The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1946) John Huston

Greed and the pursuit of power are major themes in John Huston’s films. They propel Gutman and Joel Cario to pursue the stuff that dreams are made of in “The Maltese Falcon,” only to find out their targeted prize is worthless. In “The Man Who Would Be King,” two soldiers attempt to become rulers of a country until greed and ego come between them. These themes are also plainly evident in “The Asphalt Jungle” and “The Kremlin Letter.” Similarly, these themes are at the center of what is considered Huston’s greatest work, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” You hear it in Howard, the old prospector’s voice when he explains the lust and fever that grows in men’s desire for gold and you see it in Fred C. Dobb’s eyes throughout the film as the potential increases for a larger prize with man’s morality all but disappearing.

Huston read the novel in 1936 and was interested in filming it; Warner Brothers owned the film rights, yet, it took ten years to get off the ground. After Huston returned from his World War II duty the green light was finally given. Huston had two major obstacles to overcome in adapting the screenplay. First was B. Traven’s beautifully unique, though unrealistic for the screen, writing style. Second was the book’s strong anti-capitalist sentiment and its blatant attack on materialism both of which had to be toned down. The novel also has a downbeat ending and the film’s star is not portraying a likable person, still the post war cynicism that gave rise to the popularity of film noir, also fit in here with the dark mood of the story.     

Two down on their luck Americans, Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) in 1920’s Mexico hook up with an old time prospector named Howard (Walter Huston) and go searching for gold. The old-timer is skeptical, forewarning that trouble will lie ahead, still he agrees to go. They head for the Sierra Madre mountains, and soon are attacked by bandito’s during the train ride out there. Once in the dessert, and as they begin to mined the gold, the loyal friendship begins to disintegrate. Dobbs trust no one and is afraid his partners will kill him for his share. Another American, a man named Cody (Brue Bennett) follows Curtin back to the campsite when he went for supplies and tries to deal his way into the group’s fortune. As tensions mount the three begin to question each other and thier morals, as they considered whether let in the newscomer, letting him have a share or to just kill him. Before they decide, they are attacked by a gang of bandito’s and the fourth American is killed. Mexican Federale’s fortunately show up chasing the bandito’s away. For the three prospectors their rush for gold continues to go downhill, disintegrating into a tale of greed, paranoia, and lost dreams.

One of the keys scenes is when the old prospector Howard tells the other two men that the potential of gold to be mined is going to much more than they anticipated. At the beginning of their adventure, no one was looking to be greedy, but as the gold fever began to catch on, especially with Dobbs, not only is there greed in the air, but the distrust factor shows its face again specifically with Fred C. Dobbs who “suggest” they all hide their shares of gold dust from each other. Dobbs mistrust of his two partners will only escalate as the film progresses until it turns into delusional madness. In contrast to Dobb’s, Tim Holt’s character, Bob Curtin is portrayed as honest if a bit too naive and innocent, still Holt, a B-western actor handles the part well never letting it fall flat. Originally John Garfield was set for the role until he backed out. But the acting kudos belongs to Huston, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar and to Bogart for one of the finest performances of his career. At the time it was a courageous move by Bogie to portray such a pathetic despicable character as Dobbs. Also worth noting is the performance of Alphonso Bedoya as Gold Hat the leader of the Mexican bandito’s. It is Bedoya who has the famous lines, often misstated, “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”

Huston and Bogart are one of the great actor/director teams. Huston was a well respected screenwriter having written or co-written scripts like “Juarez”, “Jezebel”, “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet” and “Sgt. York”, however it was his adaptation of W.R. Burnett’s “High Sierra” that opened the door to his directing career. Together, Huston and Bogie would go on to make six films including two certified masterpieces, “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” and four other films ranging in quality from decent to very good works. There is not one that I would consider bad. Huston was the Oscar for Best Screenplay adaptation making it the first time a father and son was the awards.

The film is notable for some interesting cameos beginning with John Huston who portrays a well-dressed American at the beginning of the film who Bogart’s Dobb’s keeps attempting to panhandle from. Also look for a very young Robert Blake as the Mexican boy who sells Dobbs a lottery ticket. Jack Holt, Tim’s father has a small role in the flophouse scene early in the film where Dobb’s and Curtin first meet Howard. And then there is Ann Sheridan…maybe. There is a scene where a prostitute walks passed Dobbs and is seen shortly later going up a flight of stairs. According to the extra in the DVD, “The Making of the Sierra Madre” the lady is Ann Sheridan. Some historians claim it is Sheridan while others do not. There seems to be no definitive answer or at least one I could find.   

Whether the woman in that scene is Sheridan or not, one thing for sure, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is one of the great American films, nominated for a best picture Oscar only to lose to Oliver’s “Hamlet.”

*****

Advertisements

24 comments on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1946) John Huston

  1. John, the scene that always intrigues me in light of what follows is when Dobbs and Curtin beat up their erstwhile employer and Dobbs scrupulously takes only what the man owed them from his wallet. It forces us to ask what changes in Dobbs, or what changes him in the mountains. I think it’s not so much gold itself but the prospect of unlimited wealth that paradoxically makes him less willing to share. Ambition itself makes him distrusting and distrustful. It all depends on what Dobbs thinks he’s entitled to.

