The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is beloved by so many of the cinematic firmament’s luminaries – Stanley Kubrick, Sam Raimi, , Paul Thomas Anderson and who knows maybe also WS, Vince Gilligan, Spike Lee, Daniel Day Lewis; Oliver Stone was going to remake it – not to mention those anteriorly influential Stone Roses, that it seems foolhardy to suggest it isn’t quite all that. There’s no faulting the performances – a career best Humphrey Bogart, with director John Huston’s dad Walter stealing the movie from under him – but the greed-is-bad theme is laid on a little thick, just in case you were a bit too dim to get it yourself the first time, and Huston’s direction may be right there were it counts for the dramatics, but it’s a little too relaxed when it comes to showing the seams between Mexican location and studio.
Howard: Believe it or not, I knew a fellow who could smell gold like a jackass can smell water.
Which wasn’t unusual for the time, of course – it didn’t stop the director winning the relevant Oscar – but it tends to undercut the proceedings that bit more when there’s otherwise a prevailing emphasis on verisimilitude. Particularly when you see a production that got it in the neck from Jack Warner for going over budget, and yet the cast are hacking their way through a BBC jungle, complete with “naturalistic” sound effects.
Huston adapted B Traven’s 1927 novel himself (which features an interlude involving small-pox vaccination absent from the movie), granting pappy a tailor-made part… Albeit, pappy blanched at the idea he was no longer a leading man, despite being in his mid-sixties. Consequently, many of the movie’s less-legitimate incidents are the fault of the source material, rather than John, although he could be argued to have failed to hone the work. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is very accurate to the novel, whereby Fred C Dobbs (Bogart) and Cob Curtin (Tim Holt) hook up with elder prospector Howard (elder Huston), and through trial and error strike it rich in the Sierra Madre mountains. Alas, the false idol that is greed gets the better of them – and most specifically Dobbs – and their duh-reams are dashed.
Essentially, then, Huston didn’t need to reposition the novel to the needs of Hollywood codes; it was quite moralistic enough as it was. Nor did he need to include slightly egregious and unbelievable plot developments, since there were more than enough. There are changes; while Bruce Bennett’s inveigling prospector James Cody is in the novel (as Lacaud), his fate differs from that of the movie, where he is very conveniently shot by bandits before Dobbs and Curtin can make good on their threat to do for him. Also omitted is the reveal that Curtin is a socialist, along with Dobbs’ death by decapitation.
Otherwise, Huston is respectful to the tenuous means of separating Howard from the gold-heavy returning party – local villagers insist he comes with them to show gratitude for his life-saving skills, or they’ll show ingratitude by getting aggro? – Curtin being shot at point blank range yet surviving, and the kind of stupid Mexican bandits who give you average stupid Mexican bandits a bad name (pouring gold to the winds in the belief it’s sand).
Dobbs: Shut your trap! Shut up, or I’ll smash your head flat.
On the “Gold! Gold!” front, there’s unsightly telegraphing of its effects on the psyche, via Howard’s upbeat relation of his own experiences (“As long as there’s no find, the noble brotherhood will last”) and the scarcely credible idea that Dobbs is somehow decent at heart despite all evidence to the contrary (the idea being that even supposedly decent people go doolally with such temptation). He’s not a natural killer, you know. It’s the gold! The Sobering letter from Cody to his wife is also a bit unnecessary.
Nevertheless, when it comes to the group’s internal tensions, Huston – who cameos as a white-suited benefactor giving Dobbs pesos – is rock solid, with the gradations from Howard’s balanced equanimity, to Curtin’s moderate sense of what’s fair, to Dobbs paranoid rancour. This kind of thing can end up very silly, if there isn’t a sure hand at the tiller, as evidenced by Lee’s abject Da 5 Bloods, and there have been any number of knock-offs where the protagonists are inevitably undone by their lust for fortune (from Three Kings, to The Italian Job, to Triple Frontier). The final joke – Howard’s hilarity at the irony of it all – “The gold has gone back to where we found it!” – could as easily have been choking on over-egged 22 carrot cake, but Huston’s tickled delivery lets it through the gate (again, the actual exchange is pretty much wholesale from the novel)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is, of course, most famous for its peasant-bandit oath “I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”, a line most will probably recognise, even if they don’t know the movie itself (it’s neat that Alfonso Bedoya’s Gold Hat reappears to administer justice to Dobbs, less so that he underlines what a numbskull he is). The picture did incredibly well at the Oscars, winning three of its four nominations (Director, Best Supporting Actor Huston and Screenplay, only losing to Sir Larry’s Hamlet, although the real cinematic marvel of the year’s nomineees is arguably Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes). Bogey wasn’t even nominated for Dobbs, having to do with an award for the markedly inferior The African Queen four years later (another Huston picture that suffers from the stark contrast between studio and location, and rightly parodied by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby).
Hope, of course, was alleged facilitator of MKUltra sex slaves to the stars of Hollywood and political office, per Brice Taylor. Huston around this time was also up to his eyeballs in depravity – allegedly again – as associate of the – ditto allegedly – Black Dahlia murderer George Hodel. Rather like a certain former BBC presenter, it isn’t as if anyone would possibly make the mistake of suggesting Huston looked like such a nice man.
Dobbs: I just don’t like being called a hog, that’s all.
Pauline Kael suggested that the first section of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was a masterpiece in miniature, “so sure and lucid it’s as good as anything John Huston ever did”, and I’d agree with that; the rest of the picture can’t equal it, which is unfortunate, as the rest of it is the meat and potatoes. Dobbs was also an inspiration for Indy (the fedora) and the push-pull of fortune and glory versus things belonging in a museum (where they can be misidentified, mislabelled and contribute to the wholesale obfuscation of bona-fide history). Obviously, Lucasfilm was being less overt, gritty and severe. But then, you watch the last scene in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and you’ll probably double take at the retreat from the sober depths of the movie you thought you’d just witnessed.
First published by Now in Full Color on 03/07/22.