The Treasure of Sierra Madre: Humphrey Bogart at his greatest in John Huston’s gritty masterpiece

The Treasure of Sierra Madre(1948), starring Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston, is Director John Huston’s greatest film; a Noir-Western or a Neo-Western that explored themes of avarice, temperance and self-destruction, it is an extremely gritty and violent film for its time and won Oscars for the (father & son) Huston duo.

Fred C. Dobbs, a name that has joined the pantheon of classic movie characters; along with Tom Dunson, Cody Jarret, Michael Corleone , Tony Montana, Gordon Gekko (and a few others) has the  distinction of being both the hero and villain of a piece. Dobbs was the creation of the mysterious author B. Traven in the novel The Treasure of Sierra Madre. The novel was brought to screen in 1948 by the great auteur John Huston who wrote the adaptation and directed the film with Humphrey Bogart as Dobbs. It’s about two destitute American men – Dobbs and Curtin (Tim Holt)- in Mexico of the 1920s as they join an older American prospector, Howard(Walter Huston)  in  search for Gold. As they start digging and accumulating gold dust in the remote Sierra Madre mountains, Dobbs undergoes a startling transformation – as greed, paranoia and suspicion grips him- that endangers the life of all three men. John Huston had been enthralled by B. Traven’s 1927 novella for years, but no production house shared his interest; which is obvious. The tale was a downer and it was also going to be very expensive. The story takes place entirely in Mexico. To achieve any kind of authenticity the movie would have to be done on location, with all the necessary expenses and problems of an on-location shoot. And to further increase the odds against a box office success, it was a story without a significant female role. Only a man with Huston’s powers of persuasion could have worn down the Warner executives; the fact that he got Humphrey Bogart to play the unstable gold hunter Fred C. Dobbs was an additional attraction for the studios. Bogart was at the height of his stardom when he played Dobbs. He was actually the highest paid actor in the world at the time. But that wouldn’t stop him from going after this role that had him play such a despicable anti-hero. This is a return to roots for Bogart, who started out playing heavies opposite James Cagney and Edward  G. Robinson.  He lobbied hard for the role with his friend and frequent collaborator Huston . Huston had earlier elevated Bogart to stardom with his debut film The Maltese Falcon(1941),the first of the classic  film Noirs. Bogart was of course the pre -eminent Noir hero of his times He had hardly made a western, except for playing the baddie in Oklahoma Kid or Virginia City. This is was the first western for Huston and, his first film since he came back from service in World War II. He mixes the Noir elements (that he mastered with The Maltese Falcon) with the  traditional western narrative: of Men going into wilderness in search for gold, to arrive at a unique hybrid of a Noir-western (or an Anti-western). Its very different from the classical westerns of John Ford with its  poetic imagery of wide open vistas and traditional heroes. This film , though set  in the vast mountains of Sierra Madre , is very claustrophobic, very dark , keeping in with the Huston’s noir sensibilities. Its very grungy, gritty and edgy. The heroes are all flawed , with the central character of Dobbs being the worst.

Right from the first scene itself , its evident that Dobbs is a ticking time bomb. He is gruff ,dejected and impatient; treating his fellow men – even children- very harshly. He is seen bumming his way through the streets of Tampico. trying his luck at lotteries and asking for handouts. His main ‘victim’ happens to be a rich American dressed in all white played by director John Huston himself. Dobbs repeatedly badgers him for a handout with the classic line: Hey mister, could you stake a fellow American to a meal?. Its another matter that Dobbs uses these handouts for other purposes like getting himself a new shave & haircut and visiting whorehouses. When Dobbs asks for a handout a third time, the American snaps, telling Dobbs that he will have to make his way through his life without his help anymore and gives him an extra peso so that he would remember his face not to badger him again. This whole back and forth between Bogart and Huston has a meta element to it. Bogart was quite a ‘bum’ actor in Hollywood before Huston gave him the Sam Spade role in The Maltese Falcon (which made Bogart a star). Sierra Madre is the third collaboration between Bogart and Huston. Huston would give an addition film to Bogart  in 1948 called Key Largo. But unlike their characters in the film, Huston and Bogart would team up twice more, of which, The African Queen in 1951 will net Bogart his only best actor Oscar.