    This is my favorite Huston film. Bogart, Walter, Holt, Bedoya and Bruce Bennett are all outstanding. How Hamlet outpolled this one should be a mystery, but it actually seems typical of the Academy.

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      Samuel – I think you are right on the money when you say…

      “I think it’s not so much gold itself but the prospect of unlimited wealth that paradoxically makes him less willing to share. Ambition itself makes him distrusting and distrustful.”

      That is a good scene and a good point. I was also thinking on how violent that scene was. BTW the employer Warner’s regular Barton McLane.

      Like

  2. Judy says:

    This is such a great film and a wonderful performance by Bogart – as you say, he and John Huston were a great team. I also love Walter Huston in this, especially the scene where they find the gold and he dances for joy! I’ve just watched Olivier’s ‘Hamlet’ and think he also gives a brilliant performance, but very difficult to measure it against Bogie in this as they are so different – and, although I do like that version of ‘Hamlet’, I’m surprised it beat this film to the Oscar.

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      Judy,

      It is always hard to compare performances unless two actors are performing the same role as happens more often in a play where say you can compare say Olivier’s HAMLET to err Bogart’s HAMLET (lol). I think Sir Laurence would win that one! Seriously, as you say the roles are so different that it is difficult to compare.

      Walter Huston is also great in his role. I had read that John Huston made him perform without his false teeth to give him a more grizzly look. He was 66 when he made the film.

      Like

      • Judy says:

        I can’t quite imagine Bogart as Hamlet, but… it’s a thought! I knew Hawks used to get Walter Brennan to perform without his teeth, but hadn’t realised John Huston did the same with his dad. Thanks, John.

        Like

  3. John, your review helped me a great deal in thinking about this outstanding film. And some excellent commentary by others. I agree that the underlying theme is the corruption of the soul by the prospect of untold wealth. It’s unfortunate that the Academy must award only one film. Olivier’s Hamlet is better than any other production of the play that I’ve ever seen and his expressionistic style of directing is unique. But it is sad that only one film can win. One further note: I think Tim Holt was also outstanding in this film. Orson Welles knew what he was doing when he cast him in The Magnificent Andersons. His performance was very important in that film and he was spellbinding. In Treasure he plays a role of someone a touch naive but also with a sense of determination, and this is difficult in film acting. His solidity is important for balance in the movie and he also offers a hint of underlying corruptibility. It’s easy to be admired for playing someone with a physical disability— an eye out of the socket or a huge hump on the back— but someone of normative values and behavior is also difficult to play. And I think Holt gave the film a balance. Thanks again.

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      David,
      I need to see Olivier’s HAMLET of which you and Judy have both mentioned. You make a great point about Holt’s character being a good balance in the film especially toward Bogie’s Fred C. Dobbs, and yes I agree about the high level of difficulty playing a more normal character. Those kinds of parts usually and unfortunately sometimes get forgotten about. Thanks again!!!

      Like

  4. John Greco says:

    Just want to note that there was a factual error in my original posting which has been corrected. I had written that Bogart was nominated for an Oscar, this was incorrect, he did not receive a nomination at all, which in itself is an abomination but does not excuse my error. Anyway, it has been corrected and the fact checker has been reprimanded.

    Like

  5. Dave says:

    An absolute masterpiece of a film and my favorite film in the brilliant career of John Huston. To me, this is one of the greatest achievements of classic Hollywood and is one of the first movies that comes to mind when I think of that era of filmmaking. I love that you bring up Huston’s writing, because I have always felt that his ability to adapt material was second to none. As you point out, there were some obstacles to be overcome in order to get this film made and without Huston’s ability to mold the source material into a suitable script, there is no way that this movie turns into what it did.

    Such a great movie and one that I have been wanting to re-watch of late, so perhaps your review will spur to throw in the DVD on this Sunday afternoon!

    Like

  6. John Greco says:

    Thanks Dave! Yes, this is a high water mark in Hollywood filmmaking, definitely would make my 100 favorite film list.

    Like

  7. Sam Juliano says:

    To be honest, the Academy Award that was bestowed on Olivier’s HAMLET is far less significant that the New York Film Critics award that was given to THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, as the Oscars rarely hit the mark for reasons I need not get into here.

    I have promoted this film for most of my life as an absolute masterpiece, and it is unquestionably one of the greatest of all American films, and Huston’s best, topping a shortlist of THE MALTESE FALCON, THE DEAD, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE and FAT CITY.

    You have again penned a spectacular piece here, which is astute and passionate all at once, and you’ve hit the target on some of it’s most notable components. Aside for Von Stroheim’s GREED, this is probably the most atypical and provocative film about avarice ever made, and Walter Huston’s performance is one of the cinema’s real treasures.

