Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Year: 1948
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 38
Writer/Director: John Huston
Star: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt

How easily weak men are turned into bad men. Many of Humphrey Bogart’s most memorable roles feature him as a (seemingly) ambiguous, weak man who rises to the occasion because he is stronger than he originally appeared. In “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” we think we are witnessing the classic Bogart persona, but instead of rising to the occasion he falters time and again, finally spiraling into murder and madness.

When the film opens on Bogart playing a man named Dobbs and begging for pesos from a rich man in white (the writer/director John Huston), we expect him to rally before long. He is soon joined by a man named Curtin (Tim Holt), and we presume they are friends, though we never see any bond or connection grow between them save for a gifted cigarette in a park. They do honest work, get stiffed for the money and then track down the man, beating him to a pulp in a bar and getting their money back. Notice how Huston and Bogart portray Dobbs in the fight; he is almost overtaken by the older, fatter villain multiple times until Curtin intervenes.

Bogart gets the idea to use the money to look for gold in the Mexican mountains, and the duo enlist an old crow of a man named Howard (Walter Huston) who they had overheard talking at length about gold one night to help them find it. They search all over the Sierra Madre (though it is never mentioned by name in the film), first encountering fool’s gold and then the real thing. And then the suspicions begin.

Because Huston began the movie with Dobbs and because we think we know Bogart, our loyalties lie with him at first. After all, Curtin does hesitate for a moment before saving Dobbs from a cave in. And there’s something about the way Howard babbles that puts the viewer on edge. He speaks too quickly and seems to make too much sense by arguing with himself. But even early on there are signs that Bogart is not to be trusted. He brings up the idea of splitting the gold three ways every night, and when Howard agrees with him, Bogart hisses that Howard must be untrustworthy for assuming they would steal.

And thus the viewer is set up with an odd character triangle, never quite sure where to put their loyalties. First our loyalties are, of course, with Bogart, but then they slowly shift to Howard as his babblings begin to make more and more sense. But soon Howard is taken from the group and we shift our focus to Curtin and we view him as the unlikely hero of the piece…until the gunshot. Huston makes this a fascinating way to keep viewers on the edge of their seats, almost giving it an “And Then There Were None” feel.

More than anything, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” dares the viewers to enter the psyche of the three characters. We try to understand their actions and then, desperately, try to figure out what they will do before they do it. In one moment Dobbs accuses Curtin of trying to steal his bag of gold when he sees Curtin fiddling with a stick and a stone that is Dobbs’ hiding place. Curtin calmly explains that a poisonous lizard has crawled under the stone, but Dobbs will have none of it, cackling that he knew this would happen and has been waiting for this moment and deception from the beginning. Curtin then tells Dobbs to put his hand into the hiding place if he’s so sure there is no lizard. Then, late in the second act, when it has become more than apparent just how crazy Dobbs has gone, our minds scream for Howard to stay with the group when he is invited away. We know that if he leaves, Dobbs will insist on stealing Howard’s share of gold and then fight Curtin for it. We hope against hope that Dobbs will surprise us, but when he doesn’t and seemingly murders Curtin the pit in our stomach grows even larger because it seems that we have no grip on reality left in the film.

Huston inserts many great small touches to underline his themes. When three bandits (who never actually say the line “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!”) take down Dobbs they immediately begin to bicker over his belongings in a way the three leads were days before. Later, they are forced to dig their own graves before being shot in them. There are also little moments that add an extra layer of suspense if you are paying close attention. We only see the bandits cut into two of the three bags of gold when they search through Dobbs’ belongings, and though it is never mentioned we continue to hold out hope until the final frames that the third, full bag of gold is still somewhere waiting to be found.

The movie is shot in deep focus, where everything in the frame is kept clear at all time. Instead of giving the movie an expansive air like deep focus did for “Citizen Kane,” it gives the movie an oddly claustrophobic feel. There are always too many things herded into the frame, and the open shots of the Mexican country come off more foreboding than beautiful. Given the nature of the movie, this works immensely well and has the viewers looking into the corners of the frame at all times.

Huston can be one of the most cutthroat of directors, unafraid to present his main characters with tragic endings (“The Asphalt Jungle,” “Moby Dick”), but here turns what could easily be one of the most dire into something of a triumph for Howard and Curtin. Sure, Huston drives his point home a bit too much by making them ride into the ruins during a windstorm, but the ending still works simply because we were expecting much worse. Neither man got the gold, but each has achieved his goal. Howard is off to finish his life with the natives and Curtin is going to the fields of fruit he mentioned earlier in the movie. While Huston can be cutthroat, he always finds some humanity at the center of his work that allows for an emotional denouement. He might not have the same devoted following as Hitchcock, Spielberg or Kubrick, but he has made just as many masterpieces. He has three movies in the AFI Top 100 (“Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “The African Queen” and “The Maltese Falcon”) but there are many others that could easily be there are well. “Key Largo.” “The Asphalt Jungle.” “Beat the Devil.” “Moby Dick.” “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison.” “The Misfits.” “The Night of the Iguana.” “Prizzi’s Honor.” “The Dead.” Looking at that list, you see a man capable of swimming between genres with ease and always wowing without seeming like he’s showing off.

It’s impossible to view “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” as anything other than the sum of its excellent parts. If you remove any facet of the film, from Bogart’s performance to the melancholy brotherhood musical theme, then the movie would collapse. It’s a wonderful movie that is hugely suspenseful during your first viewing and surprisingly tense when revisited. In the end, it’s a deep movie made about a man with little depth, and might just be the best example of humanity under pressure ever filmed.

My Score (out of 5): *****

1 comment:

sky said...

Great blog. Glad to see Treasure made the cut!