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.”