Dobbs gets together with another bum, Curtin and they go to work on an oil rig, but their employer skips town without paying them. they later catches up with him and, in an brutal fight (brutal even by today’s standards and took 5 days to shoot) , they manage to lick him and get their money. This coincides with their meeting Howard (Walter Huston), an elderly prospector who enchants then with tales of gold and treasure hunt. Both Dobbs and Curtin are immediately seduced and, when Dobbs wins a small jackpot in the lottery, he pools his funds with Curtin and Howard to finance a gold prospecting journey to the Mexican interior. After an arduous journey deep into the Sierra Madre mountains, that includes a skirmish with a band of bandits led by outlaw Gold Hat, they manage to find a terrain rich with gold. They set camp and go about digging and extracting the placer gold. Things start going wrong pretty quickly from then on.  Greed and paranoia starts taking hold of Dobbs. The pivotal moment in Dobbs’ transformation  is indicated by an extreme close up of Bogart  looking at the gold dust that is being measured and packed by his two partners. He looks at it and then turns his eyes away , but then he couldn’t resist looking back at the gold again. It’s the greatest acting moment in Bogart’s career. Without a word being spoken, he conveys the emotions of the character brilliantly.  You could see those eyes light up with greed , his facial expression showing the insatiable lust for gold and the distrust that is building  for his partners.

But its not just Dobbs who is getting affected by gold lust. the other two are also not immune to its corruption – though only to a lesser extend. The three partners are soon joined by an outsider named Cody(Bruce Bennett), who is also a prospector and who found out their location by tailing Curtin who had gone into town for supplies. Cody is the most intriguing character in a film filled with very interesting,  multi-dimensional characters. He is very cunning, courageous and much more smarter than the threesome of Dobbs, Curtin and Howard. But in true Noir tradition, he is also a fatalist, who is ready to accept the consequences of his actions without any questions. He knows that he is putting his life in danger by exposing himself to the threesome, but he has been prospecting for gold for so long that he is beyond caring. He is hoping that maybe the threesome has just enough humanity left in them to let him stay on, but he is not surprised when the three men decides to kill him; they don’t want to divide the gold and they cannot let him go because he is sure to reveal their whereabouts to others in town. But before they could execute Cody, they are attacked by Gold Hat and his bandits. Its here that Gold Hat says the famously (mis)quoted line; Badges? We ain’t got no badges! We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges! In the ensuing gun fight, Cody is killed and Bandits are chased away by Federales. The threesome examine the personal effects of the dead Cody. A letter he carries from a loving wife reveals that his motivations were to provide for his family; which explains his dogged determination.

Dobbs paranoia continues to increase and reaches its peak one night when Howard is absent; Howard is called away to a nearby local village on a medical emergency. Its only Dobbs and Curtin guarding their gold and they start bickering, with Dobbs increasingly suspecting Curtin of trying to run away with all the gold.  It reaches a point where Curtin has to hold Dobbs at gun point to calm him down. From then on a deadly cat and mouse game begins, with Dobbs waiting for Curtin to fall asleep and Curtin doing his best to stay awake; with Bogart’s demonic laugh and appearance (and cinematographer Ted D. McCord’s brilliant lighting and camerawork)  transforming the moment into something straight out of a terrifying horror movie. A weak and tired Curtin is no match for the demonic Dobbs; there comes a moment in their stand-off when Curtin drops his guard and fall asleep, giving Dobbs the chance he was looking for; Dobbs pounces on Curtin, grabs the gun, drags Curtin away and shoots him. Assuming Curtin is dead, Dobbs take all the gold and supplies and starts his journey back. But Killing Curtin has pushed Dobbs completely over the edge. He cant stop talking to himself  and he decides to go back and bury Curtin next day, but when he goes back he cannot find Curtin’s body. He assumes that tigers have got him; he is happy to see that nature is on his side, thus assuaging the weight of his heavy conscience. In actuality Curtin is not dead, he crawls away seriously wounded to be rescued by Indians and taken to Howard. Dobbs meanwhile has so gone off the edge and, on top of that, bogged down by thirst and tiredness that he staggers through the desert wilderness half dead. Finally he finds a water hole, but is immediately accosted by Gold Hat and his bandits. They ruthlessly kill Dobbs and steal his belongings. As they are unaware of the value of the gold dust contained in the sacks, they just throw them away. But Gold Hat is soon caught by the authorities and shot dead. Howard and Curtin set out to find their treasure after they realize that Dobbs has been killed, but they are caught up in a sandstorm. They realize that their gold is lost forever and just laugh off their whole adventure. So the film ends with Dobbs dead and Howard and Curtin laughing at the cruel irony (They have no gold after months of toil and near death experiences), but it is assumed that Howard will become a revered village elder and Curtin will seek out Cody’s widow on an idyllic fruit farm. In that regard, the predominantly grim and pessimistic film end on an optimistic note.

