canadian born Walter) removes his false teeth and generates the lovable old prospector role that wins him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar of 1948. His son collects the Best Director and Best Screenplay Oscars. Huston (Howard) dancing an uninhibited, triumphant jig when he finally discovers gold is pure magic.
Outstanding performances from Tim Holt and Bruce Bennett lend strength to the film. Seldom mentioned is Huston’s intelligent handling of amateur and semi-professional actors. His work with Alfonso Bedoya as bandit leader Gold Hat results in an immortal quote, “Badges? I don’t have to show you no stinkin’ badges!”
Over budget and beyond schedule, Huston refuses to be rushed. He blends the aforementioned elements together to create a cinematic feast for the eyes and ears, but also for the mind and heart and soul. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is an unflinching look at the dark side of human nature offset by satirical humor and an underpinning of hope.
Movies just don’t get any better.