The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Dir. John Huston. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, Walter Huston

Almost as soon as Dobbs (Bogart) gets out of Tampico with some money and supplies in his back pocket, he begins the downhill slide which will lead to murder, theft, and betrayal (dun-dun-dun!). There is one scene, though, which keeps Dobbs from becoming a mere caricature of a man driven mad by sudden wealth and severe greed. Curtin (Holt), Dobbs’ friend who has been a loyal ally to him the whole time he’s known him, has seen a Gila monster scuttle across the sand and under a rock. He finds some leverage to pry the rock away and is almost immediately confronted by Dobbs with his pistol armed. That’s where his stash of gold dust is, Curtin rightly deduces, and decides to challenge his berserk companion. There’s a Gila monster down there, Curtin says. If you want to stick your hand in your hole with your goods, that’s your business, but know that you’re going to get a poisonous bite from a lizard with jaws that never let go. Dobbs’ hand stops short of the hole. What, are you yellow? Curtin goads him. The camera has already put us in Dobbs’ place, reaching out our own hand to the rock with the deep shadows underneath. In the end, Howard (Huston) pries the rock away and Curtin shoots the lizard dead. Ashamed and stricken, Dobbs leaves his partners and sits by himself. It is the last time that Dobbs shows any sliver of conscience in this film, but it is a break in his rapid deterioration from grizzled bum to avaricious paranoiac. In another film from the era (or, heck, from our own), he might have simply have lost his mind and never gone back even once. Huston doesn’t allow Dobbs that simple an arc; he frequently reminds us that there is still a man in there, even if he is wild-eyed and dirty-faced, wearing a beard that comes from no longer caring about appearance, and nowhere is it more powerful than it is in this moment. Dobbs, badly beaten by his best friend, has to confront the nasty streak in himself which is widening minute by minute, speck by speck of dust. In the end, it’s a confrontation he is unable to stave off successfully; arguably, he has only one more moment of sympathy in the entire film. When Howard says that it’s their responsibility to leave the mountain the way they found it, Dobbs first grumbles about it, but reconsiders. In the end he agreeably says that this mountain has treated him better than any woman ever did. He has already declined precipitously, but it goes to show there are little plateaus along the way.

Huston tells a story primarily of faces; the face of the mountain that the trio of prospectors climbs up and makes their own through their effort, the faces of the prospectors shown in high detail and deep focus. Frequently he’ll place two men together in a shot where merely seeing one of those men would constitute a close-up; the other man’s profile, though, will be closer still. If they weren’t so dirty then we could see their pores. It’s a way to get to know our leads, who have histories which are almost totally elided. Little factoids – Howard has prospected everywhere, Curtin was part of a peach harvest – crop up, but for the most part the families of these men, the sweethearts they might have had, even the circumstances that ruined them enough to resort to begging and cots in Tampico, are mysterious. (John Huston’s cameo as a fairly conspicuous Yankee in a white suit who gives Dobbs money on three separate occasions is mostly hilarious, but it also drives home a serious point: Dobbs is subsisting entirely on the generosity of whatever Americans he can find to feel bad for him.) We come to understand the men first through their looks as much as through their words. Bogart looks terribly lean; Holt looks significantly more amiable with this hair and beard than he did in his clean-shaven, short-haired, and terrifically shrill role in The Magnificent Ambersons; Huston smiles frequently, especially when other people are being morons. When Dobbs and Curtin lose their minds (and a great deal of water) over some pyrite in the rocks, or when Dobbs threatens to kill Howard with a rock for wasting their time and energy and money climbing this endless mountain, Howard smiles broadly. Water’s more precious than gold, he tells them. You’re so dumb, he says, that you can’t imagine how dumb you are. (In this second instance, he breaks into a memorable little dance to punctuate his point.) And so we see the three men first, using their fitting appearances to hear what they’re saying more meaningfully. When they gather around the fire one evening to talk about what they’ll do with their money, only Dobbs talks about spending it on things rather than starting a business. And while Howard and Curtin sound content to split the profits from the gold at the end of the expedition, it’s Dobbs’ objections which lead them to divide in thirds at the end of each day and to hide all their goods from one another. It’s not surprising that Dobbs is the one who turns; he looked like the one who’d turn from the very beginning. Huston is using major Hollywood stars, but he seems to understand what Rossellini and De Sica understood when they were making their neorealist classics contemporaneously. (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was released in the same year as Germany, Year Zero and The Bicycle Thieves.) Sometimes, the way that actors look is as good as the way they recite their lines. Holt is not my favorite performer of all time, but in his round face there’s a certain level of innocence and youth that makes Curtin simply look more sympathetic than Dobbs throughout. Such is also the case when Cody (Bruce Bennett) appears, first approaching Curtin as he picks up supplies in the town, and then tracking Curtin’s ascent up the mountain and encroaching on what had been, until then, a totally secret gold mining operation. Bennett is the kind of thin that got men nicknamed “Slim” back in that time, with a long, thin face. Having all been brainwashed by Shakespeare, “lean and hungry” go together in our collective imagination, which accurately describes Cody’s ethos. Cody appears to be a keen manipulator at first sight, a logical man who recognizes that the prospectors have three choices once he appears at their camp: kill him, let him loose, or bring him in as a partner. The prospectors decide to kill him (Curtin makes the deciding vote), but then the film’s most famous moment occurs not long after. Bandits who roam Mexican mountainsides stumble across the camp, sighted first by Cody. Cody is also the only fatality from the prospectors’ side in the gunfight which ensues (though, lucky guy, he lives long enough to hear about “stinking badges”).

The men go through his belongings to see if there’s anyone they need to contact. Howard finds a letter from Cody’s wife; from what his wife says, it appears he’s a family man and a little desperate to strike it rich, having been given one last chance to look for that opportunity before he’ll come home and take a more normal day job. The letter manages to hit every stereotype and cliche that these letters from home usually do: there’s a kid at home who misses his dad, “one last job,” and a slick little jab at the audience about the “real treasure” of love and family. Somehow – maybe it’s Huston’s writing, but it probably owes a little more to Holt’s reading and Bogart and the elder Huston’s reactions – it’s still effective. Standing out on that mountain face overlooking what looks like the whole of Mexico, having won a skirmish against a superior foe, rich beyond their ability to fully comprehend the totality of what they’ve won, all three of the prospectors recognize the emptiness of what they’re doing and the cost in human blood. The film never treats gold as something eminently desirable; the idea of a small business or a whole bunch of clothes, which are both offered up as potential destinations for the dust, sound much better than the gold itself. The film recognizes that gold is dangerous (and Dobbs, believing himself exceptional enough to resist its lure, notes early on that the trouble is in the man first and not in the cursed gold), going to some lengths to prove it with shootings and decapitations and so on. The film also manages to see how easily gold can be dispersed, destroyed, squandered in a sequence which is shudderingly good. But only in this scene does gold taste like despair, making the mere ownership of it shameful.


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