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Sam, I agree with about all the films you mention except for THE DEAD which I have yet to see. W. Huston’s performance is as you say one of the great treasures. One of the stories about this film I love is that John Huston made his father remove his dentures in order to make him look more aged than his 66 years or so.

      Like

  8. Nicely expressed and as we see all around us, especially with the oil debacle, er, well, I’ll leave it there.

    Cheers!

    Like

  9. I saw “Treasure” for the second time last night on PBS and was astonished, yes, astonished at the boldness of this movie. Huston is one of those directors who can catch you up in the story with his mastery of technique without ever showing his hand. Your note about the bar-room fight made me aware a bit more of the realism of the scene. Fist fights in movies always seem so “movie-ized,” larded with sound effects of punches that never seem to leave so much as a bruise on the victim. This scene is actually frightening because the victim is really being hurt. The viciousness of the whole thing, despite Bogie’s scruples about the cash, is a foreshadowing of the violence to come.

    The elder Huston plays a character who at the end of the film keeps his sense of values concerning money in check. Of course, he was willing to join in the murder of Cody, but aside from that he is content to go off with the Mexicans and enjoy a life of leisure without caring for material possessions.

    One of the most shocking elements in this movie is the murder of Bogart. The bandito simply hacks Bogart’s head off. No big deal. And the scene is photographed to emphasize the casual nature of the violence. This makes the death of Bogart seem even more alarming. We have followed him through this story, always wondering what happens next, empathizing with him, hating him, but always aware that he was a human being. So then thwack, thwack. And he’s dead. Nothing more. And the story moves on, with Huston and Holt laughing at the gold dust taken up in the hand of the wind. And never do we get a sense of being lectured. That, too, is a marvelous quality of this masterpiece.

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      David,
      Yeah, I was a bit astonished by the realism of the fight (that was Barron McLane) getting beat up, an old Warner’s regular. The kept pounding on him and as you say in most films the fights are not convincing.

      I thought Bogart was pretty gutsy, and rightly so, in taking on this role. Dobbs is not a likable character, he starts off okay but as he goes off the deep end and then whack he is dead. You do empathize with him and it is all done so straightforward. Even when the three discuss killing off the fourth intruding American they talk about it right in front of him and very matter of fact.

      Like

  10. tom hyland says:

    What’s remarkable about this film are the smaller stories that are as fascinating as the big one – the pursuit of gold. You mention Cody – when Tim Holt reads the letter he received from his wife, well, that’s such a moving scene.

    Then there is the brilliant scene of Walter Huston curing the little boy. Aided by Ted McCord’s moody photography and Max Steiner’s passionate score, this scene is amazing in its presentation and message. This scene alone is enough to make Treasure a great film.

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      The film is filled with many little details that enrich the overall quality. Walter Huston is just magnificant and I lovethat little gig his does (lol).

      Like

  11. Jake Cole says:

    I saw this as a kid and remember little about it, but Adam’s blogathon has me itching to see it again now that I can pay attention to what’s going on. I’m always up for a film about the destructive property of greed anyway, especially as a child of this generation. I might even have to rent it before the Blu-Ray comes out in October. Great review!

    Like

  12. Adam Zanzie says:

    I think The Treasure of the Sierra Madre may in fact be my all-time favorite American film. I certainly think it’s Huston’s masterpiece (among several masterworks), and it truly does encompass nearly everything that Hustonian cinema is all about.

    Like

  13. John Greco says:

    I’m in the same corner as you here Adam, TREASURE is one of the great film of American cinema,though on a personal favorite level I love THE MALTESE FALCON, a film I can watch over and over again.

    Like

  14. Barry Gilbert says:

    My opinion, two glimpses into Dobbs, are the key to his unraveling:
    After pan-handling a meal, further receipts go to sensual comforts.
    More telling is when they share their aspirations for their takes of the gold. Howard and Curtin see their takes of the gold as the price of entry into purposeful satisfying lives. Dobbs vision is of aimless self indulgence.

    Defined roles in life have limits, at least in conception and perception. The ends of self indulgence, (shorn of external regulators, power or authority in measure to keep selfish desires in check, ) reach to usurp other’s considerations, even to life itself, or to self-dissipation unto death.

    Once mad in this state he separated himself, alone and diminished mentally and physically by surrender to his own desires he succumbed to them. The bandito is only the delivery boy.

    Curtin is a bit naive, and learning to see the world as it is while keeping his eyes outstrecthed for the light.
    Howard seems to see the world and men as they are and yet suspend judgement until the required time of action, even unto restoring life to a boy aparrently dead for how long?

    The ever present human capacity to think that whatever darkness fleetingly overclouds our lucid clear dispositions, is your companion’s continual frightening dismal foggy torential day of murderous, lecherous mechanisms; needs imposed disciplined generosity and trust as treatment. There is no wordly cure.

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      Barry,

      thanks for this wonderful response. I totally agree with you on Dobbs. His main goal is greed for greed sake. I can imagine him sitting in a room isolated from all with his fortune at his feet admiring it wanting nothing but more gold. It is a script with many levels that can be read into it.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s