Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and the Importance of Location

The other night I watched a classic film that I have to admit I had not yet seen; "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948), released by Warner Bros., and directed by John Huston.

I will not give a review of the film here; instead, I wanted to comment on the aspect of the film that perhaps struck me more than any other: its use of location. Location is an often overlooked aspect of filmmaking. Too often, a good location has to be sacrificed because of cost, time, permission or other external factors often beyond the producer's control. Thankfully, and perhaps remarkably, "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" must stand as one of the finest examples of location work committed to film.

At first I was uncertain where the film was photographed. I assumed it was a combination of location work within driving distance of Burbank, and backlot work done at the Burbank Studio. However, there was a convincing atmosphere to it that made it very impressive and after some research, I found that the film was in fact shot extensively on location in Mexico.

The use of authentic Mexican locations adds immeasurably to the film. For those unfamiliar with it, the film tells the story of Fred Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart), an unemployed American stranded in Mexico, who, along with a fellow American (Tim Holt) and a grizzled old prospector (Walter Huston), takes to the mountains to pan for gold. Jealousy, greed and fear soon consume the group before events turn ugly. To give a sense of the isolation and destitution of Bogart's character, the authenticity of the grimy, gritty Mexican town provide a perfect backdrop. Those mountains where the trio goes prospecting are so perfectly chosen, so completely atmospheric, that it is easy to forget one is watching a fictional, "studio" film.

Location work was still rather uncommon even in 1948. Despite the increased demand for "realism" in the years following World War II, Hollywood films were often still shot on sound stages and backlots. This made economic sense, after all. Even though the production financing of films now had to come from more independent sources (since the studio-owned theatre chains which generated a constant cycle of profit had been broken up in anti-trust rulings in 1946), the studios still called most of the shots, and in many cases, films were shot entirely at the studios just as they had been in the "studio era", even using all the staff technicians on studio payroll. Location photography was used for bigger budget productions, but during the 1930s and 40s, it seems that many producers forgot that natural locations were one of the first major differences between cinema and theatre, which first caught the attention of audiences 30 and 40 years earlier.

"The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" represents a major step forward in American filmmaking. It goes beyond its use of locations, of course, but these are at the heart of its innovations and significance. One can look at the film as a step forward in a sort of "maturation" process that Hollywood was undergoing. It can be seen, too, as a representative film of the increasing power that certain directors were able to exert over their productions. During this period following World War II, more and more directors were able to make artistic decisions that had previously been made at the sole discretion of the studio heads. Huston was one of the most instrumental directors in effecting this change. Along with fellow directors William Wyler and George Stevens, he represents the "old guard' directors who were able to successfully make the transition to the post-war era while becoming more independent as artists.

It is ashame, indeed, that more filmmakers do not pay attention to locations the way Huston did in this film. As it is, "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" remains a benchmark film, and its locations still emphasize the power of setting in the cinema.

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