Greed and Madness in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Every week, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Three men who have just met each other looking for gold in the mountains of Mexico with nothing in their favor – no asset but their own lives and no soul alive waiting upon their return. Sounds like the perfect set-up for a dark, pessimistic tale of failing aspirations, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre plays like one from the very beginning to the very end. Well almost, as writer/director John Huston decides to turn it all into a cruel joke.

Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) is a bum living on panhandling in the Mexican town of Tampico. He’s grumpy and wicked, always carrying a feeling that whoever has any money or luck must have stolen it from his share. He throws water on a kid’s face for trying to sell him lottery tickets and hits on the same guy for change three times in one day – till the latter tells him off: “From now on, you’ll have to make your way through life without my assistance…” The next guy he asks for help offers him a job and Dobbs takes it. There, he gets better acquainted with Bob Curtin (Tim Holt), another drifter who has no plan of how to make it in that crappy town. Together they work hard, but they get tricked by the contractor and never get paid. That night, their paths meet with that of an old goldminer named Howard (Walter Huston) and the seeds of treasure hunting are planted.

Howard is recounting his experiences in the form of a morality lecture to a bunch of other guys. He talks of how a prospector is always out to make a bigger fortune and always ends with nothing, how he collects it and blows it on his next quest in a vicious cycle. Gold is good for nothing but jewlery and teeth, the only thing giving it its worth being the hard labor of the men set out to dig for it, another irrational circle. He also says that gold makes monsters out of men. They even begin to consider murder while trying to protect their share from their partners. But, regardless, he declares ready to hit the mountains again for gold if a guy showed up to split expenses.

The next day, the two drifters are on the streets again, but Dobbs can’t forget Howard’s goldmining tall tales. He says the old guy could be proven wrong and a man with integrity could turn that whole gold business from a curse to a blessing. He already wonders if he could be that man. Then, by a turn of luck, they find the contractor who skipped on their payment and force it out of him. They meet Howard and tell him about putting an outfit together and going for that gold. He’s ready but they’re short on some cash. Out of nowhere, Dobbs’s share on a winning lottery ticket brings him the money and the journey begins.

Huston, also the screenwriter, has up to this point given us a good look at the three characters who are about to spend a lot of time and sweat together. Dobbs is a pure soldier of fortune, talks a lot about himself and how hard it is to make it big in this world for a decent man. Howard is a hard nosed guy who gets up every time he’s beaten down and has wisened up by experience. Curtin is a tough, quiet fellow, always ready to break a sweat and with no big aspiration in life but to work in the fruit fields. They all want the gold but what each one is ready to sacrifice remains to be seen. In their hunt for wealth, success and security they deal with the wilderness, the Mexican bandits, the fatigue (physical and mental) but most of all with themselves and their limits.

Paranoia and demoralization are the main symptoms of the gold fever, which, like any illness, affects the three men by a different degree. Howard and Curtin reveal they have something to go for after their quest while Dobbs has no immediate plan but to spend a lot of his dough and make other people know how large he’s living. So there no question as to why he’s the first to dive into full insanity and feel his goods are constantly covetted by the others. Humphrey Bogart gives a great performance as Fred C. Dobbs, becoming the most despicable of the bunch, his eyes always revealing the evil that goes on in his head. Still, the show is stolen by the director’s father, Walter Huston, as the semi-crazy Howard with his unstoppable mumbling, his knowingness and his loud obnoxious laugh. Tim Holt on the other hand, keeps things perfectly balanced with his low-key, likeable depiction of Curtin, the man of little talk and much principle. Those three make every moment of interaction between them worth watching.

John Huston’s direction is superb, there’s no wasted shot and his narration never loses its pace as it moves forward to the sarcastic redemption. Obviously, the moral is simple, but if people didn’t learn the hard way there wouldn’t be any progress at all. Sometimes though, in order to learn, we have to go through a shock, a revelation or even a large-scale irony, like the one that takes place in Sierra-Madre.

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