Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

A late-Golden Age classic of the Hollywood studio era, THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE contains many of the best elements of the old studio system with the emerging director-based models of the post-war period. Released in 1948, it benefits from the resources and star power available at Warner Bros., but also demonstrates the distinctive touch of its director, John Huston; the best, if you will, of the old and new models of filmmaking coexisting at the time.

Three down-on-their-luck Americans, stranded in Tampico, Mexico, join forces and set out to find gold off in the hills. The cast of characters includes the desperate and paranoid Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart in what I consider to be his finest performance), the honest and earnest Curtin (Tim Holt) and the seasoned old Howard (played by the director's father, Walter Huston). They eventually strike gold, but in the process of collecting it to bring back, the group is undone by their growing paranoia.

Working from the novel by B. Traven, the story - which takes just over two hours to tell - builds to several intense moments in which Humphrey Bogart's Dobbs proves to be his own worst enemy. The final confrontation between Dobbs and the bandits he has twice battled previously in the film has a sort of poetic irony about it, as the gold that Dobbs has stolen from his companions is blown off in the Mexican winds.

The casting of Walter Huston as the seasoned old prospector proved to be inspired, bringing both a sense of impish charm and world-weary cynicism to the role. Director John Huston wisely moved the production out of the studio and took some of the scenes on location in Mexico, broadening the visual scope and adding an extra dynamic in terms of how the characters interact with their surroundings.

Max Steiner's score has all the majesty and bombast that one associates with the great symphonic scores of period, but thankfully does not seem at odds with Huston's more naturalistic visual approach to much of the material. Bogart's performance moves into a sort of high stylization as the film nears its climax, with his paranoid and grizzled prospector descending into the depths of madness that the human mind is capable of. The film's ending, particularly with the pack mules carrying the gold, and the showdown between Bogart and Holt, is reminiscent of Erich von Stroheim's GREED, which explored similar ideas in the way that the lust for gold leads to the deterioration of his protagonist's mind and soul.

THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE holds up as a remarkable piece of filmmaking from Hollywood's Golden Age, and for me ranks among the greatest American films of all time. I would go so far as to call it one of the few perfect films, in that every aspect of its production comes together just right to produce an unforgettable experience.

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