The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
“They sold their souls for…”
Director: John Huston
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt
Synopsis: Fred Dobbs and Bob Curtin, two Americans searching for work in Mexico, convince an old prospector to help them mine for gold in the Sierra Madre Mountains.
In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, director John Huston takes as his theme the desire for wealth, and its destructive influence on those for whom it becomes an obsession. Like the film’s anti-hero, Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart), we all wish for a better life, and see money as the means of achieving it. Here, gold substitutes for money, but its pull is no less powerful, and its allure no less dangerous. Watching Dobbs slowly lose all sense of perspective as he succumbs to his baser instincts and to his incipient paranoia is a little liking watching someone slowly growing hooked on heroin, only the milestones passed on Dobbs’ descent are lent more dramatic impetus by Huston’s no-nonsense direction and Bogart’s immersive performance.
We first meet Dobbs as a down-and-out in Tampico, a Mexican border town. His pre-occupation with obtaining money sees him mechanically recite the same standard line whenever he begs in the street. He barely glances at the faces of those from whom he asks for money, so that he doesn’t even notice when he collars the same mark (a cameo from John Huston) three times in one day. He’s something of an enigma, is Dobbs: cruel enough to throw water in the face of a boy trying to sell him a lottery ticket, but kind enough to offer a fellow bum, Curtin (Tim Holt), a cigarette, and to put up his share of the finances when they decide to invest in a gold mining operation with crusty old-timer Howard (Walter Huston, the director’s father), whom they meet in a flop house after painfully recovering the wages owed them by a crooked oil man.
Howard’s been around and is no fool. Surprisingly for a 1940s Hollywood movie, he spouts an eloquent line in socialist theory with a speech in which he explains that gold is expensive not just because of its rarity but because of the man-hours it takes for just one gram to be mined, including not only the labour of the successful miner but also the unsuccessful labours of the five-hundred odd other miners who find nothing. It’s the kind of speech that Joe McCarthy and his followers would normally have pounced on, but Huston seems to have got away with it unscathed. Anyway, in making the proposition Howard also foretells all the troubles that will befall the unlikely trio, and a scene in which he solemnly watches Dobbs and Curtin excitedly shaking hands to seal the deal tells us already that their venture is doomed to failure.
But the venture doesn’t fail through lack of planning or skill – Howard has a nose for gold and leads them to a rich vein — it fails through psychological frailty and mistrust. Dobbs’ motivation for striking gold is all wrong: he tells of how, when he’s rich, he will enjoy a wealthy man’s life and eat in the finest restaurants where, even if the food is perfectly cooked, he will send it back. He sees money as a powerful weapon with which he can exploit and demean those poorer than him. The equally hungry Curtin doesn’t understand Dobbs’ attitude, while Howard simply wants enough to be able to live comfortably for whatever time he has left. Bearing in mind Howard’s earlier ‘value of gold’ speech, it’s not difficult to foresee which of the three is going to come off worst.
Dobbs’ paranoia and mistrust of his partners grows in direct correlation to the size of his share of the gold. Initially, no man has any plan to steal anybody else’s share but they all grow increasingly suspicious of the others’ intentions as their booty grows. The arrival of strangers in the camp — first an American named Cody who wants in, then a gang of Mexican bandits after the miners’ weapons — restores a sense of proportion to Curtin and Howard, but for Dobbs it’s already too late. His descent into hell is almost complete, a fact symbolised by the flames that seem to consume him when he returns to camp after mistakenly believing he has killed one of his partners.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a movie that’s almost perfect in every way. At two hours it’s perhaps a tad too long, and might have benefited from a few cuts here and there, but the pace never slackens, and all three male leads deliver memorable performances. Best of all is Walter Huston, his rugged features and narrowed eyes suggesting a wiliness born of years of experience in the wild that is at odds with his comical capering. The musical score also lingers in the memory, slowly transforming from a near-triumphal anthem to a melancholic dirge as the story unfolds.
(Reviewed 29th September 2012)