Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

I had the opportunity to see John Huston's film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre tonight on the big screen, thanks to the Fathom Events series which brings classic Hollywood films back to theaters for select engagements. I mention this because such a thing would have been unthinkable twenty, even ten, years ago -- that you could go to your local megaplex and there, alongside the latest blockbusters, have a chance to see one of the great films of Hollywood's Golden Age right there in a state-of-the-art theater.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a film that I would count among my favorites. It is certainly one of the bleakest films to come out of the Hollywood studio system, with its story of three men torn apart by greed and paranoia. Humphrey Bogart gives one of his very best performances as Fred C. Dobbs, a down-on-his-luck American in Mexico who teams up with a couple of his displaced fellow countrymen -- Curtin, a laborer (Tim Holt) and Howard, a grizzled old prospector (Walter Huston) -- for a gold prospecting expedition in to the hills. It is Howard who plants the seed of this idea in to the minds of Dobbs and Curtin, but he also warns them of all the dangers that come with it, not least of all the temptation to keep accumulating more and more gold -- a compulsion that, like a gambler on a winning streak, often results in losing it all.

Sure enough, the men do strike gold, but it's not long before their suspicions begin to get the better of them, and they find that despite having to do battle with bandits, wild animals, and the elements, the greatest danger they face is their own human nature.

John Huston adapted the script from the novel by the elusive B. Traven (who supposedly worked on the film as a technical advisor under an alias), and took the unusual (for the time) step of shooting portions of the film on location in Mexico, which certainly lends it an air of authenticity and grittiness missing from most studio films of the period. The sense of atmosphere is greatly enhanced by Ted McCord's excellent cinematography, which masterfully contrasts between the unrelenting brightness of the hot day sun, and the menacing shadows of the dark night. Max Steiner delivers a typically fine score, though -- as others have similarly noted -- it is sometimes a little too grand, a little too bombastic, in a way that works against the realism that Huston works to achieve in other aspects of the film.

In addition to Bogart, mention has to be made of Walter Huston's wonderful performance. He brings an impish sense of humor and world-weary wisdom to his role as the voice of reason among the three men. Tim Holt has perhaps the best role of his career (with the possible exception of his George Minafer in Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons) as the honorable young prospector who finds himself at the mercy of Bogart's increasingly paranoid and violent behavior, and Bruce Bennett brings just the right balance of sympathy and menace to his brief role as a Texas prospector who intrudes, fatally, on the group's venture. Another standout performance in the film is Alfonso Bedoya as the bandit Gold Hat, who manages to be extremely intimidating by oscillating between jocularity and threatening outbursts in his dealings with the prospectors. (He also gets the film's iconic line of dialogue, when asked to show his badge.)

In retrospect, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is an interesting transitional film -- on the one hand, it's very much a film in the Classic Hollywood tradition, a studio picture and a starring vehicle for Humphrey Bogart. But it is also a sign of things to come, with its personal authorial vision from writer-director John Huston, to its use of Realism in favor of Big Studio gloss, and the existentialist nature of its conclusion. If there is a precedent for Treasure of the Sierra Madre in the American cinema, it is Erich von Stroheim's Greed, a film it resembles in both theme and imagery. When Bogart's unshaven, dusty Dobbs walks his burro through the sparse, barren fields, collapsing of heat exhaustion, toward his ill-fated destiny, it brings to mind the protagonist of Greed, stranded without water in Death Valley, handcuffed to his murdered rival, his dead mule lying beside him as he awaits his own inevitable fate.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre deserves to be seen on a big screen, where the full scope of the cinematic canvas that John Huston uses so brilliantly can be seen in all its glory.

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