Both Director John Huston(Direction and adapted screenplay) and his father Walter(Supporting Actor) won Oscars for Sierra Madre; the film lost best picture to Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet. Walter Huston gives a fantastic performance as the wise, old prospector, Howard, who is the voice of reason in the whole treasure adventure. If you thought Bogart spit out words like bullets from a gun, check out Huston Sr. in this film, his words are like bullets fired from an AK-47; he talks so fast that he seems to start the next sentence before he finishes the current one. and there is that wild dance he does when he realizes that they have found the treasure. There is also that laugh; the laugh that finally bookends the film when the raging sandstorm blows away their gold in one of the most memorable moments in cinema. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is indeed a love letter from a brilliant son to a gifted father. But it’s something more: a portrait of rapacity, irony, and tragedy. The film’s centerpiece is undoubtedly Walter Huston. And yet, faced with the old man’s big moments and canny scene stealing, Bogart delivers the more powerful performance, a detailed representation of a hustler who strikes it rich and gets ruined by his unchecked desire for more. There is no vanity in his work, no attempt to soften Dobbs’s mean aspirations or vicious conduct. Incredibly, Humphrey Bogart wasn’t even nominated, leave alone win an Oscar. But i consider this to be his greatest screen performance . His choice of this role shows the kind of actor and person that he was. He was devoid of any sort of movie star vanity and looked on himself more as a character actor. Otherwise no top star would have taken on such a de-glamorized, negative role, where he looks so grungy; covered in grime, dirt and an ugly beard throughout, not to mention, such a despicable character who loses his morality and sanity and turns into an unapologetic murderer through the course of the film. Bogart’s irascible nature as an actor gets a perfect outlet in this film, especially when he starts suspecting every word, every action of his partners. Though the character doesn’t exactly traverse an arc, because as i said, he does starts out as a very unlikable, rough person. Its more of a bad guy getting worse rather than a good guy getting corrupted by gold. And though the film is considered a take on the corrupting influence of gold on men, neither Howard nor Curtin are corrupted except for Dobbs, who is already a morally ambiguous soul. Ironically, Dobbs himself argues in an early scene: “Gold doesn’t carry any kind of curse… All depends on if the guy who finds it is the right guy.”; there’s an early scene in which a cave-in traps Dobbs inside, and Curtin hesitates to carry out a rescue. Leaving Dobbs to die would mean a larger cut, after all. But Curtin’s indecision is brief, and he soon races to rescue his partner  because it’s the right thing to do. Later in the film, Curtin’s sense of moral obligation is rewarded with a bullet by Dobbs. So the film is more about how gold becomes  an excuse by which the true nature of a man is fully revealed. The Tampico set scenes of the film clearly illustrates Dobbs’  propensity for dominating and controlling fellow men (and his lust for woman).It reaches its logical conclusion in the desolate wilderness of the Sierra Madre mountains. Thankfully, the film avoids any sort of overt moral commentary; though the novel is definitely an anti-capitalistic polemic, director Huston downplays the political aspect of it and, is more interested in a cold examination of what happens to these people when thrust into such circumstances. Dobbs and Curtin believe they can handle greed and temptation; they can handle anything, or so they believe. Once on their journey to areas far away from civilization, all three men show their true nature. In the end, the film emerges as a unique mix of Hemingway and Joseph Conrad, with all three characters undertaking a journey into the heart of darkness; I am sure that Francis Ford Coppola must have been heavily inspired from this film in crafting his own Heart of Darkness adaptation Apocalypse Now(1979) – by the way a film that John Huston detested.

The audience did not accept Bogart in such a negative role and the film flopped on its initial release. The film had cost the studio just under $3 million to complete – a big sum for its time, and the studio was not sure how to market it. Warner’s posters made it look like a heroic Western; another big mistake. But it was critically hailed as a masterpiece and even Jack Warner, the tightfisted head of Warner Bros.- who was in agony throughout the production of the film as it went way over budget and schedule – was ecstatic when he saw the finished film and hailed it as the greatest film the studio had produced up until that time. The film and the character of Dobbs would go on to inspire a lot of films and characters in future like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Brian De Palma’s Scarface and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There will be Blood. The.The character trajectory of both Tony Montana and Daniel Plainview are very similar to Dobbs, with drugs and oil replacing Gold. Sierra Madre has the same themes of The Maltese Falcon (and several Huston films); of characters going on a journey or a quest for something valuable, with their external quest becoming a metaphor for their internal quest to find their true selves; which they do, with rather tragic consequences. Huston would explore the same theme a couple of years later in the film Asphalt jungle; this time the story is set in the big city. Huston would return to the full Sierra Madre template (though a more tongue in cheek version) with The Man who would be King(1975), adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s story, with Sean Connery and Michael Caine playing officers in 19th century British India going on a quest to find the faraway country of Kafiristan. Originally, that film was to be made in the 1950’s with Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable, but Huston had to wait for almost two decades to get it made; one of the chief reasons being Bogart’s death in 1957. Anyway, The Treasure of Sierra Madre remains Huston’s greatest film and Bogart’s greatest performance.


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