STORMING TO A NEW HIGH IN HIGH ADVENTURE!
This was always meant to be one of John Huston’s earliest films; after reading the novel in 1935, he thought of it as a vehicle for his father. The studio fancied George Raft, Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield in the leads… but then came World War II. Huston started making documentaries, often in a way that the Army found too ”demoralizing”.
Meantime, Robert Rossen kept polishing the script. Once the war was over, Huston was ready to revisit his Treasure of the Sierra Madre project – and now Humphrey Bogart had become a major star.
In 1925, two Americans, Fred C. Dobbs and Bob Curtin (Bogart, Tim Holt), are stranded in a Mexican town, cheated out of wages they were promised. Dobbs suddenly wins some money in a lottery and they decide to use it as funds for a gold-prospecting journey in the Sierra Madre mountains. Along comes Howard (Walter Huston), an old veteran who’s been looking for gold many times before and tells them how it can turn into an addiction. The three men head up into the mountains and after a hard climb they finally find what they’re looking for. They decide to split their findings right away, but Dobbs quickly shows signs of mental illness…
Putting character to the test
Film critic Roger Ebert once wrote, ”The movie has never really been about gold but about character”. He’s right about that; even the scene where the three men find it is anticlimactic to the point where Howard actually has to tell the other two that the tiny specks of glitter in all that sand is worth money. Dobbs isn’t the first character in the film to lose his head over gold; that would be Bob when the mine accidentally collapses; he hesitates for a short while before helping Dobbs out. It doesn’t take long for him to come to his senses, and Dobbs has no idea what happened.
The filmmakers plan their agenda cleverly, showing both men early on in that Mexican town when they’re really down on their luck, humiliated by having to beg for money. To suddenly have a fortune in their hands after finding gold puts their character to the test – and Dobbs turns out to be dangerously weak. Bogart is terrific in a role he allegedly described as ”the worst shit you ever saw”, a paranoid rat whose character traits the actor revisited in the fabulous Caine Mutiny six years later. Dobbs is fairly believable because Bogart doesn’t make him come across as an angel from the start; he’s easily corrupted. Holt has the most boring role in the film, but one that’s still necessary; a stand-up guy the audience can identify with easier than the other two. And then there’s Walter Huston, the director’s dad, a wonderful character actor who got the role of a lifetime as the curmudgeonly prospecting veteran who becomes a mentor for the two men, both practically and psychologically.
The director has a lot to say about greed and the depths of poverty and men’s minds, but he’s also packed the film with loads of tension. There’s the psychological game between the men, but also physical action as they encounter bandits in the wilds of the Sierra Madre. Much of it was filmed on the other side of the border, which allegedly upset the studio head who felt that his ”gold” was being spent frivolously. Still, the movie looks great and offers tension throughout.
As icing on the cake, we get two amusing cameos early on in scenes that provide a background to the character of Fred C. Dobbs. The future ”Baretta”, Robert Blake, plays a poor boy who keeps pestering Bogart – and the director himself plays the American who is pestered by Bogart for money.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre 1948-U.S. 124 min. B/W. Produced by Henry Blanke. Written and directed by John Huston. Novel: B. Traven. Cinematography: Ted McCord. Music: Max Steiner. Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Fred C. Dobbs), Walter Huston (Howard), Tim Holt (Bob Curtin), Bruce Bennett, Barton MacLane, Alfonso Bedoya… Robert Blake. Cameo: John Huston.
Oscars: Best Director, Supporting Actor (Walter Huston), Screenplay. Golden Globes: Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Walter Huston). Venice: Best Score.
Quote: “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges.” (Bedoya)
Last word: “John wanted everything perfect. If he saw a nearby mountain that could serve for photographic purposes, that mountain was not good; too easy to reach. If we could get to a location site without fording a couple of streams and walking through snake-infested areas in the scorching sun, then it wasn’t quite right.” (Bogart, TCM)